Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson Have Starring Roles in the NFL MVP Race

Midway through the 2019 season, the MVP race is heating up, and Wilson and Jackson have emerged as early frontrunners. Also, Philip Rivers and the Chargers found a needed spark after moving on from Ken Whisenhunt, the Panthers’ Cinderella quarterback, some insight from the Dolphins’ first win and much more.
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Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson

When I asked Russell Wilson about throwing to players he doesn’t know all that well—about 20 minutes after his Seahawks notched their seventh win of the season, a 40–34 overtime win against the Buccaneers—I didn’t expect he’d launch into a rundown of his offseason travel itinerary.

But there was a reason he did.

There was the trip to UCLA to go throw with rookie DK Metcalf. There was another summit after ESPYs in July with the rest of the Seattle skill players who were willing. There sessions early in the morning, and late at night, constantly building towards the place where the Seahawks are now.

“We just spend a lot of time together—and quality time throwing the football, catching, working out together,” Wilson says. “And then going to fun stuff, dinners and games, we went to the Padres game. Bonding moments were everything. ... We're a really young team and to get to know those guys on a personal level and where they want to go was big.”

And Wilson and the Seahawks are seeing the results of those bonding moments on the first Sunday of November, as Seattle fights to keep pace with the 49ers and the Rams in a very competitive NFC West.

Here’s proof: With less than a minute left in the game on Sunday, Wilson covered 53 yards and put the Seahawks in range for a game-winning field goal targeting, on three throws to receivers who weren’t on the team last year. After Seahawks kicker Jason Myers missed that 40-yard bid at the buzzer, Wilson turned back to those two players again in overtime to key what became the game-winning drive.

Rookie DK Metcalf drew a holding call on one, then caught a 29-yard back-shoulder dart from Wilson on another, to convert a third-and-six and move Seattle to the Tampa six. Two plays later, Wilson found tight end Jacob Hollister, who was traded from New England three days after Metcalf was drafted, for a 10-yard touchdown and the decisive points in a 40-34 win.

Wilson has clearly acclimated these players, something he sees as his responsibility. As it stands right now, as I see it, he’s locked in a very compelling race for league MVP with another guy who starred Sunday.

* * *

We’re at the midway point of the season, and a few guys played at a level in Week 9 that made the NFL MVP award worth discussing. We’ll also hit …

• What the Chargers’ coordinator change has done for Philip Rivers.

• The Panthers’ Cinderella quarterback who might not be such a Cinderella.

• What it’s been like to be a Dolphin over the long road to Win No. 1.

• How the 49ers have constructed a juggernaut.

But we’re starting with that compelling race for the NFL MVP. Texans QB Deshaun Watson, Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey and Saints WR Michael Thomas are all in the conversation. For our purposes this particular week, though, we’re going to focus on the two who I believe emerged as co-leaders: Wilson, who as of 8 p.m. ET was the brightest of Week 9, and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, who somehow topped Wilson’s performance by toppling Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots in primetime.

* * *

Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady

Something I didn’t know: Before the handshake Brady and Jackson shared postgame, Baltimore’s 22-year-old quarterback—born midway through Brady’s second year at Michigan—had never met the man he considers the best ever.

So what do you say in that situation if you’re Jackson? Well, after Brady told him Jackson he loved his game and to keep it going, Jackson responded, “You the GOAT.”

“I couldn't say nothing else to him,” Jackson says, after his Ravens sent the Patriots packing with a haymaker of a 37-20 loss.

“He's a cool guy,” Jackson continued, explaining what he likes about Brady’s game. “If you watch him on his dropbacks, he's just so poised in the pocket, always calm. Even if you see the little moves in the backfield to find a wide-open receiver or get a receiver open, he knows the job, and he's been in the game so long and that's why he has so much success."

Jackson’s on-field game doesn’t resemble Brady’s much. But when it came to remaining calm and finding the open receivers on Sunday, Jackson absolutely mirrored the quarterback he looks up to most. 

Against the Patriots on Sunday, Jackson once again delivered a performance that was so much more than his solid, unspectacular numbers (16 carries, 61 yards, two rushing TDs; 17-23, 163 yards, one passing TD) would indicate.

This is captured best when things got dicey for the Ravens—the point where so many other teams crumble in the face of the Patriots. After drives of 75, 54 and 77 yards staked the hosts to a 17-0 lead, ex-Patriot Cyrus Jones muffed a punt with 12:50 left in the first half, and momentum shifted. Baltimore only had one first down between the Jones fumble and the break, and the Patriots closed the deficit to 17-13.

“We just kept a level head on the sidelines,” Jackson says. “It's mistakes, it's part of football. You never know how it'll go. I just know we had to go back out there and respond. We couldn't get down off a touchdown because our job is to score touchdowns, win games, keep our defense off the field as much as we can.”

Peanut Onwuasor stopped the bleeding early in the third quarter; he stripped Julian Edelman at the 30-yard-line, and Marlon Humphrey scooped it up and went 70 yards to make it 24-13. But the Patriots kept the pressure on by coming back with an 11-play, 75-yard drive to close it back to 24-20, and put the onus on Jackson to keep the Ravens in control.

