FOXBORO, Mass. — I was in a back room at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar late Sunday night with ex-Patriots Troy Brown and Rob Ninkovich, and NBC Sports Boston personality Michael Holley. Brown and Ninkovich logged 16 years here, while Holley wrote two books about the dynasty they played for. And all four of us had the same reaction when Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski down the right sideline in the final minutes of the gigantic AFC showdown taking place a Stephen Gostkowski kick away.
Let. Him. Score.
The funny thing about it was that I think I said it before Gronkowski even hauled the ball in over Chiefs defensive back Josh Shaw. I knew what was happening because I’d seen it so many times before. We all had. You could be an ex-player like Brown or Ninkovich, or a media person like Holley or me, or one of the 65,878 people in Gillette Stadium—it didn’t matter.
You knew what you were looking at. Like clockwork, Brady was ripping through another defense on the way to victory. In fact, you knew it’d happen when he got the ball at his own 25 yard line with 3:03 left and the game tied at 40, just like you knew it before Gronkowski put the ball, and effectively the game, away.
You knew, just like I did, that the only hope the Chiefs had was to give Gronkowski passage into the end zone so that Patrick Mahomes might make some more magic out there. Letting Brady have the ball last, we’ve learned over and over and over and over again, is asking for a loss. And that’s just what Kansas City left Foxboro with.
I had a conversation with Tom Brady’s dad a few weeks back, and Tom Sr. described what seeing this sense of inevitability on display is like when it’s your own kid as its executioner. “Eighteen years ago, I couldn’t eat two days before a game,” he said. “Now I’m eating without a nervous stomach an hour before the game. … I don’t have the same fear I had 20 years ago, 15 years ago, because I’ve seen how he’s done things, how he’s prepared and how he’s been able to perform.”
Mahomes came into Foxboro as the early MVP favorite and the leader of a 5-0 team. He left, like so many others have over the last 18 years, with a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of a guy who, at 41, is probably still the very best player in his sport.
We’re going to recap a huge NFL weekend in this week’s MMQB, and there’s so much to get to. Including …
• Anthony Lynn on the burgeoning culture of the Chargers, Philip Rivers on a pace for a career year, and the promise of his best player being back on the field soon.
• Matt Ryan on his relationship Falcons OC Steve Sarkisian, and how he knows that he and his offense have to be ready to carry Atlanta going forward.
• The changes in the way the Jets are built, and how they showed up big-time in the team’s wild shootout with Andrew Luck and the Colts.
• A detailed look at status of an NFL team in London full-time—which could be coming in the (relatively) near future.
• The Odell Beckham drama in New York takes another turn on—where else?—Facebook Watch.
• An important week ahead in the Le’Veon Bell saga.
• A couple important votes at this week’s owners meetings.
And as always, we’ll get you our tweets, memes, quotes, takeaways from the college football weekend, and a whole lot more.
But we’re kicking things off in Foxboro.
So yeah, there was an inevitability to all that happened on Sunday night, and Brady is still Brady—and for who knows much longer. You can say coming out of the thriller against the Chiefs that he, and the Patriots offense, are going to be just fine, a few weeks after there was some question following bad losses to Jacksonville and Detroit. Here are five other things I believe we can say:
1. Patrick Mahomes is the real deal. He had an uneven first half—some high throws early were the kind you usually see from a quarterback a little too keyed up, capped by a reckless interception at the end of the second quarter. There are plenty of young QBs who’d have come out of the locker room for the second half and promptly come undone. Mahomes’ second half numbers: 9-of-13 for 188 yards and four touchdowns. He kept swinging, and fell short. This time. But it sure felt like Mahomes’ ability to bring his team back from a 15-point deficit on this stage signaled a new day in Kansas City. Everything had gone extremely well for the second-year QB to this point in the season. He probably proved even more on a night when everything didn’t go right and he had to fight through it.
2. Despite catches of 42 and 39 yards in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski doesn’t look quite right. The Chiefs saw on tape a player who wasn’t running all that well, and noticed that the Patriots were using play-action to help Gronk generate separation. Through 56 minutes they held him to a single 16-yard catch. New England got him free off play-action for the 42-yarder, and he beat his guy on the 39-yarder. But all this merits watching going forward.
