Clutch Defensive Stands—and, As Always, Lamar Jackson—Rule the Day in Week 10

In a wild Sunday, big late-game plays on D meant wins for Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, while the Ravens' QB ripped off a run for the ages. Plus, the Browns might not be dead yet, Dan Quinn is still fighting in Atlanta and LSU’s Joe Burrow helped his draft stock immensely.
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Sometimes, before an overhyped game, players and coaches will do what they can to act like this particular week is like any other week, lest anyone think the foot would ever come off the pedal in the NFL. And then afterwards, you find out the truth.

In this case, the truth is that Sunday’s game was mammoth for the Vikings. Because of the stakes, because of the stage, and because of the opponent, it was all there for Minnesota.

“We knew what the stakes were coming into the game,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said over the phone from the Vikings locker room after the team’s win over Dallas. “It’s just that part of the season. These games are crucial, especially on the road.”

And when it mattered most, Minnesota was just one of three teams on Sunday to lean on championship-level defense at the wire to get through that sort of moment.

But for the Vikings, it took plenty of failure on that side of the ball first to get there. After being staked to a 14–0 lead in the first quarter, the Minnesota D took body blow after body blow from Dak Prescott and Co. The Cowboys went 48 and 83 yards on second-quarter drives to score their first two touchdowns, then took it 75 yards to score another touchdown in the third quarter and 70 yards to kick a field goal early in the fourth.

Down 28–24 late in the fourth, Dallas appeared poised to snatch the win away from their visitors in similar, cutting fashion. The Cowboys didn’t face a single third down in covering 75 yards, going from its own six-yard line to the Vikings 19 in seven plays to set up a first-and-10 inside the red zone with 1:59 to go.

If it seemed reasonable to think Minnesota’s best chance at that point might’ve been to make sure there was enough time left to respond to Dallas’ inevitable score, the defense had other ideas.

“When they got in the red zone, the field shortened up so the amount of stuff they could do was limited,” Kendricks said. “We got hit in the mouth earlier that drive, but it’s about how we finish, and everybody was locked in, no one was flustered. No one was pointing a finger. Everybody was just locked in.”

Four plays later, the Vikings would take their place among the NFC’s top contenders.

And they weren’t going to be shy about the magnitude of this one either. As was the case in Pittsburgh and Green Bay earlier in the day, a single defensive stop carried promise to reverberate all the way to January.

* * *

Week 10 was another fun one. Early in the day, we had a some disappointments resurrect themselves in crazy fashion. Later, we had the aforementioned moments of white-knuckled intensity among contenders. And that’s a big part of what we’re going to cover in this week’s column.

• We’ve got Browns coach Freddie Kitchens explaining what he saw in his team during the week that made him believe they’d weather the storm.

• And Falcons coach Dan Quinn discusses how difficult a season it’s been, what might be lurking around the corner, and how he appreciates his players.

• More on how teams are gaming the comp-pick formula to the detriment of all players (even if they’re doing it without thinking about that).

• Some insight into the disaster that pass-interference reviews have become.

• A staggering streak that came to an end on Sunday afternoon.

And we’ve got all your normal stuff in here too—no matter who your team is, we’ll cover you in the All-32, and we’ll throw you some college stuff while we’re at it in the Six From Saturday.

But we’re starting with the drama of the late games, before we get to the drama from the early window.

* * *

It was about 7:40 p.m. ET, when Packers linebacker Preston Smith came screaming off the edge, to the right side of the Panthers’ offense, to find Christian McCaffrey and drop him inches short of the goal line, stop the 18-play, 83-yard march that Cam Newton’s replacement, Kyle Allen, had led and preserve a 24–16 Green Bay win.

Less than 20 minutes later, Steelers corner Joe Haden jumped an underneath route run by Rams receiver Robert Woods, got his hands (plural) on the ball and let it ricochet into the waiting arms of new teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick, who collected it with about 25 seconds to go to salt away a 17–12 Pittsburgh victory.

Sunday moved the Steelers to 5–4, remarkable considering all they have been through. And it pushed the Packers to 7–2, maintaining their spot atop the NFC North and keeping them clear, for now, of the team that would come up with its own clutch performance a few hours later.

And for that team—the Vikings—after the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper picked up eight yards on first down and Ezekiel Elliott lost three on the next two plays, the game came down to fourth-and-five from the 14 with 44 seconds left. More specifically, it came down to a single matchup.

As Dallas broke the huddle in ‘11’ personnel (one back, one tight end), all five skill guys left the backfield, creating two matchups with linebackers—Anthony Barr on Jason Witten, and Kendricks on Elliott—in the opposite slot spots. And those matchups featuring linebackers in coverage, no matter how good the defenders may be, are what quarterbacks are trained to look for.

“I kind of knew that, and at the same time I knew who they trusted in the situations,” Kendricks said. “They trusted their guys, they want their guys to make plays because those guys make plays all the time. I knew I had a little bit of action coming.”

He did indeed. Prescott didn’t hesitate, taking the shotgun snap and immediately sending the ball towards the sticks on his left. By then, though, it was too late. Kendricks had already attempted to influence Elliott outside—“I tried to do my best to give him a one-way go”—and then undercut his route.

Maybe he was guessing a little. Either way, he was right.

“I had a feeling, you’ve got to have that feeling,” Kendricks continued. “But I embraced it. And I was actually, I don't know how to say it, I was excited to try to guard him.”

And with that step on Elliott, Kendricks swatted Prescott’s pass, effectively ending the game and allowing the Vikings to take a perfectly imperfect 28–24 win back to Minneapolis.

“I can’t say we played a perfect game—we didn’t by any means,” Kendricks said. “It showed, we got scored on, and it was a close game, a lot closer than we wanted it to be. But it’s gonna be like that on the road, it’s gonna be like that in the NFL and it’s about how we finish. And everybody was into it the whole time. We just gotta grind them out sometimes and it’s never gonna be pretty. But I'm very proud of how everybody was locked in.”

