Chiefs receiver Chris Conley still hadn’t seen a clip of the play when I talked to him, at 4:07 p.m. CT from the Kansas City locker room. But he’d certainly heard the buzz about what his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, went through to get him the ball in the back right corner of the end zone, giving the home team one of the most spectacular four-yard touchdowns you’ll ever see, and a 21–7 lead.
Even without the benefit of replay, Conley knew exactly how and why it happened. It wasn’t an accident.
“That’s just an example of how a play is never dead, and when guys just work a little bit extra, it pays off,” Conley explained. “Pat was able to keep the play alive with his legs, and guys just started to scramble. It became a scramble drill, and he threw a laser of a ball in there. And the rest is history.”
Mahomes is making a lot of history these days.
His 13 touchdowns through three games are an NFL record, breaking a mark set five years ago by Peyton Manning. He’s posted passer ratings of 115.5, 154.8 and 127.5 through three games. He still hasn’t been been picked off. His yards per attempt (10.58), projected over a full season, would be the highest in the Super Bowl era.
Yet until Sunday, what he was best known for in the Chiefs building—the high-wire circus plays he pulled off in practice—was largely kept under wraps, and for good reason. Mahomes was playing so well within the confines of head coach Andy Reid’s offense that his improvisational skills weren’t necessary.
“I think people had the perception that it was going to be the Brett Favre early years, the gunslinging, the highs and lows and that it’d look different,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told me on his way home from work last week. “But he just operates coach’s offense really well. Playing the Week 17 game with him last year, that was the most impressive thing. It’s a road game, it’s in Denver, it was Week 17, but those are always tough games regardless. And the operation was really smooth.
“He ran the offense really well. It wasn’t like he just scrambled around and chucked it up and hoped for something to hit.”
Chiefs staffers kept practice footage on Mahomes on their phones, just to prove to people that what they had been bragging about was real. And on the fastball to Conley on Sunday, Mahomes showed them and everyone else that it was. First he bailed to his left. Then he reversed field to his right, sprinting to the sideline before sidearming a scorcher right into Conley’s hands.
“I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet,” Conley said. “But that’s definitely one I’m going to take a look at, because I remember on the field, just how tight a window it was. Just a great play by him.”
So much to get to in this week’s MMQB, and we’re going to touch a lot of bases:
• Carson’s Wentz’s gut-check of a 17-play, 75-yard drive to get his first win in nearly 10 months.
• The Bills going from national punching bag to Rocky Balboa, taking down the mighty Vikings by a 27-6 count on the road as massive underdogs.
• The Browns getting off the canvas, and a decision coming on Baker Mayfield within hours of you clicking on this column.
• A big Monday nighter in a number of regards—with the Steelers wading through a messy few weeks and the national TV debut of a suddenly explosive Bucs offense fueled by new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and operated by QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
• Jimmy Garoppolo apparently tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament—he’ll have an MRI today to confirm—in the Niners’ loss to the Chiefs.
• Garoppolo’s old team looking listless in Detroit.
• Saints wideout Michael Thomas continuing to put up crazy numbers in a huge overtime win at Atlanta—and giving credit to the guy who’s getting him the ball.
• Cam Newton and the Panthers offense looking positively scary in a home win over the Bengals.
• The Bears defense looking similarly frightening on defense, on their way to sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
• And the Rams looking every bit the like juggernaut they hoped to be when they aggressively went through March and April, acquiring Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, et al.
The Rams, by the way, are one of just three teams to make it to 3–0 at this point (the Bucs can join them tonight). The surprise Dolphins are another. And then you have the high flying Chiefs and their gunslinging 23-year-old star.
That one play to Conley, which looked like it was drawn up in the dirt at the playground, represented a lot more than just another touchdown for the Chiefs. It represented part of what was so attractive about Mahomes in the first place. It represented the effort by Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach to put a skill group around Mahomes capable of excelling in space and in off-schedule situations. And it represented a lot of work.
Watch the play closely and you’ll see Mahomes first break the pocket to his left, then pivot to avoid the pursuit of Niners rusher Cassius Marsh and break right. If you stop the play there and look at it from the opposite end zone, you’ll see Conley plant his foot in the ground as Mahomes goes right, and burst past Niners DB Adrian Colbert toward the back right corner of the end zone.