Jackson responded with, perhaps, his best throw of the night—staving off a potentially devastating three-and-out with corner-route dime over the arms of Patriot DB Terrence Brooks and to TE Mark Andrews, who went for 18 yards on this third-and-five. Six plays later, the Ravens put in Jackson’s hands again on fourth-and-four, and this time he found Willie Snead for seven yards on a quick out.

Six plays after that, Jackson found a wide-open Nick Boyle on second-and-goal

“Coach just called a great play,” Jackson says, on the touchdown. “We'd been running it all week. They gave us the perfect look for a 6-2 front. I just had to give him a great ball. He was wide open and delivered the baby."

It wasn’t a mistake that it went to Boyle, either. The Ravens knew they’d have to break their own tendencies to beat the masters of the gameplan defense—“Just take advantage of what the defense gives us, that's all”—and they did. That touchdown was the blocking tight end’s first in five years as a pro.

And it capped a crazy 14-play, 86-yard drive that took 8:09 off the clock was topped only by what the Ravens would do next. Baltimore followed an Earl Thomas pick on the Patriots’ next possession, with another 14-play drive, this one covering 68 yards, taking 9:35 off the clock, and effectively crushing the Patriots’ soul.

The key to both, as Jackson saw it, wasn’t about him being a hero—although he did plenty of that (the move he put on Patriots star Kyle Van Noy to pick up 11 at the end of the second drive was particularly nasty). No, it was about keeping the train on the tracks, which got accomplished. On neither drive did the Ravens face a third down with more than 7 yards to gain.

“We’re not trying to be in third-and-long,” Jackson says.

The final straw for the Patriots last night came on a third-and-goal from the one-yard line, with offensive tackle Orlando Brown literally picking Jackson up and carrying him across the goal line to make it 37-20. Which was an appropriate way for Brown to return the favor to a player who’d carried quite a heavy burden overall.

And just like that it was over, with Jackson having navigated everything the Patriots would throw at him.

“I don’t let myself get hype off everyone else's hype,” Jackson says. “I keep my mind focused in knowing what I want to do, what I want to accomplish with my teammates. And that’s come out with victories and that's what we did."

This game was a significant step in the pursuit of an individual victory at the end of the year. But if he’s worried about winning the MVP, he’s not showing it.

“Man, it’s cool but I just love winning and my job here is to win,” Jackson says. “Everything that comes, comes. But I want a championship. That’s my goal and that’s what I want."

* * *

Russell Wilson

For his part, Russell Wilson’s approach to the MVP award is similar to that of Jackson’s. When we spoke at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, I told him he was my choice for league MVP, and he didn’t break stride.

“I'm keeping my head focused,” Wilson says. “I'm just trying to win another Super Bowl for us here. At the end of the day, it's the same: One day at a time. It's great to be mentioned in that category obviously, it means we're doing something right. My focus is on playing great the next day and next opportunity. It's about us, not me. It's about us and what we're doing as a team."

Seattle is tied with Green Bay for the third-best record in football, but the team is doing it differently than it has in the past. Wilson used to be more the game-manager, with a rugged run game and salty defense creating margin for error. And in this way, Wilson has become a little like Brady was.

Early in Brady’s run in New England, he was seen as a “game manager”, which wasn’t meant in a nice way. But he won three Super Bowls through his first five NFL seasons, and played really well, and that was enough. Then, Brady got paid, the dynamic changed and there were seasons in which the team retooled and he had to bear more of the brunt of the roster turnover.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but Wilson is similarly having to lift up players around him. We saw his ability to do it on Sunday, with a team build around him that more often needs him to play a starring role. Yes, Chris Carson and the run game rolled (145 yards on 22 carries). But it was the passing game that shone when the game was on the line, with Wilson beating the Bucs with the Metcalfs and Hollisters—the newcomers—of the roster.

And it was also Wilson’s big-game experience that showed up most when Myers missed the kick, and the offense had to win the game all over again.

“We had to move on quickly,” Wilson says. “I think you need to have a neutral mind. You can't get too high, you can't get too low. I firmly believe I stayed poised. What we did, Geno [Smith] went out there and won the coin toss and sure enough got the ball and said, 'Let's go win the game, man.' We put in our hands and went up and down the field.”

One big catch from Metcalf and another from Hollister later, and that’s just what Wilson and his crew had done. And whether he cares or not, Wilson had also maintained his place squarely as the favorite for MVP with two months to go.

* * *

Philip Rivers

PHILIP RIVERS AND THE CHARGERS FIND THE NEEDED SPARK

The firing of Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t what Philip Rivers wanted. But when he found out that his position coach Shane Steichen would be the new playcaller, it was hard for the Chargers’ QB not to consider the possibilities.

Rivers has been most comfortable with Norv Turner as his playcaller, in large part because the two spent seven years together in San Diego. And Steichen is no stranger to Turner. He played with Turner’s son, Scott, at UNLV, and coached for Norv with both the Chargers and the Browns, which made it easy for the two to bond when Steichen became the team’s QBs coach in 2016, Mike McCoy’s last year with the team.