Kendricks was alluding to the fact that the Vikings were outgained 443–364, but in fact this was the kind of game that Minnesota sees itself thriving in. The Vikings were able to maintain control of the pace and tenor of the game with their edge in the running game—they went for 153 yards of 36 carries, while the Cowboys finished with just 50 yards on 22 attempts. It was as if they had outlasted their opponent at the end of a 15-round fight.

When I brought that up to Kendricks, I suggested it was a reflection of their head coach, that it made them a kind of “Mike Zimmer team.”

“I like that phrase,” Kendricks said. “We're tough as nails, man. Anything people throw at us we're gonna scrap, we're gonna claw, we're gonna fight. I don't know if I can say we're that kind of team yet, we gotta finish out this season. But man today, we were that team.”

They sure were, as were the Packers and Steelers.

* * *

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THIS JUST IN: LAMAR JACKSON IS GOOD

I’ll be honest: We’re at the point where I could lead this column with Lamar Jackson every week. The Ravens quarterback has been that ridiculously good, and he was again on Sunday, with the second perfect passer rating of the season to go along with another 65 yards rushing, 47 of which came on perhaps the most spectacular quarterback run—complete with an absurd spin move—that I’ve seen probably since Michael Vick broke one off against the Vikings in 2002.

"I said to the offensive coaches on the [head]phones, 'They’ll be watching that run for decades and decades,’” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said postgame to reporters. “That’s one that everyone in the country is going to see by tomorrow afternoon.”

Jackson, by the way, is just the second quarterback in NFL history to have multiple perfect passer ratings in a single season—Ben Roethlisberger was first, in 2007—and Baltimore still has seven games left on its schedule.

So we’re going to do plenty more on him going forward. Trust me on that.

* * *

WILD WINDOW

Because we haven’t really had one of these afternoons—with a bunch of games coming to the wire at once—I decided to take notes at the end of the 1 p.m. ET window. Here’s the way that played out....

4:07 p.m. ET: Down 32–27, Ryan Tannehill finds Adam Humphries on a slant for the go-ahead touchdown against the Chiefs. Tannehill then plows through Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill for the two-point conversion, to give the Titans a 35-32 lead.

4:08 p.m. ET: Browns QB Baker Mayfield finds Rashard Higgins wide open in the back of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown to put Cleveland on top 19–16 with 1:44 left.

Higgins's score inspired a paparazzi-themed celebration.

Higgins's score inspired a paparazzi-themed celebration.

4:10 p.m. ET: Up 27–23, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray is picked off in the end zone by Bucs DB Jamel Dean.

4:13 p.m. ET: Chiefs K Harrison Butker’s 53-yard bid to pull KC even with Tennessee is blocked, salting away Tennessee’s win.

4:14 p.m. ET: With less than two minutes left, the booth in the Arizona-Tampa game calls for a review and winds up throwing a flag on the Cardinals’ Jalen Thompson for pass interference. That moves the ball from the Arizona 13 to the one-yard line, giving the Bucs first-and-goal.

4:16 p.m. ET: Bills K Stephen Hauschka misses a 53-yard field goal wide left and short, preserving the Browns win.

4:17 p.m. ET: Peyton Barber scores from the one-yard line for the Bucs, giving Tampa a 30–27 lead with 1:43 left.

4:22 p.m. ET: A pass interference call on Tampa Bay CB Vernon Hargreaves converts a fourth-and-five for the Cardinals.

4:27 p.m. ET: A last gasp heave from Murray to Pharoh Cooper is knocked away with what seemed to be interference (more on that in a bit), and the Bucs hang on to beat the Cardinals 27–23.

The most interesting thing to emerge from that set of games? The not-dead-quite-yet Browns, now 3–6 with a fairly soft schedule ahead and, amazingly enough, just two games to make up in the AFC wild-card race.

Cleveland’s margin for error is almost all gone, and they know that. But they could at least be interesting for the next few weeks after a performance that flashed some of what we, and they, thought they would be back in the summer. And yes, it sure is disappointing to coach Freddie Kitchens, his staff and his players, that it’s taken this long to see.

“We’re pretty good when people do their job and when they don’t try to do too much,” Kitchens said, driving home from FirstEnergy Stadium. ”And that’s what it comes down to: they have to be where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, and how they’re supposed to get there. And when that happens, we’re pretty good. And when it doesn’t, we’re not.”

To be sure, the win over Buffalo had its share of blemishes, too. But the team’s penalties (four for 70 yards, the bulk of which came on a 35-yard pass interference call) were way down, as were the turnovers. And best of all, when it looked like all hell might break loose, Cleveland actually kept its cool.

Austin Seibert missed an extra point after being backed up thanks to a Jarvis Landry taunting penalty following the Browns’ first touchdown. Two first-half possessions that got to the Bills one-yard line only produced three points. Baker Mayfield took a safety early in the second half that tied the game at 9–9. The Browns failed to recover a Josh Allen fumble in the fourth, and the Bills QB scored the go-ahead touchdown two plays later. And through it all, the Browns persevered.

That, to Kitchens, was indicative of a week that he felt tested his team. The Browns came off a pretty complete beatdown at the hands of the Patriots with a loss to a Denver team led by Brandon Allen, and the reaction back in Cleveland was what you’d expect from a passionate-but-beaten-to-a-pulp fan base trained to think the sky is falling.

“The narrative was so [loud] that these guys just needed to continue to work and block out the noise,” Kitchens said. “And they did a good job of that this week, and hopefully they learn from that, because—and I truly mean this—you either run toward each other and gather in a kind of circle and know that you’re in it together, or you run away and you start doing your own thing.

“Everybody, to a man, ran towards each other this week.”