Mahomes is sprinting right, and Conley is parallel to him. The quarterback sees the small window, drops his arm angle and shoots the ball like it’s coming out of a Juggs machine to split the 1 and the 7 on his receiver’s shirt. It was impressive physically, of course. But it also took a certain level of unspoken communication, and so this was wholly a result of the work that Reid had his players do on the scramble drill.
“One-hundred percent,” said Conley. “It’s something that we’ve been working on, just getting chemistry as a team, and knowing where guys are going to go, keeping plays alive. It’s translating to Sunday.”
That’s what’s really cool about the Chiefs offense right now. There are new revelations every week, and playmakers everywhere. Nine different Chiefs caught passes on Sunday against San Francisco. They have burners like Conley, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill at wideout, a matchup nightmare in Travis Kelce at tight end, and a workhorse in the backfield in Kareem Hunt.
And that’s meant Mahomes hasn’t really had to play hero as much, despite his gaudy numbers. The challenge will change, of course, as teams get more tape on him and on this iteration of Reid’s offense. But the signs are already good that Mahomes will be able to meet that challenge, even if there’s a natural regression from this craziness coming, as there almost certainly is.
“I think the thing that stuck out to me most about Pat, he’s been good in practice, he’s been good in the preseason, but when it’s come to the actual games, he elevates his play beyond what we’ve seen before,” Conley said. “He’s just a gamer. He’s ready to go out there and win, he performs really well when the lights are on, and when there’s a defense that’s coming at him. And that’s really interesting.
“We get a lot of looks that we didn’t assume we’d get during the week of practice, but he’s able to go out there and adjust and just make the play.”
Mahomes and the whole Chiefs offense look unstoppable right now, but they’re being cautious and realistic. Conley says “self-inflicted wounds” are still a problem, and, again, there’s the idea the rest of the league could catch up to them. The Chiefs’ offensive players have studied last year’s midseason swoon, to prevent a repeat.
As for the the rest of us? What Mahomes and company are doing on the field looks pretty good.
“If we execute, we practice and we prepare the way we’re capable of, and then we go out and play the way we’re capable of on Sunday, we feel like we can be the best offense in this league,” Conley said. “We honestly feel that way, and we put the pressure on ourselves each week to prepare like that. If you want to be the best, you have to show that you’re the best.”
So far they certainly look like the best. We’ll see if they can keep it up.
WATCH: THE MONDAY NIGHT KEY
Albert Breer breaks down a critical factor in the Steelers-Bucs Monday night matchup.
WENTZ’S ENCOURAGING RETURN
Carson Wentz wasn’t perfect on Sunday. After a fast start, he threw a pick and lost a fumble, and the Eagles offense went for a stretch spanning the equivalent of more than three quarters without reaching the end zone. If we’re being fair, some rust should expected from a guy who hasn’t been in a live situation since December.
Now, the good news. To me Wentz, the 25-year-old third-year QB looked like himself in consistently extending plays and getting the team out of some tough spots. And, of course, in registering a win, 20–16 at home over a game (and improving) Colts team.
When I texted coach Doug Pederson after the game about what he was most encouraged by in watching Wentz, he responded: “Just how he battled the entire game. Even when he had the fumble and interception, he never wavered. Great job today. We’ll get better.”
That fight was evident, and most obvious, during the game-defining drive that Wentz captained in the fourth quarter. Down 16–13, the Eagles covered 75 yards in 17 plays, getting some help from the officials along they way (one penalty converted a second-and-26, another moved the chains on a fourth-and-five), while making their share of plays.
None was bigger—or more vintage Wentz—than a third-and-nine from the Colts 36 with 4:47 left. On the play, the pocket collapsed around Wentz, and Indy safety Clayton Geathers and rookie rusher Kemoko Turay had shots at him. Somehow he shook off both, slipped through, and popped the ball over the outstretched arms of defensive lineman Jihad Ward to Nelson Agholor in the right flat.
The next part was pretty cool, too. Knowing he was a few yards short of the sticks, Agholor leapt over Colts star Malik Hooker to pick up a vital first down, almost as if Wentz’s effort rubbed off on him.