“We see plays the same, and we can talk the digits system,” Rivers says after the Chargers beat the Packers 26–11. “We can just speak in a couple different languages when it comes to offense. He played the position, played quarterback and it’s been like this. He’s been the quarterback coach for the last three, four years.

“When I say, 'I don't know if this guy is playing it like this,' he’ll go, 'Oh, we need to come with this.' He sees it [similarly to how I do]. There doesn't have to be a lot of long, drawn-out discussion. We kind of fit together.”

It certainly looked like it on Sunday against Green Bay.

Rivers finished with 294 yards on 21-of-28 passing and spread the ball around—getting five different receivers three or more catches. And some of it came via the dialogue that Steichen and Rivers are so accustomed to having on the sideline.

“We were talking about getting to this play-action pass and I said, 'Gosh, maybe we need to put Mike [Williams] at the Z and run him on a post—and if they sit over there and play Keenan [Allen] on this deep over, let's throw the post,’” Rivers says. “The free safety has kind of been waiting on Keenan over there on these overs. That wasn't in the plan. That's a little wrinkle to the play. And I'm not saying I did it, but we were talking about the play.

“Just like that, he says, ‘It's perfect. Let's do it.’”

Steichen called it at the end of the third quarter, and just as they’d expected, Packers safety Adrian Amos came down to help on Allen, leaving corner Jaire Alexander isolated on the big-bodied Williams. Rivers uncorked the shot, Williams skied over Alexander, and 46 yards later, the Chargers were inside the Packers 30 again.

While moving on from Whisenhunt is bittersweet for Rivers—he still loves and respects the coach—the spark in Sunday’s game is what coach Anthony Lynn was hoping for.

Some logistical things should help too. Derwin James and Adrian Phillips will be eligible to come off IR down the line. Melvin Gordon is just now hitting his stride. And young players, like safety Jaylen Watkins, have risen to the occasion in the face of all the injuries.

The other thing that helps? The team has been here recently. In 2017, they started 0-4, and finished 9-7. Last year, they were 2-2 and got to 12-4.

“For whatever reason we just play a little better when it's, 'Oh, it's Chargers. They're not going to do anything,’” Rivers says. “I wish we didn't do that. I wish we played better when ‘the Chargers are the favorite.’ Like, golly, you look back and if we just got Tennessee or we just got Detroit or Houston, just one of them, then you go, ‘Man, we’re sitting in good position.’ We still have a ways to go and a lot is gonna happen in these next two. ... We'll see where we are with only five to play after these next two.”

It’s a big stretch, indeed. And so that little spark was much needed.

* * *

Kyle Allen

KYLE ALLEN WILL BE THE PANTHERS’ GUY FOR A LITTLE WHILE LONGER

Panthers quarterbacks coach Scott Turner has an interesting theory on why so many thought the bottom was falling out when Kyle Allen came undone last Sunday, in Carolina’s blowout loss to the undefeated 49ers.

“It's confirmation bias,” Turner says. “If you're drafted high, you can play bad, and if all of a sudden you play good, everyone is like, 'This is what we expected.' Where if you're not drafted high, you play good for a few games, and then you play bad one game, it's like, 'Well, this is what we expected.'"

Save for that one bad afternoon in California, Allen has been great. And it looks like the Panthers are going to need for him to be, with Cam Newton likely shelved for a while longer, after a trip to noted foot/ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson didn’t give Newton any more answer than he already had on his mid-foot sprain.

Facing a game Titans defense, Allen went 17-of-23 for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Along the way, he bounced back from an interception in the first quarter to lead three scoring drives in the second quarter, and again flashed the ability to compartmentalize the fact that he’s filling the shoes of a guy who’s been a league MVP.

While it might be hard for some in such a position to process the inconclusive news from Anderson on Newton’s foot, Allen’s choosing to ignore it.

“Cam has a leadership role in locker room,” Allen says. “I’ve taken on that leadership role as well as I’ve been playing, and we've been winning. Me and Cam have a great relationship. Whatever is going to happen with him is going to happen. For me, I just get ready to play every week just like I was Week 1 and Week 2, when I wasn’t starting.

“[Cam is] going to get it figured out. He's going to get healthy, and I'm excited for him to be healthy. For me it's about being prepared every week and helping this team win."

And the Panthers, now 5-1 with Allen at the helm, see him as capable of that, clearly.

“Realistically, we all know Cam is going to be a long-term process,” Panthers OC Norv Turner says. “Kyle has to be ready to play and be the guy. That's the way he's approached it. That's why I don't think there's been any confusion our part of it. He's handled it great.”

He'll have plenty to handle ahead, too, with trips to Green Bay and New Orleans coming in the next three weeks, and ground to make up on the Saints in the NFC South

* * *

THE DOLPHINS WIN!

Let’s catch up with starting right tackle Jesse Davis postgame.

MMQB: What’s running through your head as the clock hits zero?

JD: ”I think we're all a little bit relieved, a little happy that we're finishing the game on top and we got the ball in our possession. I think we're all happy for each other as well."

MMQB: How has [head coach] Brian Flores kept everyone on board?