That showed up in the final score. It also showed in Mayfield’s numbers. He was a steady 26 of 38 for 238 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 102.7 passer rating.

Which, when you boil it down, was probably as good a sign as any coming out of a hopeful afternoon in Cleveland.

“I told him a long time ago the head coach and the quarterback are in it together,” Kitchens said. “They’re tied together. When I catch heat, he’s gonna catch heat. When he gets credit, I get credit, all that kind of stuff. That’s just status quo across the league—in college football, too. They’re always tied together. But what you’ve seen form Baker is total resiliency, having the resolve to keep his head down and keep working.

"He’s not worried about the noise, not worried about anything other than just doing his job and trying to bring others with him. And these guys have responded.”

Landry responded with a spectacular catch for 24 yards just inside the two-minute warning to get the Browns to the Bills seven. Higgins responded two plays later by shaking his defender and getting open for the winning score. The offensive line responded too, after lineup changes the last two weeks started to take hold (Greg Robinson was benched, then came back at left tackle; Wyatt Teller was installed as the new right guard).

That’s a start. We’ll see where they take it from here.

* * *

DAN QUINN HANGING ON IN ATLANTA

The shocker of this particular Sunday wouldn’t have been such a stunner back in September. The Falcons waylaid the Saints 26–9, controlling the game from start to finish and leaving New Orleans with just their second win of the season, while handing the Saints their second loss.

So despite all that’s happened, is this still a reasonable result? I reached out to head coach Dan Quinn to talk about that and where his team is after finally stopping a pretty horrific skid. Here are some of my takeaways from our talk.

He’s just as confused as everyone else. On the surface, it does look like the Falcons have talent, and coaching, and stability, and quarterback play. Which has made this perplexing for everyone, the coach included. Can Quinn explain it? 

“I wish I could, man. It’s been the most... the most frustrating thing, maddening at times, because we’ve lost some close games. We’ve lost ones where we gave up big plays, [lost the] turnover margin, all sorts of things that fell off the mark. So tonight it was awesome to see this whole group of guys just fighting like a motherf-----r for one another. I thought that was a big piece of it.”

Raheem Morris made a difference. Quinn moved Morris, a former head coach who was raised on the defensive side, back to that side of ball last week in an effort to ramp up the communication with players. Morris had been coaching the Falcons’ receivers, but now he’s working with the defensive backs. 

“Rah made a great impact, as you knew he would. He’s one of the best communicators there is. His presence and swagger with the secondary was definitely felt. We pushed him with fresh eyes, and ability to communicate with that group and he and [defensive coordinator] Jeff Ubrich did a fantastic job with the game plan and getting that moved over to the guys. They were the front and center of it all... I just heard and felt communication at such a higher level, that was one of the things that we were going to measure to see if that improved and I felt that so clearly and cleanly tonight Rah was not backing off the communication side.”

He’s human, so he’s heard the talk about his job security. And as you’d expect, he tries not to let it consume him.

“I recognize it’s there and it’s out there,” he said. “I don’t read a lot, but people text you, ‘hang in there.’ And you're like ‘Geez, it must be bad.’ But more than anything, it's not about me. I want for the guys to have the chance to do well. I’d rather spend my time thinking about how to get it better than what if it doesn’t, so I just chose my own way to do that. Hey, I’m a big boy I recognize it’s a results business. If you don’t meet the results, there’s consequences for it. For damn sure, I’m going to fight and try to win every single matchup I can and I ain’t never tapping out. I just want to make sure the players know that.”

Looking out for the players means being consistent. At least, that’s how Quinn sees it—it’s his job to make sure they’re in the best spot to play when the bell rings. “All those things factor in on the emotional side for a player, and so I wanted to make sure, man, I'm always consistent with them and just doing the things that we can do to play winning football,” he said. “We've got some fantastic leaders here Julio [Jones], Matt [Ryan], Alex Mack, [Grady] Jarrett, you can't ask for guys who've got more grit and substance and ability to stand up when it's tough than men like that. So I don't worry about their psyche. I worry about them just continuing leading and fighting. It's been difficult. The story hasn't been told yet, the way I look at it.”

As Quinn sees it now, he and the team just started a four-game, 18-day blitz of division matchup—the Falcons play the Panthers, the Bucs and the Saints between now and Thanksgiving night. He feels like he knows what he’ll get from his players over that time, and wants to give them the same.

“I'm thankful and grateful that we've got a locker room of guys that like to fight and compete,” he said. “We just said this is a four-game block and they all happen to be division games. … So all I wanted them to lock in on was you got four games against division with the culmination onto it a Thursday night game on Thanksgiving and then we'll see where we stand. It's always fun to play in the division and so I just basically put the season and we want to find out where we'll be, check in in four weeks. … That whole road, let's go fight for it.”

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMP PICKS

As part of my midseason survey of NFL execs, I asked the guys to name a league-wide trend that’s flying under the radar, and a few gave me the gaming of the comp-pick formula at every turn. Last week another example emerged, with players released by clubs so they wouldn’t count against their 2021 comp-pick allotment.

We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, here’s an example of just how deep this goes—and of how smart teams are working it into every facet of their business. In 2018, the Eagles signed Haloti Ngata to a one-year deal worth $2.6 million. The defensive tackle got $250,000 to sign, $1.015 million in base and an outsized $1.335 million workout bonus. But the workout bonus only required him to be present for 25% of the team’s offseason program, which is way lower than the norm.

Why? Well, compensatory picks are determined by the free agents a team loses versus the free agents it signs, with the player’s salary and playing time factoring prominently in the equation. The catch was that in 2018, workout bonuses didn’t count in the formula, so teams used that as a way to pay players without the money counting against them in terms of comp picks. So with this arrangement, Ngata would get his money earlier, wouldn’t have to be present for more than just a quarter of the program, and the team would benefit in the 2019 draft.