3. Tyreek Hill might be the fastest player I’ve ever seen. On his 75-yard touchdown, Patriots safety Devin McCourty took about as conservative a pursuit angle as possible to get Hill from around the 40. And Hill still beat him. He can fly.
4. The Patriots have taken the governor off of Sony Michel—the first-round pick has 67 carries over the last three games, for 316 yards and four touchdowns. That has allowed New England to use James White as more of a slash player, which is ideal, and it’s brought an edge to the run game, given Michel’s violent style. I’m not wild about taking running backs in the first round, but the Patriots look like they’ve got a pretty good player here.
5. The Chiefs’ lead in the AFC West is, incredibly, down to just a game. Speaking of which …
HERE COME THE CHARGERS
Last Sunday the Chargers hosted the Raiders, came away with a win, and braced for what was ahead: They wouldn’t play at home again until Thanksgiving week, literally traveling across the world and back in the meantime.
“So I just told them, our toughness is going to be tested,” coach Anthony Lynn told me from the team’s hotel in downtown Cleveland late Sunday afternoon. “Staying focused and eliminating distractions and doing your job, it’s going to be tested.”
Consider the first test passed: Chargers 38, Browns 14.
But Lynn’s bunch did more than take the air out of a juiced, contender-starved Cleveland crowd, there to see a potentially emerging team with a potentially emerging rookie quarterback. More than that, they set the stage for a run of games that could put them in a legit position to dethrone the Chiefs atop the AFC West, by showing they’re equipped to handle the weirdness of their interlude.
The Chargers are staying in Northeast Ohio this week—they’ll practice at Baldwin-Wallace (ex-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel’s alma mater) in suburban Berea. They’ll then fly to London on Thursday in advance of their Sunday game with the Titans. Their bye follows that, and then they have trips to Seattle on Nov. 4 and Oakland on Nov. 11.
If they run the table? They’ll come home to face the Broncos at 7-2. And it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone if they get there. This is a team that, last year, lived as nomads for most of the year, staying in San Diego for six months after the move to L.A. was announced, then working out of a hotel during camp as a temporary facility was being completed. And as Lynn would tell you, it’s a pretty talented bunch too.
“I like the character of this group,” Lynn said. “I told them, you don’t have to have a lot of great players to do something special—you have to have a great team to do something special. And that’s what I think we have a chance to have, is a great team. It doesn’t hurt to have some great players, but I do think we have that makeup, that character to do that.”
After talking to Lynn, there are two pretty cool things about where the team is following the beatdown of the Browns.
First, Philip Rivers may be playing as well as he ever has. He’s completing 68.6 percent of his throws for 1,702 yards, 15 touchdowns and just three picks. His 115.1 passer rating would easily be a career high for a season, even he can keep it up.
“It may be weird to think that a guy in his late 30s might be getting better, but I’m telling you, this year I feel like he got better,” Lynn said. “Not saying that he was bad last year because he wasn’t bad last year. But I just saw a guy show up this year that was—hell, he looked younger. The way he ran around on the field, his juice on his arm—his intelligence has always been there but from a physical standpoint, I just felt like he looked younger to me this year.
“And we’re doing more, him and I being together for a year, using his skill set.”
And while Sunday wasn’t his best game of the season, Rivers hit Tyrell Williams for 44 and 45 yards on consecutive downfield shots that were about as good as it gets, and Lynn lauded what he did to get the right run checks in, helping pave the way for Melvin Gordon’s 132-yard day.
Second, there’s the idea that, as good as the Chargers are now, they’ll be getting better whenever Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry return.
“We’ve got to get it done with whatever we have,” Lynn says. “I believe we have enough right now. But getting a guy like Joey Bosa back, that’s a heck of a boost to our football team. Potentially getting a guy like Hunter Henry back late, that’s a heck of a boost to our football team. So I’d welcome those two guys back.”
He’ll welcome them back to a good situation, too, by the looks of it.