JD: His message has remained: Go compete and see what we can do with it. ... All of us are playing for each other and not trying to let each other down, as well as our coaching staff. I think [Flores] has done a good job keeping it all together. Honestly, the guys that didn't really want to be here are the ones that got out. The end of the day, the ones that are here are the ones that are competing and just won this football game.”

MMQB: Hard to do that without tangible results?

JD: It’s hard, especially early on. … Some of us, you get lost into the frustration and [think], what are we doing this for? ... Flores has always told us there is light at the end of the tunnel, we're building something here and trust the process. Keep going with it. The last three games we've seen improvement time and time again so going into it we get a little taste of it. We just keep going."

MMQB: Have you compartmentalized the trades?

JD: When they did the [Laremy] Tunsil trade, I don't even know if Tunsil knew what was going on, to be honest. When it happened you’re a little pissed off about it. At the end of the day, it’s a business. They'll put anybody out there to leverage their organization the best way they can and we all know that going into it. We have to play football from the business side.

MMQB: Are you convinced now this [tank] is gonna work?

JD: [When] you're sitting back there 13 points down and they’re just teeing off on us, that sucks. It’s gonna smell sweeter in the end is what we all think. We’re just going to keep pushing through it and see what we can make out of this season and see where we can go. We have a tight locker room so I think all of us are a band of brothers out there, going for it.

MMQB: They gave you a three-year deal. Can you tell what they want in players? Is there a commonality in who they’ve paid and drafted?

JD: I know at the end of the day it’s my resume out there. Putting me at left tackle, I didn't make a peep about it. I said, “Let’s go for it.” I think that's the type of people they're looking for with players that are willing to do different roles for this team. No egos out there. They want you to sit out this game to play this other guy who is a better matchup? Then so be it. Yeah, you'll be pissed off but whatever is best for the team that's what we'll do." 

* * *

Nick Bosa

THE UNDEFEATED SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

In a certain way, the 49ers’ 8-0 start feels almost like the team fulfilling expectations others had for it last year. But internally, San Francisco felt like the roster still needed work heading into 2018. Now, a lot of that work has been done.

Here’s six pieces of offseason business that have fueled the fast start.

Trading for Dee Ford/drafting Nick Bosa. How early did the Niners know it was taking Bosa second overall? I’m told that when San Francisco traded a second-round pick to the Chiefs for Ford, they did it because of how they saw him pairing with Bosa. And Ford has delivered. Despite playing on a balky knee that’s limited him to 39% of the Niners’ defensive snaps, he has 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Bosa has generally been a menace in creating a really tough pick-your-poison dilemma for coaches game-planning against him. As for Bosa—well, he’s clearly all the Niners thought he’d be.

Adding Kris Kocurek. Niners DC Robert Saleh and Kocurek, who’d been Miami’s d-line coach in 2018) had a relationship through common friends Frank Bush, Tony Oden and Martin Mayhew. And Kocurek was available, after Adam Gase was fired as Dolphins coach. Saleh brought the idea to Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan hired him, and the rest is history. 

Kocurek has flipped the switch for a now-dominant group stocked with five former first-round picks. Another underrated piece to the puzzle, too, was Shanahan’s decision to stay the course with Saleh, who’d come under fire late last year.

Signing Kwon Alexander. The ex-Buc linebacker didn’t come cheap—the Niners set a new standard for off-ball linebackers when they agreed to a four-year, $54 million deal with him (which the Jets and C.J. Mosley quickly topped). And it was fair to question the move at the time, given that Alexander was coming off a torn ACL. 

But it worked. Alexander brought the Niners defense energy and swagger because the group knew how good it was—and that contribution should continue, even after Alexander was lost for the year with a torn pec.

Getting Tevin Coleman. The ex-Falcon, who Shanahan worked with in Atlanta, hasn’t set the world on fire. But the team got him on a two-year, $10 million deal, and not Le’Veon Bell on what would’ve been a one-year deal in eight figures. If the latter scenario had played out, the Niners likely would’ve had to cut a corner somewhere else, which likely would have led to the team moving on from Jimmie Ward. Instead, they signed Ward to a one-year, $4.5 million deal, and he’s now in the midst of a breakout season. Sometimes, it takes some good fortune. The Niners got that on this one.

Hitting on late-round picks. The Niners got LB Dre Greenlaw in the fifth round and OT Justin Skule in the seventh round. The latter has filled in admirably for the injured Joe Staley at left tackle (the Niners actually got the stand-in for the right tackle Mike McGlinchey, Daniel Brunskill, out of the AAF), and the former has been impressive early on, and will be even important now with Alexander out. This all follows a nice pattern that GM John Lynch and Shanahan have set of finding late-round and undrafted gems. George Kittle’s the most obvious one, but there are a lot of others (CB Emmanuel Moseley, DE Ronnie Blair, WR Kendrick Bourne, etc.) that fit that description too.

The CEO Jed York has stayed the course and maintained his understanding he had when he gave Shanahan and Lynch six-year deals—this was always going to take time. That he gave it that time has helped get the Niners out of the woods they were lost in three years ago.