Similarly, that March, the Bengals doled out a $2 million workout bonus to Preston Brown. The newly-signed linebacker is a native of Cincinnati, so naturally he’d be in town to hit the necessary threshold to collect the bonus. And, importantly, it wouldn’t count against the Bengals in the comp-pick formula.

The league wound up closing the loophole, but Cincinnati wound up with three comp picks (all sixth-rounders) and Philly got two (a four and a six) in the 2019 draft. And you can bet that other comp-pick conscious teams, like the Patriots, the Seahawks and especially the Ravens (the godfathers of all this), worked the system creatively like this, too.

Now, the other side of it? Not to the fault of any of these teams, who are just trying to do their best to build up capital, but players getting hit at three junctures in the calendar.

The start of the league year. Some teams sit out the beginning of free agency, when prices are high, or focus only on players who are cut (all of whom are street free agents and don’t count against the formula) at that point, to maintain their comp-pick standing. This, naturally, affects supply and demand. If a guy has three teams bidding on him rather than, say, seven, prices won’t be pushed the same way.

Early May. Two Tuesdays after the draft, in early May, is the cutoff for signings to count for or against a team’s comp-pick formula. So it’s not unusual that teams will now wait until after that date to sign a player. I heard a story this week of a team agreeing to terms on a deal for a player in mid-April, with the understanding they wouldn’t formalize the deal until after that May cutoff so it wouldn’t hurt the team in the comp-pick formula. The issue? Well, older players waiting are at risk because a) younger players could come along early in the offseason program and cause a team to get lukewarm on bringing the older guy in; and b) the older player will be behind when he arrives.

Late October. And here’s another twist to comp-pick rules – If a team signs a UFA, but drops him before Week 10, that player doesn’t count against the team’s net gain in the formula. And there’ve been clear examples of teams being very conscious of this in 2019. The Titans, for example, cut free-agent addition Brent Urban on Oct. 19. Keeping him might have cost the Ravens the fourth-rounder they had coming for losing John Brown to Buffalo in March. So what did Baltimore do? It cut special-teamer Justin Bethel, another UFA add from March. And the Ravens weren’t alone: The Eagles cut safety Andrew Sendejo this week to improve their standing in the formula.

This has only gotten worse, as you’d expect it would, after the picks became tradeable a couple years back. And as annoying for a lot of people as this may be, chances are it won’t be a big collective-bargaining sticking point. But it’s also not exactly meaningless when free agents see their market affected, veterans have to wait to find jobs, and some simply get whacked in the middle of October.

“Sendejo thinks he’s gonna be an Eagle, and gets his life turned upside down in October. That screws the player, screws his family, it screws the fans,” said one prominent agent. “I had a guy where four teams refused to make an offer til after the draft, because of this. You try to explain that to a player.”

Of course, there is a winner here. That’d be the owners, who see another way in which prices are naturally depressed, and another avenue to find guys who they an keep on cheap rookie contracts.

* * *

ALL-32

Players to watch for the 49ers tonight: Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. The two linebackers have plenty of slack to pick up with Kwon Alexander on IR, in a scheme that is predicated on its ’backers freeing the defensive line to get upfield and wreak havoc.

This is good, right? Trubisky was sacked five times, but threw for three TDs and no picks in a 20–13 win over the Lions.

This is good, right? Trubisky was sacked five times, but threw for three TDs and no picks in a 20–13 win over the Lions.

Bears QB Mitch Trubisky was just fine against the Lions (16 of 23, 173 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), and if he can be that going forward, Chicago can make a run at stealing a wild card spot.

There were plenty of statistical anomalies in the Bengals’ blowout loss to the Ravens (if you just look at the numbers, outside of the final score, this one actually looked close!). So the numbers here do lie, mostly. But Joe Mixon’s production—151 scrimmage yards on 32 touches—were no mirage. And if Cincinnati drafts a quarterback in April, this young tailback of theirs figures to be that young passer’s best friend.

Perplexing thing: The collapse of the Bills’ run defense. Philadelphia ran for 218 yards on Buffalo in Week 8, the Redskins went for 127 on the ground last week and, on Sunday, the Browns ripped through the Bills’ front for 147 rushing yards. Conversely, over Buffalo’s first six games, Sean McDermott’s crew allowed more than 110 yards just once—and even that was just 129 yards to a team (the Giants) with perhaps the most talented back (Saquon Barkley) in the game. Whatever’s wrong there, I’m sure fixing it will be the first job for the Bills this week.

The Broncos are expected to put Drew Lock, who’s been on IR with a sprained right thumb, back on the practice field this week with an eye towards activating him soon. As the Bengals have with Ryan Finley, it would make sense for Denver to get Lock some run before the end of the season, just to assess where he is for their 2020 quarterback planning, which could well include spending a high first-round pick on the position.

The Browns got Kareem Hunt back on Sunday, and they didn’t waste time getting him the ball, using him as a more than a complement to lead back Nick Chubb. Hunt got 11 touches (four carries for 30 yards; seven catches for 44 yards), and the plan is gradually feed him more. We know at this point that the idea of a platooned backfield doesn’t bother either of the guys who’ll be a part of it.

“They’re two of the most unselfish players that I have been around,” Kitchens said. “Everything they do, they do for each other and they do for the team. I’m very proud that Kareem’s continuing to work on and off the field, he’s done an excellent job of that, and I know it's made him a better person and I’d like to think it’s made him a better football player.”

Jameis Winston’s turnover issues remain, but one thing you can say about the Buccaneers’ offense with Bruce Arians pulling the levers is that he’s getting more out of everyone. Chris Godwin’s in the midst of a breakout year at receiver. Ronald Jones is no longer a bust at tailback. And on Sunday, O.J. Howard, the forgotten man in the offense, lost in the shuffle of the 2019 coaching change, came to life as you’d expect from a former top-10 pick. He finished with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in the win over Arizona.