“Guys really rallied around each other,” Wentz said at his postgame press conference. “The resilience I thought was huge today. We had that long drive at the end, we had some really unfortunate situations we were in, in second-and-extra-long, third down, the fourth down, a couple things, and guys just stayed together. The defense stepping up at the end was huge for us.”
It was a pretty good team win for the banged-up Eagles. But make no mistake—Wentz made a huge difference, and he looks like he’s about as close to the old Wentz you could expect given the circumstances.
There was the Nathan Peterman sequel to open the season, a blowout loss in Baltimore. There was the bad start against the Chargers in Week 2, and the bizarre halftime retirement of Vontae Davis, who walked away from more than $4 million rather than play for this rebuilding Bills outfit.
Then there was what was looming—a trip to Minneapolis to play the imposing Vikings, who came into Sunday as 17-point favorites. Just when it looked like an 0–3 record was inevitable, 27–6 happened. Josh Allen piloted a nine-play, 75-yard drive to open the game, then the Bills cashed strip-sacks by Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes on consecutive Vikings possessions into points to race to a 17–0 lead in the first quarter.
The best part for second-year coach Sean McDermott, though, wasn’t running off that great start, with Buffalo extending the lead to 27–0 by halftime. It was that his Bills never looked back.
“I was concerned at halftime—we’ve got a bunch of young guys who have never A) played in an environment like this or B) held a lead like this in the NFL,” McDermott said on his way out to the bus Sunday. “You know how this league works, from one half to the next. I thought our core group of leaders did a great job of getting out in front of the team and making sure we stayed focused on the task at hand.”
The coach, for his part, let the leadership happen organically. On offense, it came from Pat DiMarco and Russell Bodine. On defense, from Lorenzo Alexander, Star Lotulelei and Murphy. On special teams, from Taiwan Jones. The message from each was simple: Don’t give the Vikings life. And the Bills, for the most part, didn’t.
While Buffalo didn’t score in the second half, Allen was steady and didn’t turn the ball over, and that allowed the defense to control the game, keeping the Vikings off the scoreboard all the way into the final four minutes. To McDermott, that really meant something.
“We’re trying to develop a young football team, a lot of our guys are first- and second-year players, or if they’re not in that category, they’re new to our football team,” he said. “So it’s just about us developing a culture, a resilient, tough-minded football team, understanding that this, and professional sports overall, not just the NFL, it’s gonna test you, it’s gonna try and pull your team in different ways.
“It’s through injuries, people talking about you outside the building, internal situations, as you mentioned with Vontae. This was a step for us as a young, developing football team.”
An important one too, given how McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have handled 2018—after inheriting a mountain of logistical challenges in the construction of the roster. This year was always going to be the year they ripped the band-aid off, and so:
• The Bills are carrying over $50 million in dead money this year, meaning that almost a third of their cap is devoted to guys no longer on the team.
• There are just five Bills draft picks on the roster who predate McDermott’s January 2017 hire.
• There was some surprise attrition too—with the losses of Richie Incognito and Eric Wood putting the team in a bind on the offensive line.
McDermott and Beane have been resolute in proceeding with their plan, but the challenge on the coaches is to get the locker room to hang with them through the rough patches. That’s why Sunday was so important—because it’s some evidence that the players aren’t running from a difficult spot.
“I’m glad that Brandon and I are working on this together—it’s not easy,” McDermott said. “And we knew that going into this whole process, going into this season in particular. We’re counting on a lot of young guys, they’re playing some big roles for us. But that’s part of the leadership challenge. That’s what we signed up for. Listen, this is just a step. There are going to be highs and lows moving forward, like there is always in trying to build a football team that’s built for the long term.
“Being around that in Philadelphia with Andy [Reid], with Ron [Rivera] in Carolina, now we’re trying to do the same thing in Buffalo here with Brandon.”
They have a long way to go. They know that. And so being able to withstand what they went through in the first two weeks and come up with a performance like Sunday’s is a nice piece of affirmation that maybe the Bills do know what they’re doing.
HUE JACKSON HAS NO REGRETS
By the time you read this, the Browns will be back at work, preparing for their Sept. 30 date at Oakland. For the players, it will be the first day at the office since the Thursday night win over the Jets, the franchise’s first victory in 635 days, and those couple days off have given everyone time to reflect. Including the man in charge.