Evidence of how that management team sees this now? Look at the aggressive maneuvering to get Emmanuel Sanders two weeks ago. On one hand, it was measured like all these moves have been—the Niners could get a comp fifth-rounder back if Sanders walks in 2020, which mitigates losing the third-rounder, and the fourth- and fifth-rounders swapped look, right now, like they may only be a dozen picks apart.

On the other hand, it is a sign that the Niners aren’t just comfortable with high expectations now—they’re the ones setting them.

* * *

ALL-32

The 49ers believe that Jimmy Garoppolo played his best game as a pro in the Thursday night win over the Cardinals. And he’s still getting his feet back underneath him coming back off the ACL tear. Add his progress to the looming return of Staley and McGlinchey, and San Francisco will be something to deal with in November and December.

The Bears have a great defense, but the window to win a championship that a great defense gives you is much shorter than that of a great quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky did just enough in the second half to avoid a sweeping statement that Chicago has a decision to make, but his problems are becoming harder to ignore.

The Bengals’ benching of Andy Dalton will overshadow this, but the team is driving towards a roster reset in 2020, as it remakes itself with Zac Taylor in charge. The talent his staff has got now, as the coaches see it, isn’t very good. A.J. Green and Geno Atkins are obvious stars, but both are in their 30s. Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon are legit building blocks. And beyond that, there’s a lot of work to do.

Say this about the 6-2 Bills—they win the games which they should. They’ve beaten the Jets, Giants, Bengals, Titans, Dolphins and now Redskins, and lost to the Patriots and Eagles. And that’s not to discredit them. In fact, it’s a tribute to the consistency of effort from Sean McDermott’s young, growing group.

I think we all looked at the Browns-Broncos game and thought, “If Cleveland loses to Brandon Allen …” The truth is, Allen was remarkably competent given he was starting at quarterback for a team that claimed him off waivers two months and two days earlier. His numbers (12-of-20, 193 yards, 2 TDs) weren’t crazy, but supported a team that got it done on the ground, and reflected the no-fear demeanor Allen projected to his teammates and coaches. A Jaguar in 2016, and the Ram the last two years, Allen hadn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game before Sunday.

It feels like the Browns have to do something today. Whether it’s a player being gone, or a staff change, it’s hard to imagine Cleveland just running it back after a fourth consecutive loss. And look, expectations were out of control before the year started for a team that had a serious offensive line issue, and depth problems elsewhere. But this is more than just not living up to what all of us on the outside might’ve thought in August.

We saw all the good and bad of Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston in the overtime loss to Seattle. The good: Throwing for 335 yards and two scores on 29-of-44 passing, and getting the most from Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The bad: Another unforced error in the form of an unsightly fumble in the fourth quarter that put Seattle in position to take its first lead.

It’s hard to separate the Cardinals’ immediate need for a tailback, with David Johnson and Chase Edmonds injured, with the acquisition of Kenyan Drake. But the move made sense to GM Steve Keim and his personnel department, even when the other two backs are healthy, because of Drake’s versatility. In addition to Johnson and Edmonds, Kliff Kingsbury should have flexibility to get creative in putting two or even all three on the field at the same time. 

Drake, clearly, picked things up quickly. He arrived in Arizona on Tuesday, and two days later, he played 84% of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps, and had 19 touches in the loss to San Francisco.

His brother has received all the attention, but Chargers DE Joey Bosa could be building a late run at Defensive Player of the Year. He posted another sack-and-a-half (pushing his total to 8.5 through nine games) and serving as a general menace to Green Bay and Co. on Sunday.

No one coaches up backup quarterbacks like Chiefs coach Andy Reid. And Matt Moore (103.9 rating) was plenty competent Sunday. But the most encouraging thing from Kansas City’s perspective has to be how the defense played in holding the Vikings’ red hot offense to 308 yards and 23 points, and getting a gigantic three-and-out (with Chris Jones coming up huge in batting a ball down on third down) to set up a drive to the game-winning field goal. If the Chiefs are even top 15 on defense, look out.

The Colts’ kicker situation is complicated. But the rest of the team acquitted itself well in the aftermath of Jacoby Brissett’s injury. Brian Hoyer and that well-coached team put Adam Vinatieri in position to get that group to 6-2.

The Monday night game is a big one for Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, with Leighton Vander Esch out and Saquon Barkley on tap.

Beyond just winning the game, it had to be good for the Dolphins to see Christian Wilkins (sack, two quarterback hits, two tackles for losses) wreaking havoc. Wilkins represents everything Miami’s new brass wants in a person. He showed Sunday he can really play too.

The Eagles may not be the wagon we (or I) expected them to be. But on Sunday, they again ran the ball exceedingly well, and they were resourceful in moving the chains, all of which came together in a game-defining 16-play, 74-yard drive against a proud defense that absolutely took the wind out of the Bears.

In this lost Falcons season, I’ll credit the team on its handling of the trade deadline. I’m told Atlanta was communicative with tight end Austin Hooper, center Alex Mack and running back Devonta Freeman, as trade calls came in on all three ahead of last Tuesday. The Falcons tried to move Vic Beasley, and that didn’t work out. And they got good value for Mohamed Sanu.