Downside to the Cardinals’ loss in Tampa: The run game that fueled a three-game winning streak wasn’t there (75 yards as a team on 18 carries). Upside: Man, Kyler Murray throws a hell of a deep ball. Both his big shots to Christian Kirk were things of beauty. I continue to think Arizona’s got something going with Murray at the controls of Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme, and I’m not sure I’d have guessed I’d be saying that two months ago.

The Chargers’ injury luck has been pretty abysmal over the years. And I don’t have very good news on that front. Left tackle Russell Okung’s status for the Mexico City game against the Chiefs, after he suffered a groin injury against Oakland, is far from certain. Losing Okung for any extended period would be a pretty big problem. L.A. has its bye after they Kansas City a week from tonight at Estadio Azteca, so if Okung misses that one (and I think chances are, he will), he’ll get three weeks to recover for the team’s Dec. 1 game in Denver.

Patrick Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns, didn’t turn the ball over, posted a 119.2 passer rating, impossibly put his team back in position to tie the game with a field goal at the buzzer, and the Chiefs somehow still lost to the Titans. A beat-up offensive line’s issues certainly contributed to a wobbly running game, and the defense regressed after a strong outing last weekend, which is why Kansas City was left to ask its returning MVP to carry the team again. And that did lead to some fun, high-wire moments. But it also showed that the Chiefs will have to be better than this around Mahomes come January.

What an awkward spot the Colts are in with legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri. He’d done just enough to hang on through October, but has cost Indianapolis games the last two weeks (missing a game-winner in Chicago, and a PAT that prevented a game-tying field goal against the Dolphins) in a very tangible way. So do you unceremoniously dump him in midseason? I sure know what Vinatieri’s old coach would do in this spot. We’ll see if Frank Reich, Chris Ballard and Co. can be that cold-blooded. A lot is riding on it.

No pressure on the Cowboys from here on out, at 5-4. Only the coach, the quarterback and the star receiver are in contract years (remember, as is the rule, Dallas only has one franchise tag for 2020). And Dallas’ schedule from here: at Detroit, at New England, Buffalo, at Chicago, Rams, at Eagles, vs. Redskins. Chances are, if there aren’t more games to play after that, the playcalling on Dallas’ final four plays against the Vikings on Sunday night will be part of the story. And in that case, an offseason of change would probably await.

It’s gone unseen, but I can tell you the respect for the job Dolphins coach Brian Flores has done across the NFL is there. Last week, for my GamePlan column, I polled 15 execs with pro scouting backgrounds on several topics, and one was this simple question: Which coach is doing the most with the least? No fewer than four answered Flores, and that was despite the Dolphins only having a single win at that point.

One reason for the Eagles to harbor optimism that they’ll play to their potential down the stretch? They love where their first two draft picks are, and, logically, rookies should ascend as they gather experience. First-round left tackle Andre Dillard’s now got four games of experience, and he has progressively gotten better while facing, in order, Everson Griffen, Robert Quinn, Jerry Hughes and a combination of Leonard Floyd and Khalil Mack. And second-round running back Miles Sanders has eight plays of 20-plus yards in nine games, plus a 67-yard kick return. Dillard’s emergence gives the Eagles’ a nice problem to have, in managing Jason Peters’ return to the lineup, and Sanders opens up a lot of possibilities offensively. Good players now, and nice building blocks going forward.

The Falcons’ leading receiver on Sunday: Russell Gage. Their leading rusher: Brian Hill. And that was with Devonta Freeman, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper active and playing in the game. So there’s another weird fact in a really weird season for them.

Patience was going to be necessary all along in rebuilding a broken Giants roster. But it’s understandable why owner John Mara was visibly upset after yesterday’s loss. And that it came against a Jets franchise that New York’s first football team has looked down on forever didn’t help. GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur are now 7–19. Over the last three years, the Giants are 10–32. The big thing from here is gonna be showing signs of progress that’ll build hope for 2020. And seeing that specifically from Daniel Jones.

Good news for Jaguars QB Nick Foles: The group he’s returning to lead is better than the one he left behind in September. D.J. Chark has emerged as a legit primary receiver (43 catches, 692 yards, six touchdowns), and Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook bring a game-breaking element that’s become a hallmark of offenses from the Andy Reid family (of which offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is a member). Add that to a really good running game, and we’ll get a good idea of who Foles is as a QB over the next month-and-a-half.

Hard not to appreciate Jets safety Jamal Adams, and it goes past him stealing the ball from Daniel Jones like he was Gary Payton (s/o to anyone who gets 1990s NBA references). Adams brings attitude and edge, and is exactly what a franchise going through a protracted rebuild needs to keep people on board. The waters did get choppy for a few weeks—and part of that was on Adams himself—but good on GM Joe Douglas for resisting trading him for anything but a ridiculous return.

There’s a good chance that Lions QB Matthew Stafford misses another game. And based on what he’s played through in the past, and how tough he’s proven to be, that should tell you all you need to know on the severity of his back injury. Thing is, he can’t just tough this one out. It’s my understanding that playing through it isn’t about pain tolerance. It’s about the risk of re-injury, which makes whatever decision the doctors make entirely black-and-white.

I asked one staffer for the hero of the Packers’ goal-line stand against the Panthers in the snow, and he pointed me to linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who got in the backfield quickly enough to force Christian McCaffrey into the waiting arms of Preston Smith. It’s a good example of the importance of depth, too. A 2016 third-round pick, Fackrell hasn’t started a game on defense this year.

No blame whatsoever to the Panthers for the playcalling down the stretch. As much as they trusted Kyle Allen to get them down the field in crazy conditions, it made sense to give the ball to McCaffrey on the last play, even if it didn’t work out. We’ll have more on these guys, and their future, in the headlines.