Coming Oct. 17: An exclusive narrative podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts.
THE JETS’ NEXT STEP: SWAGGER
Let’s be clear: The Jets aren’t there yet. This probably won’t be a playoff year for them, and chances that they threaten the Patriots in the AFC East into December still seem minimal.
But Sunday was one of those days where it looked like the team is on its way. Sam Darnold was solid (24 of 30, 280 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) for a second straight week. More so, the culture change happening around him was apparent again, and that’s been just as important a step forward this fall for GM Mike Maccagnan, coach Todd Bowles and their staff.
Going into 2017, when the band-aid remaining from the Rex Ryan Era was ripped off, the Jets narrowed their focus to emphasize drafting, signing and trading for players with experience in successful programs who play with passion and confidence. And you can go down the list: Jamal Adams (LSU), Marcus Maye (Florida) and Darnold himself (USC) joined 2016 acquisitions like Steve McClendon (Steelers) and Darron Lee (first round, Ohio State) who naturally fit the profile.
The idea was to develop attitude. And they don’t mind if you refer to it as swagger.
“That takes a minute to have full swagger because you need everybody to gel together,” Lee said. “But we really started to gel together towards about the end of camp—like fully, everybody, gelling together, and now you are starting to see that swagger, week in and week out. And you’re not looking for the same person every single week to start it off, you are looking for everybody, because we’re all in this.”
It came into play on Sunday more than it has at maybe any other point thus far, because Andrew Luck kept coming at the Jets.
When I asked Lee what play best exemplified the swagger he was talking about, he pointed to Morris Claiborne’s pick six, off a tip, on the game’s second play. But Luck came right back from that with a five-play, 75-yard drive to even the score at 7. Luck threw another pick in the second quarter and Indy fell behind by 30-13 early in the third quarter. And then Luck ripped off consecutive 75-yard touchdown drives to get the Colts back within 6, at 33-27.
As Lee explains it, the old Jets probably would’ve folded. The new Jets kept swinging.
“If we had this game last year, we probably would’ve lost,” Lee said. “And that’s because just a lot of undisciplined [play] and a lack of trust for each other, but we are starting to have that trust for each other now, and so you are starting to see us close out these type of games. It’s a really incredible thing to see.”
And of course, just as the Colts were moving the ball on their next possession, down 36-27, Lee went up high for another interception that created the kind of separation the Jets would need after Luck got Indy down the field one last time.
“Those are all things that we know we’re capable of, and we all know that we can do, because we practice it—we practice takeaways all the time,” said Lee. “We always have a swagger, even in practice, even when nothing counts, because you know it will on Sundays. So I think that’s what you’re seeing on Sundays. We’re just happy for everybody making those types of plays.”
More than that, the Jets are pretty happy to have those types of players.
SARK AND THE FALCONS’ SEASON-SAVING SPARK
Coming out of the season opener, plenty of fingers were pointed at Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. And with the team 2-4 after a 34-29 win of survival over the Bucs, I wouldn’t expect anyone to do an about face now. But maybe we all should.
Matt Ryan’s passer ratings in the five games since that Thursday night in Philly: 116.1, 148.1, 134.5, 99.1 and, Sunday, 125.5. His TD/INT differential over that time is 14-1, and Atlanta has scored in the 30s in four of those games.
There was fair criticism coming into the year regarding Sark’s inability to get close to the high standard Kyle Shanahan’s 2016 offense set, and it’s understandable why critics would be be piling on after the offense’s unsightly showing in Philly (featuring blown scoring opportunity after blown scoring opportunity). But much has changed since.
“He’s a lot more comfortable with our personnel, when guys go down, how to use different guys, all of that stuff,” Ryan said over the phone after the win. “I think he’s got really good familiarity with our guys at this point and he’s able to adjust really well when different things come up. So he’s done a great job with that. And then I think as players our execution has been better, we’ve done a good job of making plays when we have needed to.
“It’s not an enlightening comment or anything like that, but that’s what it’s been, it’s been better execution and good adjustments by Sark throughout the game.”