On Friday, Hue Jackson was thinking of the support he’s gotten from owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam (they got a game ball), he was excited for his players because of the work they’d put in, he was proud of the others in the organization who’d endured a lot, and he was happy for the fans and the city. And he wasn’t going to compartmentalize the feeling right way. In fact, he wanted his players to revel in it.
“I hope our players enjoy it—they earned it,” Jackson said from his office he afternoon after the win. “But I also hope they want that feeling again, that this wasn’t the big moment, there’s bigger things out there for us and we’ll continue to work and grow and get better. You want everybody to understand that this is the feeling we want to capture. We just don’t want it to be just one night.”
And maybe we’re burying the lead a little here—all those guys are waking up this morning expecting to hear they have a new starting quarterback in Baker Mayfield. Jackson wanted to tell his players first, and to give proper respect to Tyrod Taylor, and he’ll have the chance to do that today when his team reports back to the facility in Berea, Ohio. That makes sense, even if the obvious is coming.
Jackson didn’t say much to me about the decision that was coming. But we did talk Mayfield, and it’s easy to find a few hints in about where things are headed. A few bullet points:
• One reason Jackson gave me for not wanting to start Mayfield, back in July—he preferred to avoid saddling the rookie with the franchise’s recent history with first-round quarterbacks, and young quarterbacks in general, not to mention the dark cloud of 1–31. When I circled back on that on Friday? Jackson’s mind had changed. “That’s why he was made the backup quarterback, that’s the position you put a young man in who still hasn’t really played in National Football League, who has work to do, who’s growing and learning the league, but you think he’s talented enough where when the right time comes, he’s going to be able to handle it,” Jackson said. “That’s why he was chosen as the backup quarterback.” Indeed, if the idea was to put Mayfield on ice, it would have made sense just to have Drew Stanton backup Tyrod Taylor. That he didn’t should’ve been a sign to us all about Jackson’s feelings for Mayfield.
• The most impressive thing from Mayfield on Thursday? Jackson first said it was the accuracy on his ball. Then he doubled back—“It’s just the way he handled it. It wasn’t too big for him. We said, ‘Baker, you’re up, you’re going.’ There wasn’t any anxiety or anything. It was like, ‘OK, let’s go,’ and on he went, and he started to make plays for the offense, that the defense started to feed off of, that the special teams started to feed off of. And you look up, and we’re ahead, and that’s what you want from your quarterback.”
• As for Jackson’s comfort level in being tied to Mayfield, as coaches who draft quarterbacks first overall are, he reaaffirmed his satisfaction with the pick. “I felt comfortable being hitched to him when we drafted him,” Jackson said. “I feel even more comfortable being hitched to him today. I don’t think there’s been any wavering on my end when it comes to Baker Mayfield. I’ve always said he’s going to have a great career and he’s going to play when the time is right. When that is, it would show itself. And it’s starting to show itself.”
• Jackson also said there wasn’t much that caught him off-guard about Mayfield’s 17-of-23, 203-yard performance. Nor, he said, was anyone else in the building surprised. “Everything I saw, I’ve seen on the practice field, I’ve seen in preseason football, I’ve seen how he competes and how he works,” Jackson said. “So I’m not surprised by it. I think surprise would be the wrong word. I think just watching him have it happen in real time, practice and preseason is a little bit different than the regular season, a game that’s on Thursday Night Football, he did in real time what he’s done in practice. I think that’s really good.”
So … the Browns endured a loss and a tie with Taylor before going to Mayfield. Any regrets over not giving Mayfield more first team-reps? “No, not at all, because I knew he’d be able to handle whatever whenever he played,” Jackson said.
And he showed it on Thursday. Even more impressive is that where a lot of rookie quarterbacks these days have a scheme constructed for them, Mayfield was actually running one put together for someone else—Jackson said it “was built for the players that are here, but it was mainly around Tyrod’s talent.”
I’d imagine all of that will start to change now. As a result, the possibilities seem endless. So buckle up.