I can’t remember a young player being as important to the fate of the Patriots as 2018 first-round pick/left tackle Isaiah Wynn will be coming out of the bye week. But that’s where New England was. Thanks to an Achilles injury last year, and a toe injury this year, the 22-year-old has just 82 regular-season snaps under his belt. If he can play as well as he did in those 82 snaps—and, just as important, stay healthy doing it—that’d be big for a line that’s been uncharacteristically shaky through nine games.

Raiders tailback Josh Jacobs (Offensive Rookie of the Year) was the most convincing award winner in my poll of NFL executives. And with good reason that goes well beyond the game-winning touchdown against the Chargers on Thursday night.

It’s easy to point the finger at Rams QB Jared Goff, but the offensive line is where the offense’s issues start. (The brass told us that a few weeks ago with the trade for Browns washout Austin Corbett). And, to be sure, the offense does have issues, having 19 straight possessions without getting in the end zone. Losing Joe Noteboom, a starting guard and the heir apparent for Andrew Whitworth, was a big blow, no doubt. But if that straw is all it took to break the camel’s back, the team has some work ahead—particularly after Whitworth, who turns 38 in December, retires.

Rightfully, Lamar Jackson’s getting huge credit for the Ravens’ success. And here’s the other thing he’s done: He bought time for a shaky defense to find itself, which seems to be happening now—both in how it survived New England last week and choked out Cincinnati this week. In particular, corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, edge rusher Matt Judon, tackle Brandon Williams and safety Earl Thomas have emerged for a unit that needed horses with Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle gone.

Last week, the Redskins coaches used quick-game passing, play-action and screens to protect rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins. I’d expect more of that as they try and get him some momentum coming out of the bye. The situation around him remains bleak, especially up front without tackle Trent Williams (more on that in a second).

The Saints’ skill position trio of Mike Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook combined for 300 yards from scrimmage on 31 touches and somehow the offense failed to get in the end zone once. The easy question to ask: Do they miss Mark Ingram, a red-zone force for them over the years, just a little bit right now?

My understanding is that the Seahawks are planning to give newcomer Josh Gordon 15 to 25 snaps against the Niners tonight, depending on how the game goes. Gordon has done a nice job picking up Seattle’s offense thus far. And I can tell you guys this, too: As was the case in Cleveland, a lot of the people he worked with in New England really liked Gordon personally and are rooting for him to make his newest opportunity work.

I’ve got one more piece of the Steelers’ trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick that makes the pieces fit together even better. Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert is connected all over both the NFL and college football, so he values his relationships and the information that comes from them. A scout texted this to me on Sunday: “Just odd to get on board with any type of plan that trades dudes like Minkah 12 months after everyone told the Dolphins how good the draft pick was. Key word is ‘dude’—he’s like the most revered guy to come out of Bama in years. … [Nick] Saban holds that dude in high regard.” That Colbert would value that kind of intel, or put stock in it, wouldn’t be a surprise in the least. And it seems as if that just what he did.

The Texans have the NFL’s fourth-ranked run game, and this is another area where you can credit Bill O’Brien, the personnel man. Houston was criticized for trading capital for running backs—the Texans gave up a third-round pick for Duke Johnson, and lineman Martinas Rankin for Carlos Hyde—but it’s paid off in a big way. The Texans went into the opener with two backs who’d never played a game for them. Since then, Hyde has rushed for 704 yards and three touchdowns, and Johnson for 287 yards and a score, in addition to 22 catches for another 228 yards and two more touchdowns. And as they see it, the position’s been hugely upgraded over where it was last year, which, of course, brings different context to the pick and backup lineman they shipped off.

Say what you want, Mike Vrabel’s Titans certainly aren’t hurting for identity. It was there with Ryan Tannehill sticking his nose in and driving through Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill for the final two points in a 35–32 win. And it absolutely was apparent in the 23-carry, 188-yard effort from Tennessee’s battleship of a bellcow, Derrick Henry.

Credit to Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph for continuing to reinvent himself as a player. He’s improved as a blocker, which has helped him stick around for the big plays he made on Sunday night. And I certainly know the organization values him beyond what he brings on the field, which is part of why he’s still around after an offseason in which Minnesota took trade calls on him.

***

TOP FIVE

1. Pass interference rule is still a mess. We’re 10 weeks in now, and situations like the one we saw at the end of the Cardinals-Bucs game are still happening. First, the Cardinals staff was told the booth review that led to a PI penalty on Arizona safety Jalen Thompson that wasn’t called on the field was, in essence, a flag being thrown by the command center in New York—and that was something the coaches on the field hadn’t seen before. It moved the ball from the Arizona 13 to the one, setting up the Bucs’ game-winning touchdown. 

Seven plays later, on the final snap of the game, Kyler Murray threw a prayer deep to receiver Pharoh Cooper. As the ball sailed towards Cooper, Bucs safety Jamel Dean ran right into Cooper’s back. No call, no review. No explanation to the Arizona staff. Game over. 

I’m not saying either of these situations would’ve changed the result. One would have led to the Bucs being in third-and-10 from the Cardinals’ 13, the other would’ve given Arizona a shot at tying the game with a field goal. What I am saying is that this whole thing has been a mess of inconsistency, which has led to confusion among the coaches. In fact, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I might think that the league could be sabotaging a system it didn’t want in the first place. But instead of going there, let’s hope the coaches get what they really wanted all along in 2020: the implementation of a Sky Judge. I can say there are members of the competition committee ready to reprise the idea ahead of the Senior Bowl in January. And to me, that can’t come soon enough.