We’ll see where the rest of the year goes for the group in charge. Owner Arthur Blank is being more measured this year than he was before firing Mike Smith in 2015. Certainly, few in that building are truly safe now. But give those guys credit for maintaining the right vibe through all this.

The Giantstrade for Leonard Williams is more than a look-see at a player they might wanna have long-term for their defensive line. It’s a peak inside Dave Gettleman’s soul as a team-building. He built around KK Short and Star Loutulelei, both landed in his first draft as Panthers GM, in Charlotte. The vision in pairing Williams with Dexter Lawrence in Jersey isn’t far off from that. And we’ll get our first look at how it comes together Monday night.

It’s not hard to look at the deep investment the Jaguars have in Nick Foles, and assume that the brass now has its out to send Gardner Minshew back to the bench. One thing stuck out to me Sunday—he consistently missed his receivers high, something I’ve heard is common with young NFL QBs. 

I asked Jordan Palmer why that happens. His answer: “High throws comes from a QB shortening his release. The two main reasons that would happen consistently are feet that aren’t set or a lack of confidence in where the ball is going. Both things happen a lot with younger players.”

The loss to the Dolphins was rock bottom for the Jets, complete with a buttfumble moment (Sam Darnold watching a shotgun snap fly by him without going after it, which resulted in a safety). New York is 1-7. And yes, the schedule’s not exactly excruciating the next five weeks (vs. Giants, at Redskins, vs. Raiders, at Bengals, vs. Dolphins). But it’s fair to ask now, who the cupcake in those games really is.

The Lions are plenty competitive—they haven’t been beaten convincingly yet. But after Sunday’s loss in Oakland, it’s apparent they still haven’t quite learned how to close games out. That should come in time.

Sunday wasn’t great for the Packers, but I think Matt LaFleur and Co. get a mulligan, based on the start they’re off to. Very interesting one against the Panthers next week.

Both D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel made spectacular catches in big moments for the Panthers on Sunday, and both are examples of how Allen has effectively played point guard in Cam Newton’s absence, which has allowed young guys like that grow.

I hope the Patriots get to play the Ravens again. The two defenses that have really slammed the brakes on Baltimore’s option-heavy attack—the Chargers last year and Browns this year—are units that had seen them previously. With this experience in his back pocket, it’d be fascinating to see how Bill Belichick would plan for Round 2 in January.

Time to give Jon Gruden some credit? The Raiders are playing efficient ball, Derek Carr is in command of the offense and the rookie class has been really good. The team has a big primetime game against the Chargers on Thursday night.

One of the biggest questions facing the Rams over the second half of the season stems from the play of the offensive line, a position that was a strength in Sean McVay’s first two years. Los Angeles is really encouraged by the play of rookie guard David Edwards, a fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin. GM Les Snead and the Rams scouting department loved Edwards’ 2017 tape. That tape, it should be noted, had been overshadowed by an injury-marred final season in Madison during Edwards’ pre-draft process. So the Rams might have themselves a find there.

The Ravens coordinators both deserve head coaching looks – Greg Roman and Wink Martindale – even if they don’t necessarily fit the profile of the guy getting hired these days. And both deserve credit for last night’s big win. Roman for, of course, continuing to evolve his complex option run game, and Martindale for turning around a defense that was struggling a month ago. On the latter, there were open questions about toughness internally. Baltimore cut former third-round pick Timmy Williams to send a message on that front, and found Josh Bynes to play middle linebacker and settle down the defense, and the arrow is now pointing up on that group.

The Redskins have messed up a bunch of stuff this year. Here’s hoping they don’t mess up the quarterback thing now. They need to let Dwayne Haskins play.

I could get philosophical here about how the Saints have built a team that can win without a quarterback throwing for 300 yards, and one with strength in the trenches, to help get them through without Drew Brees, and all that stuff is true. But the root of all is simpler: They’ve really been lights out in the draft for four years now. And that’s true again this year. They found a long-term answer at center (Erik McCoy) and a defensive back (Chauncey Gardner-Johnson) who seamlessly moved into a prominent role when the team lost P.J. Williams. And they did it despite entering the draft without a first-round pick (gone in the 2018 trade for Marcus Davenport) or a third-rounder (dealt for Teddy Bridgewater), both of those gone in deals that also paid big dividends for the team in Brees’ absence.)

Credit the Seahawks with getting it right on D.K. Metcalf. I thought he was a pre-draft social-media creation—all athlete/specimen, and not much of player. All of us now appear to be wrong about that and the Seahawks got it right.

It feels like the Steelers have weathered the storm. The defense is hitting its stride, Mason Rudolph looks, at least, stable running the offense, and team has made it to .500, at 4-4. And the schedule softens from here. So it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Pittsburgh in it for the division title around Christmas.

Sunday was the fourth time this year the Texans have rushed for more than 160 yards. Faced with the fearsome Jacksonville front, Deshaun Watson was only sacked once, which was just the seventh sack he’s taken over the last five weeks. Fair to say that Houston’s huge investment in the offensive line is paying off? The Texans did it Sunday without Laremy Tunsil, and had done it without first-round pick Tytus Howard the two weeks prior to that. On the surface, it looks like the Texans have done what the Colts did last year, in flipping their offensive line’s look in a single year, with the acquisition of Tunsil, and drafting of Howard and starting left guard Max Scharping. (Oh, and Watson was awesome again Sunday.)