THE MAN BEHIND FITZMAGIC
It doesn’t take a Pro Football Focus subscription to see what’s happening in Tampa—the Bucs are attacking with abandon, and without much regard for repercussions, on offense, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing so well that Jameis Winston’s job fell into serious jeopardy just two weeks into the season. Consider:
• The Bucs scored on their second first down of the opener, with Fitzpatrick hitting DeSean Jackson downfield for a 58-yard touchdown. It happened even quicker in Week 2, with Fitzpatrick finding Jackson deep for a 75-yard score on the Bucs’ first offensive snap.
• Fitzpatrick has thrown the ball more on first down (24 times) than he has on any other down.
• Fitzpatrick has a perfect passer rating on first down, having completed 20 of those 24 throws for 460 yards, four touchdowns and no picks.
So how has it happened? This offseason, coach Dirk Koetter quietly handed the play-calling reins over to offensive coordinator Todd Monken, the former Oklahoma State OC and Southern Miss head coach. And those who know Monken say the last couple of weeks looks awfully familiar.
“Our goal is to scare the defensive coordinator,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who worked with Monken over his two stints in Stillwater. “If we don’t scare the defensive coordinator, the play-caller from the other team during the game, then we’re not doing our job. That’s the way we look at it at Oklahoma State. We want them to be concerned throughout the game that we’re going to throw the ball over their head, all during the game.
“At any time, when they make a call, they have to be aware of it—whatever call we make, they might try to throw it over our head on any down and distance, no matter where the ball is on the field. And that’s the principle and the thought we carry.”
For Gundy, playing that way has been a matter of survival (as it is for many college coaches), and a means of leveling the playing field with bluebloods like Texas and Oklahoma. And Monken has taken the approach to the NFL, where it seems, again, to have its own way of tipping the scales.
“Over the games that I’ve seen, bits and pieces, 50 or 60 plays, and it’s a different picture,” Gundy said of the Bucs. “And it works. The players like it. Fans like it. I think people enjoy watching aggressive football. I always tell the staff, now of course they’re not playing as fast as we do, but playing fast and throwing it down the field is fun as long as you’re scoring and getting some first downs.”
And that’s the key. Calling a game in an unorthodox way is one thing. Having it actually work is another—and you need to be confident it will, because there certainly is consequence to running lower percentage plays more often.
For now, though, it’s working. It’s also giving credence to the idea that the smart teams (Eagles, Chiefs, Patriots, etc.) are cribbing harder and more often from the college game to make their offenses go.
“The majority of the guys are using our stuff, they’re using college stuff,” Gundy said. “They’re watching tape and taking our plays, period. Now, they might not admit it, because they’re supposed to the best at who they are and what they do. Look at the Patriots, look at the Chiefs, look at the Eagles in the Super Bowl—that’s all college stuff. That’s not NFL stuff. The teams in the NFL, if they don’t get on board and start doing some of the things that we do in college, they’re gonna get smoked.”
The Bucs have, in certain ways, proven as much over the last two weeks. Which makes tonight’s visit from the Steelers all the more intriguing.
… OF THE WEEK
Apologies to Vontae Davis … These kinds of jokes still have plenty of mileage on them, so he may want to settle in for a long ride.
Important note: This was before the Patriots got beaten 26–10 in Detroit. So maybe Bill Belichick had an idea of what was coming? Also, I have no clue on whether or not he even saw those kids, which really almost makes it even funnier.
“Yeah, of course, I heard chatter, people were coming up to me and saying a trade might happen. Even pregame, a couple Cowboys coaches came up to me, I don’t know if they were playing psychological games, but they were like, ‘You ready for the trade tomorrow?'”
Strange things seem to happen when Seahawks safety Earl Thomas gets around the Cowboys—the Texas alum grew up about five hours from AT&T Stadium. And this is just another brick in the wall. One way or another, after he skipped out on practice last week to, as he explained it, protect his health, Thomas’ situation in Seattle does seem to be coming to a head.
One more time for the people in the back.