2. Mitchell Schwartz’s snaps streak comes to an end. You may not know this, but Joe Thomas’ ridiculous snaps streak—he was in on 10,363 consecutive plays over an 11-season stretch—started as a friendly competition among Browns linemen to see who could keep theirs going the longest. Center Alex Mack had his end at 5,189 snaps in October 2014. Thomas’ ended in October 2017, on what wound up being the final play of his illustrious career. And Schwartz’s ended Sunday at 7,894, when the Chiefs right tackle went down with a knee injury. Mack called to check in on Schwartz later on Sunday, and Schwartz was waiting to hear from Thomas (though he saw some nice things Thomas said on Twitter). For the three of them, it was fun while it lasted, but it also did carry real meaning to Schwartz.

“It meant a lot,” Schwartz said, via text. “Just always being available for your teammates and healthy enough to be out there with them. We don’t have many counting stats, but starts and snaps are a couple important ones for an OL, the old ‘durability is more important than ability’ cliche. But it came to an end today, although fortunately I was able to finish the game and play the second half. Which was pretty crazy itself!”

3. The Panthers QB situation. With Cam Newton on injured reserve, there are two things that, in my mind, will be important going forward with an uncertain 2020 looming. First, outside of owner David Tepper, we don’t know for sure who’ll be calling the shots there next year. Tepper now has over a year under his belt, and certainly could make changes at different levels of the organization. He’s kept his intentions close to the vest, but he didn’t hire many of the top football people in the organization. And there’s certainly been speculation that he could dip into the Steelers well (he was a minority owner there before buying the Panthers) and try and lure Colbert away, or leverage his relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft to hire New England-connected people. (The Panthers talked to ex-Patriots character coach Jack Easterby about a job last year.) The bottom line is, if you don’t know who’s going to be running the place, it’s hard to predict what happens with the quarterback. 

Second, Newton’s making a very reasonable $21.1 million next year. So if Carolina wants to kick the can down the road, it can. Stay tuned on this one.

4. As the Redskins turn. The Trent Williams situation remains at a standstill. The union has made a determination or gotten direction from Williams’ camp on whether they’ll fight the team placing him on NFI (the non-football injury list), which allows the Redskins not to pay him. The NFI has long been the bane of the players’ existence. Teams can put players on it for things like injuring themselves lifting away from the team facility, freeing the team of any obligation to those players. And Williams isn’t the only Redskin caught in the mess that 2019 has become in DC. QB Colt McCoy is another who’ll likely never suit up for the team again. Seen as “Jay Gruden’s guy”, it’s widely known in the locker room that McCoy is playing out the string and, barring a complete emergency situation, won’t get into another game this year, in part because he was close with the now-fired coach. Which, of course, seems like a great way to make a decision on personnel.

5. The Ravens' offense keeps evolving. The idea of putting two quarterbacks on the field—as the the Ravens did on Sunday, with Robert Griffin alongside Lamar Jackson and opposite Mark Ingram—is pretty fascinating, and something that’s infiltrated lower levels of football in the recent past. If you want more on that, google the A-11 offense and check out some of the stuff that pops up out of California high schools. At the very least, the simple fact that Baltimore put Griffin and Jackson on the field at same time will force defensive coordinators to burn some time they could be using elsewhere thinking about all the possibilities. And there are many.

* * *

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

I feel like this isn’t going away for a while.

So you should probably get used to it.

This would be the issue—it shouldn’t be this inconsistent. Not on plays this critical, and not in 2019 with the technology we have.

And here’s more to get mad over.

That one’s just ridiculous.

Who said Jon Gruden couldn’t coach?

I used to think this was true, when I was like 12. I don’t anymore (unless Ohio State is involved).

Yup.

Lamar can rock whatever he wants to rock on the sideline.

... And this right here is why.

Fair.

Since I had to see it you do too.

And to wrap up... best of part of this is that the bus is actually called The Struggle Bus... a term used in settings such as, “the day after this.”

* * *

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. Oklahoma and Baylor scored close wins (against Iowa State and TCU), making Saturday’s game in Waco an immense one for both—and for the Big 12’s collective playoff hopes. NFL types will have their eyes on it, too, with a pair of coaches who will, without question, elicit interest from the pro ranks in December and January. So would Lincoln Riley or Matt Rhule be a better hire? I hit up a few execs who know those schools well, and the response was actually closer than I thought. 

One who picked Rhule said, “I think Matt has shown the ability to build a program from the ground up with multiple types of kids, personalities. I don’t think if you chose one, you’re anti-the other. Both are very well-respected. Matt Rhule is seen as a program-builder, Lincoln Riley is seen as an offensive guru. It’s a personal preference.”

Another, who picked Riley, offered this: “Obviously it depends on the roster. Both are very good for different reasons, but I’d lean to Lincoln because of his offensive acumen and his ability to communicate and work with different personalities at QB, and his love for his players.”

In case you wanna check it out, that one’s set for primetime: 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC this Saturday.

joe-burrow-lsu-alabama

2. How much did Joe Burrow help himself by throwing for 393 yards and three touchdowns in LSU’s 46-41 win over Alabama? Significantly, I’d say. Generally, when scouts are looking at non-Bama SEC prospects, particularly ones on offense, the first tape they’ll pull out will be the Alabama game. And yes, the Tide defense is really young, and a little down, but Burrow acquitted himself incredibly well. Here’s the QBR allowed for the first eight starting quarterbacks the Tide faced: 23.3, 16.9, 40.3, 30.7, 34.8, 52.4, 48.3, 3.8. And the Burrow’s: 91.9. So there’s that, plus how he handled the stage, all of which makes that win a gigantic one not only for Burrow now, but also looking towards April.

“I would say, now the conversation shifts to, What more do ya need to see?” texted one AFC exec. “I think the fact that you can check the ice-in-veins box, the tough-ass-dude-in-the-heat-of-battle type thing would be huge for me If we were in the market to draft him.”

3. And I still think Tua Tagovailoa takes a hit after the loss, even if he performed admirably at less than 100%. His durability has been in question among NFL scouts, and injury management is a big deal in the league for quarterbacks. It’s staying healthy, but it’s also your ability to play hurt. To me, and the last few weeks add to this, it’ll be the most significant question facing Tagovailoa heading into the spring.