Titans QB Ryan Tannehill is perfectly fine as a player, and can probably play another decade in the league.

Easy to point the finger for the Vikings’ loss at Kirk Cousins. But Sunday’s 26-23 loss to the Chiefs was Minnesota’s worst rushing performance, by far, since Sept. 29. That was the day of their last loss, and last time Cousins didn’t light the defense he was facing up. These things are related.

* * *

TOP FIVE

1. The Trent Williams saga has no end in sight. The NFLPA released this scathing statement, directed at the Redskins, and on behalf of former All-Pro tackle Trent Williams, on Sunday morning: “In our multiple conversations with Trent and his agent, we have considered various options based on the facts, but we also understand that Trent wants to put this all behind him, not relive a painful experience when his life was in danger and move on with his career. We are also aware of misinformation being repeated on the NFL's own network that is not sourced and is only designed to tarnish Trent's reputation. Our union supports Trent, is protecting his rights and continues to consider potential action if a campaign against him continues.”

Two things: One, it’ll take a while for the league’s work on this, being done jointly with the union, to be completed. And two, it seems pretty certain now that Williams has taken his last snap in Washington.

2. London progress is coming. This year’s four games in London are finished, and the league’s taking three primary points from this year’s series First, fan demand is where they want it to be. The two games at Tottenham sold out in 45 minutes, and demand for tickets outpaced the supply tenfold. 

Second, the new Tottenham stadium, into which the NFL sunk an eight-figure investment, was a big success. The FieldTurf field and NFL-sized locker rooms, made the game day experience much easier for the four teams that played there. 

Finally, the feedback from the teams that went was good—Houston’s Bill O’Brien, Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins spoke positively about their experience on Sunday, as the Texans wrapped their first London trip. 

So where do things go from here? It’ll be status quo next year—two games at Tottenham and two more at Wembley—with more elements, surely, put in place to test the market’s viability to one day host a team full-time.

3. Browns’ situation merits watching. Fair or unfair, Jermaine Whitehead’s outburst on social media—you can Google his comments—is going to dovetail easily into stories about the team’s on-field discipline issues and even some of the insistence by Odell Beckham Jr. that he shouldn’t have to, follow the league’s uniform standards (with his shoes, and watch). Organizational chaos, of course, isn’t new in Cleveland, which is all the more reason that I’d think some action has to be on its way.

4. Why did the trade deadline day wind up being a dud? First, a number of deals happened ahead of it (Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jalen Ramsey, Mohamed Sanu, Emmanuel Sanders, to name a few). But I also heard that some GMs saw more-than-expected interest in their own players and cooled on dealing them as a result—If this team really likes Player X that much, maybe I should just keep him!. And for another, the comp in the aforementioned pushed the price on trades into the stratosphere.

5. Injury watch: Indianapolis. Brissett’s MRI on his sprained knee will impact the AFC South race in a pretty big way.

* * *

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

That picture is going to have shelf life.

This isn’t really true, but that’s a great clip.

McCaffrey belongs in the conversation, too, and not just because Charlotte said so.

And their dad, Ferrell, was a two-time Pro Bowler for the Dolphins in his own right.

Can’t believe the Jets would do this to the man on his birthday.

I bet the Steelers wind up going 9-7 or 10-6, which would put the pick they traded for Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick around 20. And if it’s the 20 pick that you lost, and you have Fitzpatrick for a total of $4.7 million the next two years (2020, 2021), that’ not such a bad deal at all.

He’s still amazing.

Perfect.

Not perfect.

And there’s one last taste of Halloween for you as we move on to November.

* * *

Matt Rhule

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. Another win for Baylor, which means another step for Matt Rhule toward being one of the hottest candidates in the NFL’s 2020 coaching cycle. Rhule basically won the Jets’ coaching derby in 2019, but he lost it when he and the team disagreed on staffing. The Bears are 8-0 and 12 days away from a showdown with Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma in Waco.

2. Saturday night’s win was a big one for Oregon QB Justin Herbert. Not only was he an assassin in the Ducks’ annihilation of USC, going 21-of-26 for 225 yards and three scores (against a single pick), but he showed some toughness is taking a hard shot to his knee and coming back after a quick stop in the medical tent. 

“It’s becoming a little cliche to jump on Herbert for some reason, but I really like him,” one AFC exec said on Sunday. “[The NFL] will have plenty of time to figure out the personality, but he’s really athletic, has a rocket arm, and is mostly accurate.”

3. North Dakota State won its 30th straight game on Saturday night, blowing out old FCS power Youngstown State 56-17. That puts them close to the school record of 33, which was set on the front end (2012) of a dynasty that’s pumped out seven national titles over the last eight years. And this team features linebacker Jabril Cox, the rare FBS player good enough to consider declaring as a junior.