S/O to …
The Chicago Bears for being out in front as the league pushes forward with its social justice initiatives—the team’s players and management pledged $500,000 to local programs last week. Linebacker Sam Acho, tight end Trey Burton, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Chase Daniel were out front with chairman George McCaskey last week to introduce the effort, which will include ride-a-longs with local police in an effort to build a bridge between the team and law enforcement. Good to see it.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
A look at the college football weekend from an NFL perspective:
1. Ohio State DE Nick Bosa’s core/groin surgery last week will rob scouts of the chance to see the potential No. 1 overall pick against Penn State, one of the games in which he figured to be challenged most. With Bosa down, they should get a closer look at Bosa’s bookend, true sophomore Chase Young, who’s already expected to be a very high pick in 2020.
2. Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham continue to have their ups and downs to start the season—and so next year’s QB class continues to be a big, fat question mark.
3. While there, it’s worth mentioning that West Virginia’s Will Grier is playing really, really well, completing 75 percent of his passes for 1,117 yards, 14 touchdowns and three picks through three games.
4. Tua-mania has engulfed Tuscaloosa, but don’t ignore the guy lining up behind him—Damien Harris. The Tide’s senior tailback is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, and scouts see him as the type of sturdy (5’11”, 215) three-down back that’s become the prototype of late.
5. I think I’ve said it here before. I’ll say it again: Penn State QB Trace McSorley’s going to be fun to argue over in the spring. And I know he does have one fan going into the process, in Trent Dilfer.
6. Big win for Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, running away with a 41-17 win over Oklahoma State. And he’s running another talented freshman QB, Alan Bowman, out there, to boot.
1. The most staggering part of New England’s listless performance in Detroit was what happened right there along the line of scrimmage on Sunday night. The Lions came in ranked 30th running the ball on offense, and dead last stopping the run on defense—and Detroit promptly ran roughshod over the Patriots’ front on both sides of the ball. The Lions ran for 159 yards, New England just 89, and Detroit clearly did a better job of getting to Tom Brady than the Patriots did getting after Matthew Stafford. Now, the Patriots were down defensive starters Trey Flowers, Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe, and the offense is still waiting on Julian Edelman’s return. We’ve seen this before—the Patriots have made a habit of treating September like an extended preseason—but this was ugly, and so was last week, and that adds up to consecutive double-digit losses for the first time since 2002. A couple of Brady’s heaves to nowhere on Sunday night seemed to be out of frustration, and it’d be hard to blame him for getting worked up, based on what’s around him right now.
2. Lions back Kerryon Johnson looked ready to live up to the camp hype on him. Yes, the work of the Lions line (buoyed by improvement from Frank Ragnow) played into his success against the Patriots. But it had been nearly five years since a Lion rushed for 100 yards in a game. Johnson went for 101 on 16 carries on Sunday, and looked tough and decisive getting there.
3. There’s no sugar-coating what happened to Jiimmy Garoppolo. It’s awful to see him suffer his second major NFL injury in his 10th career start. But the truth is, these Niners were a little short of where the hype had them this year anyway, still a year or two away from true contention. And the silver lining is that they are prepared for this. Last February, I worked with Kyle Shanahan on a story on his pursuit of Garoppolo, and he volunteered backup C.J. Beathard’s name more than once. “When your quarterback plays at a higher level, some other issues aren’t as glaring,” Shanahan said then. “When you have that issue, everything’s glaring. You can isolate a lot more, you don’t have that lingering quarterback problem in the back of your mind. That’s what I love with C.J. too. We feel great about C.J., and we love that we’ve got a young backup too. We’ve really got a good quarterback room, where we feel like we can focus everywhere else.” It was genuine then, and I think it’s genuine now—which means it’s probably worth just keeping an eye on what happens here.
4. Interesting story on NFL.com by old colleague Ian Rapoport, detailing the dysfunction within the Raiders organization that became obvious and apparent through the Khalil Mack situation. We mentioned in the spring that there was an expectation that coach Jon Gruden, carrying the biggest stick on the football side of the building, would likely get the chance, at some point, to bring in a personnel man. One name he’d looked hard at, I’m told: Ex-Eagles exec/Alabama recruiting czar Ed Marynowitz, who’s been working for CAA. The ship may have sailed on that one. We’ll see.