4. I don’t know if P.J. Fleck’s rah-rah style would ever be fit for the NFL. I do know he’s done a heck of a job at two places (Western Michigan and now Minnesota).

5. If anyone wants to know how good business is in the sport, just look up how much it cost Arkansas and Florida State to fire Chad Morris and Willie Taggart, respectively, before either had a shot to finish his second season. And keep an eye on these, too. The success of Joe Brady as LSU’s OC, after he was hired off Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans, could lead college programs to take more than a cursory look at some smart NFL assistants.

6. You want to know how much the NCAA situation is going to affect Chase Young’s stock? Just look at how much his ex-Ohio State teammate, Nick Bosa, saw his draft position dinged by making the decision to leave school after suffering a serious core-muscle injury last September. Young will take roughly the same hit Bosa did.

***

Shaquill Griffin (left) says playing with his twin, Shaquem, is "insane."

Shaquill Griffin (left) says playing with his twin, Shaquem, is "insane."

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, talked to budding Seattle star cornerback Shaquill Griffin, whose Seahawks are taking on the undefeated 49ers...

MMQB: So do you guys approach this as a big game, or is it just another week?

SG: Nah, our mindset would be it’s just another week. Every game should be a big game. And that should be any person’s mindset. We’re not coming to play down or play up to any team. It’s the next game. It’s a big game because it’s next game. At the end of the day, it’s just another game, another opportunity to be great. It’s a championship opportunity—that’s something we say around here a lot.

MMQB: What’s the biggest challenge going against a Kyle Shanahan-coached offense?

SG: His playcalling. I feel like his best thing is being able to adjust to different types of situations. Just looking at film, the things they’ve done this year, you see things most teams won’t do. There are a lot of new things we haven’t seen yet. I gotta take my hat off to that, calling the plays that he’s calling, and being able to adjust on the run. They’ve been in some tight situations, he’s made it work. We definitely have respect for him.

MMQB: The numbers say you’re a much better player than you were last year. Is that the truth?

SG: I think it’s true. I feel better than I did last year, I can definitely say that. The plays I feel like I should’ve made last year I’m starting to make now. And I have way, way more confidence than I did last year, how I feel, my body, how I’m play, being able to run longer, run faster, and being able to cover any receiver I go against. I feel a lot better. So I’m glad the numbers are starting to show it. … I’m definitely more confident.

MMQB: What made you more confident?

SG: I feel like the main thing that made me more confident is just how I feel on the field. It’s just a feeling when you know you’re gonna be able do anything, make any play you need to make for the team. And that came from me losing the weight I needed to lose last year. I was playing around 212 my second year [in 2018], now I’m around 195. I feel a lot better, I can run a lot faster, I can run a lot longer. I can play all four quarters and not miss a beat. That’s where the confidence came from.

MMQB: Who told you to lose weight? Where the idea come from?

SG: The idea was it was something I wanted to do for myself. I had my speed last year, but I felt like I was struggling just to pull it around. I could sit here for a half and run fast as I could, and then in the third, fourth quarter, I’d be fatigued, I’d be dying out. My legs started to get heavy, I made it tough on myself carrying all that weight.

MMQB: Anything significant for you in going up against Richard Sherman?

SG: I never really thought about going up against a guy like that. I think I’ll be more happy to see him than comparing myself in that game. But I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on him during the game, for sure, seeing a brother that was here once before, to see him in action.

MMQB: Was he helpful when you were teammates your rookie year?

SG: Oh yeah, it’s hard to explain just how helpful he was. You could put it in words, the things he told me, but it was so much more, just being that guy he took under his wing. All the information he learned over the years, passing it on to me, that’s huge, because that’s not their job. They don’t get paid to take a young guy under their wing. It was an honor to play with a guy like that.

MMQB: Best piece of advice he gave you?

SG: Just stay true to myself. It goes by fast, and at the end of the day, so many things are gonna change, all you gotta do is stay true to yourself, stay true to who you are and play your game. That was the biggest thing. Going into my second year, I let that slip my mind, and I definitely brought it back this year.

MMQB: I did notice that you’re having this great year but you don’t have a pick....

SG: Oh, I’ve thought about that a lot. Most definitely, I’ve thought about that a lot. But I don’t want to get to the point where I feel like I gotta get a pick, and then I’m jumping plays I shouldn’t be jumping. It’s like the coaches tell me, just let it come, and when it’s your time, it will. So I’m believing in that. I’m believing in that. I’m gonna trust that. And when it’s my time to get that pick, I’m gonna make sure I make the best of it. Hopefully I can get in the end zone with it.

MMQB: Best thing about playing with your twin brother, Shaquem?

SG: Just having someone around you 24/7. We’re living in the same house now. And you have those days where it gets tough, long days. To be able to go through things like that with your brother, he can pick you up whenever, it just feels good to have somebody who truly has your back no matter what. No matter what the situation, I know for sure I always have him. And that’s the best feeling. And now, just seeing the progress he’s making on the field and off the field, becoming more of a vet and a leader, especially in that special teams room, the things he’s overcoming, the things he’s doing, it’s awesome to see him grow.

MMQB: You have to be aware of how rare this is.

SG: It’s kind of insane. When people ask me, it’s hard to put it in words. It’s almost like a fairy tale. Things like that usually don’t happen. We’re living a dream right now, and we know that. Hopefully, we don’t wake up any time soon, because I’m definitely enjoying it.

* * *

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Today is Veteran’s Day, and that gives us all a good chance to thank the military people among our friends and family for everything they do. The NFL community has plenty of guys like that too, from veterans of foreign wars like Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva to active-duty soldiers like Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona.

Best to all of them, and all of you out there who serve. Here’s hoping you feel the love and appreciation we all have for you on this particular day, and every day.

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