It came through when Atlanta needed it most against Tampa. The Falcons hit a rut in the third quarter, punting on their three possessions in that frame as the Bucs worked to close what had been a 21-6 deficit to 24-22. Atlanta opened its first possession of the fourth quarter with a first-and-10 from the 25, which is right where Sark found the spark the Falcons needed.
And he did it by putting his trust in his two best players.
Ryan came off play-action on the call, reset, and threw the ball just before Julio Jones made his on a out-break route. The defense was helpless to stop the 32-yard gain. Slump over. Ten-play, 75-yard touchdown drive ignited.
“It was critical to jump-start us—a keeper to the left and pulling up and just trusting he’s going to be where he’s supposed to be at the right time,” Ryan said. “That’s just years of playing together and knowing he’s going to do it right when you need him to do it.”
As for Sark’s role, Ryan continued, “We talk about it—in critical situations, you’ve got to think about players and give your guys opportunities. He’s certainly done a great job with that.”
He’s needed to, too. The Falcons’ 2018 season was hanging by a thread thin enough for Ryan to acknowledge, at the outset of our conversation, that this game sure felt like a must-win. As it is, with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and middle linebacker Deion Jones out for the season, the offense is going to have to be good—really good—for Atlanta to take this year anywhere.
“You have to have the mindset every week, that we need to do whatever we’ve got to do to get it done,” Ryan said. “And if it takes us to score 40, 50 whatever, we’ve got to do it, and that mindset doesn’t really change regardless of who’s over there. You have to have that aggressive mindset as an offense.”
And that’s started, of late, with the burgeoning relationship between quarterback and play-caller, kind of like it did a couple years back.
LONDON CALLING, LOUDER THAN EVER
The Seahawks beat the Raiders 27-3 at Wembley on Sunday, the first of three straight Sundays the NFL will be playing in the London venue, with 9:30 a.m. ET kickoffs coming in Weeks 7 (Titans/Chargers) and 8 (Eagles/Jaguars). As we detailed in the Sunday Rundown this week, the league’s EVP of international, Mark Waller, is bullish on the city’s readiness to have its own team.
And while he did leave a caveat—“Like I’ve always said, the one we can never test for is how does it work week-in and week-out,” he said—Waller’s confidence is built off of 12 years of testing of the market. What he couldn’t tell me was which team it might be that relocates, something he made clear when I asked specifically about the reports out of London indicating the Jaguars are lining things up for a move.
“This process for me, we’re building a marketplace, and the ownership, as it always does, will decide if they want a team over here, and then there’d be a process for who that team might be,” Waller said. “I don’t believe we’re in the narrowing down phase where it’ll be this team or that team. The phase we’re in, the market looks like it’s in great shape.”
With that in mind, here are five things I took from my conversation with Waller on the future of the NFL in London. …
1. This year has inadvertently turned into a new way to test the market for the league. With the Tottenham stadium the NFL has invested in not completed on time, the NFL had to move yesterday’s game to Wembley, meaning it would get to test the field in playing three consecutive games on it. That also opens a window into plans for the team—with said team likely to play home and away games in blocks. “That’ll be a good test,” Waller said of playing three straight at Wembley. “And a very valuable one, because we’ve always talked about how in the event we were ever scheduling a team over here, they’d be playing three or four games here, and then three or four games in the U.S. So it’s ultimately turned into a great opportunity to test that, at Wembley at least.”
2. As for Jaguars owner Shad Khan potentially buying Wembley, Waller said this: “It confirms Shad’s belief in the opportunity in the marketplace for NFL football, and his belief that there is a great business opportunity in owning Wembley. We already have the impact of the optionality of stadiums. That was a strategic goal from 2013 onward, the realization that we needed more than one stadium option. That fact that you would have an NFL owner owning a stadium that works really well for us is obviously great. But I don’t think it’s logical to say, ‘Oh, since Shad owns it, then if there’s a team to go to London it’ll be the Jags.’ ” Waller also mentioned the possibility that a London team could have multiple home stadiums—with the league having made an eight-figure investment in Tottenham (which will be configured for football and soccer) and Khan considering an even more significant financial plunge.