5. Had a great conversation with Saints receiver Michael Thomas on Sunday night, following another huge performance—his breakthrough this September has been downright Mahomesian. Thomas had another 10 catches for 129 yards in New Orleans’ scintillating 43–37 overtime win in Atlanta over the archrival Falcons. That puts Thomas—Keyshawn Johnson’s nephew—on pace for 202 catches, 2,122 yards and 16 touchdowns. Which would be noteworthy. Interesting thing was, as we talked, he kept attributing his success to the guy throwing him the ball. “I have a lot of respect for him as a quarterback,” Thomas said of Drew Brees. “I feel like he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I feel like I’ve been brought here to send him out the right way, and that’s what I want to do, getting him to that championship, play at a high level every week like he does. I’m trying to match him. He has all these records, he doesn’t make many mistakes, and he’s throwing it to me—we should make the play.” Brees, by the way, needs 417 yards to surpass Peyton Manning for No. 1 on the all-time passing yardage list.
6. I did have to ask Thomas about Brees’ seven-yard touchdown run—the quarterback’s stutter step somehow got Falcons DBs Robert Alford and Brian Poole to collide into one another. “Man, I was surprised,” Thomas said. “But that just goes to show you how competitive he is. He’s the same way. He’s trying to win. He’s trying to get the job done too. He’s not out there just lollygagging around. That’s a piece of our offense we have, and he showed it.” But, I’d guess, not a very big piece.
7. Who’d have guessed that the body weight rule would be a much bigger problem for the NFL than the helmet rule, three weeks into the new season? That’s our reality now. Packers LB Clay Matthews was flagged for a costly roughing call for the second straight week. This hit, to me, was pretty straightforward. Can’t hit high, can’t hit low, so the teaching adjustment would be to target the quarterback’s midsection as you go in rushing—which is what Matthews did. How he’s supposed to stop his momentum from carrying him off his feet, I don’t know. I understand the helmet rule, completely. I don’t understand what the need for the body weight rule was, outside of just reacting to Aaron Rodgers getting blasted by Anthony Barr last year.
8. Don’t look now, but the Panthers just ripped off more than 230 rushing yards against a Cincinnati defense that held Indy to 75 yards on the ground in Week 1, and the Ravens to 66 yards rushing in Week 2. The key? Cam Newton completed a career-high 32 passes last week against the Falcons, and that opened up things in the run game. Christian McCaffrey finished with 184 yards on 28 carries, Newton added 36 yards on 10 carries, and that was more than enough to carry the day.
9. All the Rams’ shiny new toys have gobbled up the attention around the team in L.A., which has created a weird dynamic—a red-hot quarterback seems to be getting overlooked. Jared Goff shouldn’t be. Through three weeks of Year 2 under Sean McVay, Goff has 941 passing yards, six touchdowns, two picks and a 111.0 passer rating. And he was tremendous against a very good Chargers defense on Sunday, going 29-of-36 (80.6 percent) for 354 yards, three touchdowns and onepick (which came on a spectacular play by Chargers rookie Derwin James). Should be fun to see him play on Thursday night.
10. The Bears defense closed out that game in Arizona twice, first by picking off Josh Rosen (negated by an offside call) and then by engulfing the Cardinals rookie on the last play of the game. Chicago is fifth in the NFL in total defense, but watching them down the stretch on Sunday absolutely gave you the feeling they could be even better down the line. Arizona was held to just 221 yards of total offense, and Cardinal QBs were sacked four times and picked off thrice. Now first-year coach Steve Wilks has a to make decision at QB, after benching Sam Bradford for Rosen.
Tonight should be telling in a number of ways.
When I asked one ex-Steelers staffer about the internal acrimony in the building, he laughed and said this stuff “happens every year.” Part of that is the program they’ve built there under three head coaches—Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, program-leader types who are experts at managing personalities. News of Le’Veon Bell being on the trading block, of course, won’t help matters, however.
So that’s one half of the Monday Night equation. The other is Fitzpatrick, Monken and the Tampa offense’s last go-round before Jameis Winston is eligible to return.
This one’s juicy, folks. You can give me the Steelers—let’s say 27–24—based on the premise that the more desperate team usually wins a game like this.
And the best news? Just three days after that, FOX delivers a gem—Vikings at Rams—as it debuts the Thursday night package on its air.
So I’ll see you guys on the couch for it all.
• Check out Albert Breer’s Monday Afternoon Quarterback—with more news and analysis from Sunday and for the week ahead—posting on Monday afternoon.