4. All of what NFL teams like in Georgia QB Jake Fromm was on display in the Bulldogs’ Cocktail Party win over Florida. His physical traits may be average, but he’s accurate, tough, clutch and smart—and most teams believe that a coach wanting to build a complex offense (hello, Jon Gruden) will regard him as a high-end prospect. Others are likely to see him as a middle-round type. His will be a fascinating case to examine.

5. The college-football coaching cycle can affect the NFL coaching cycle, so it’s worth noting that one traditional powerhouse (Florida State) axed its coach, and another (USC) moved a step closer to that this weekend. Both could look at a place like the coaching-rich American Athletic Conference (It’s where Rhule came from, and Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell are). Or they could look to the NFL to try and find someone, like say Todd Monken, who might be a good collegiate fit.

6. LSU/Alabama is in five days. Among those that I believe could go in the first round this April in that game: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, WR Jerry Jeudy, LB Dylan Moses, DL Raekwon Davis, and CB Trevon Diggs; and LSU QB Joe Burrow, CB Kristian Fulton and S Grant Delpit.

* * *

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, the Cowboys visit the Giants, so we speak with five-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin …

MMQB: After playing your best game of the year against Philadelphia, the team has its bye. Do you think the momentum will carry over?

ZM: I think definitely. That was a big game for us as a football team. We’d come off three bad losses in a row. And to beat a divisional opponent on Sunday night going into bye, it can definitely carry on after the bye. We got another big division opponent this week, and we’ll have to be ready to go Monday night.

MMQB: What was different about the team that played Philly?

ZM: I don’t if it was that back-against-the-wall mentality that we had, or what it was. But that’s kind of what we envision our team being, what we’re capable of. So it’s on us to come out each week and perform like that.

MMQB: Can you manufacture the back-against-the-wall thing?

ZM: It’s a long season, we know. But I think guys in our locker room respond to that well. And if we can take that through the season, it’ll pay off for us.

MMQB: How’s it been different for you, working through the injuries around you with the tackles banged up? Is there a benefit to going through it?

ZM: Obviously you want everyone out there. But it’s part of the game we play. Some guys aren’t going to be available each week. I thought it was good, I thought we gave some of our younger guys, some of our backup tackles, the chance to go in there and get some game reps. And they did a nice job. Them getting those reps early in the season always is good, in case we need them down the home stretch.

MMQB: Has having Kellen Moore as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator changed much for the linemen?

ZM: There are some different concepts, but for the most part, with Marc Colombo being our line coach, him being around the last five or six years, we’re doing what we’ve been doing. A few new concepts, but for the most part, it hasn’t changed a whole for us up front.

MMQB: Has it changed your production as an offense?

ZM: Obviously we’ve put up some good numbers. But we talked about this in the bye week—at the end of the day, it’s about winning football games, and we can put up 500 yards every week. But if we’re not winning it doesn’t really matter. We have to score points and put us in a better position to win.

MMQB: What do you see in the Giants defense?

ZM: It starts in the middle for them—they’ve got some big, thick, physical guys, there with Lawrence, Tomlinson, Hill and now the addition of Leonard Williams. You can tell they want to bolster the middle to stop the run. It’s going to be a big challenge for us up front, and we’re looking forward to it.

MMQB: Is Lawrence as big a player as you’ve blocked?

ZM: Yeah, he’s a big guy. That’s his strength, using his strength and size, plugging up the middle and pushing the pocket on the pass. He’s been a nice addition.

MMQB: Did you block Leonard Williams much three weeks ago [against the Jets]?

ZM: I didn’t, he played on our left side a lot. But I have played against him in the past. He’s a really good player. He’s going to help them out a lot, that’s gonna be a challenge for us.

MMQB: Did you look at his Jets tape this week?

ZM: Yeah, absolutely. We spend a lot of time breaking down defensive tendencies and stuff, and we’ll definitely spend some time on personnel. We’ll definitely take a look back on that tape and see how he attacked us.

MMQB: Do you have a favorite linemen in the NFL watch, outside of your teammates?

ZM: Yeah, I’ll stick in our division. I love watching Brandon Scherff from Washington. He’s a great player, and being in the division get to see a lot of him.

MMQB: You get to watch much of Quenton Nelson?

ZM: I’m close with Q. Last year, we played the AFC South, so I got to see more of him. But this year, we haven’t seen any tape.

MMQB: Biggest thing the offense needs to clean up going into the second half of the year?

ZM: Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff we can control. We’ve gotten into trouble with some pre-snap penalties this year and some holds there, when we’ve had big plays. Especially he pres-nap stuff, we can clean that up, and it’ll help our offense flow a lot better.

* * *

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The Monday Night Football game against the Giants is big for the Cowboys, mostly because it’s the only game left on the schedule between now and the regular-season finale against the Redskins that the team doesn’t have much business losing. After Monday, Dallas gets, in order: the Vikings, Lions, Patriots, Bill, Bears, Rams and Eagles. And with the Eagles winning again on Sunday, the heat remains on the Cowboys in the standings.

Should be a good litmus test for where Dallas is.

And with that … I’ll see you guys this afternoon for the MAQB.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.