MMQB: How Week 4 Tested the NFL's COVID-19 Protocols and What Happens Next?

This week saw games postponed, facilities closed, a false positive on the road and more. Here's what it all means for the 2020 season. Plus, how the Vikings and Saints responded to COVID-19 scares, Tom Brady came alive, the Colts' defense is great and a Q&A with Aaron Jones.
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The NFL has done a really good job managing COVID-19, and the work it did in conjunction with the union in June and July has paid huge dividends. The two months from the start of camp through Week 3 was proof of that.

And the last week? It showed that this bubble-less system is still far from perfect.

We still got plenty of Week 4 action, to be sure. But the game between the 3–0 Titans and 3–0 Steelers didn’t happen, and won’t for another three weeks. The Chiefs-Patriots showdown hasn’t been played yet, and when it is—pending no more positive tests, at 7:05 p.m. ET Monday, as part of a thrown-together MNF doubleheader—it will be with Brian Hoyer starting at quarterback for New England. On top of that, a false positive late Saturday night threw a third game, Saints-Lions, into doubt as the country woke up for its football Sunday.

This was not a good week for the NFL. Roughly a quarter of the league had games tossed into some level of doubt, thanks to positive COVID-19 tests, as pro football navigated its equivalent to baseball’s situation with the Marlins early in the MLB season.

And yet, in reality, this is probably what everyone should’ve expected all along. From the start, it was obvious the decision to stay outside of a bubble would create challenges that even the most stringent protocols wouldn’t eliminate. It was easier during camp, with guys logging 12-hour workdays. Once that was over, those days shortened and the variables multiplied—people’s kids went back to school, wives went back to work, etc.

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So if you assumed what happened this week was inevitable, the next question was always going be, What’s next?

“There's still a lot of information to come, but I think something that we've affirmed this week is that this is a very tough virus that is highly contagious,” the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, told me late Sunday. “We've said all along that this is a tough opponent—this is hard—and that we know that we're going to have positive cases occur, and we have to work really hard to try to prevent spread.

“I think in that sense, the events of the week are something we've been anticipating, and it's what we've built our protocols around. What we do learn, and the new information that we gain from the review of the situation with each of these teams, will help us to continue to improve those protocols as we go along."

It’s been a wild 24 hours, and over that time we’ve had calls for bubbling the league, pausing the season or reevaluating everything altogether.

Meanwhile, the NFL did what it’s done since the virus started spreading throughout the United States in March. It stayed the course. And on Sunday, that meant playing a dozen games, setting up for two more on Monday night and juggling the schedule in a way that’ll eliminate any margin for error with two teams that figure to be playing important games all the way into the new year.

I was at my kid’s hockey practice on Saturday morning, and a bunch of dads who have kids that play with my son asked me what I thought would happen. My answer was similar to the one I gave people in July: I don’t know.

Really, how could you?

***

I promise we have a lot of football coming in this week’s MMQB—and I won’t be offended if you want to scroll past the COVID-19 stuff to get to it. If you do, you’ll find more on …

• How the Vikings managed to score their first win after a hectic week.

• The way that false positive messed with the Saints’ Sunday.

• Tom Brady’s second-half bludgeoning of the Chargers.

• The elite unit that no one is talking about.

But we’re starting with where the 2020 season stands now that the coronavirus has sunk its teeth into the schedule.

•••

We’re going to start with a quick recap of where things stand across the NFL. Here’s everything in a nutshell.

• The Titans have had 17 positive tests over a 10-day period and have registered positive tests on six consecutive days. This started with positive tests to practice squad CB Greg Mabin and outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen last Thursday and Friday. The team’s traveling party was tested that Saturday and came back clean the Sunday morning of Week 3, clearing everyone to play and coach. Subsequent tests Monday turned up eight positives on Tuesday morning. Around 5:15 a.m. ET on Tuesday morning, Tennessee shut down its facility.

• Tuesday was the first of the six straight days of positive tests. The league, sources say, also found abnormally high contact tracing numbers in the Titans’ data, hastening an investigation into the team’s handling of the protocols. That review launched Friday, with NFL and NFLPA officials arriving in Nashville to look into questions over the team’s practices on COVID-19.

• Patriots QB Cam Newton and Chiefs practice-squad QB Jordan Ta’amu turned up positive on Saturday morning—those tests were taken Friday. The Patriots had a team meeting that morning at 8 a.m., then called a second team meeting at 10:45 a.m. to send the players home and tell them to sit tight. The Chiefs held a team meeting and walkthrough, then sent their players home. By midday, both teams’ facilities were shut down for the weekend.

• The Patriots’ plan to fly to K.C. on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, obviously, was scrapped as a result. The league, union and teams worked through scenarios—with the NFL wanting players to clear two days of PCR and point-of-care testing before the Patriots traveled. That meant the earliest the Patriots could travel would be Monday morning.

• The NFL and NFLPA had previously decided against having day-of-game travel amid the pandemic. But playing Tuesday would’ve put the Chiefs in a tough spot—with a Thursday game looming in Week 6 (which would have meant three games in 10 days). So the league and teams made the exception here, allowing for the Patriots to travel Monday morning and play at 7:05 p.m. ET on Monday night, pending continued negative tests.

• Meanwhile, late Saturday night, the Saints got word that fullback Michael Burton’s PCR test from Saturday morning had come back positive. The lab reran the test, it came back negative and Burton took a point-of-care test that also came back negative. So he, and the Saints, were cleared to play in Detroit on Sunday.

Now, for what’s next.

***

To me, the most fascinating part of this whole thing, and the league’s handling of the situation, has been this—there’s a segment of the public, and the press, that really, really believes these guys shouldn’t be playing, for the sake of their own health. And the players themselves badly want to play, even now.

When I asked one Chiefs player on Sunday how he felt about playing, he didn’t hesitate.

“Fine,” he said. “I know it’s a small sample of one, but Minnesota wasn’t affected by the other team having it [the Titans in Week 3]. We’ll test tomorrow and if we’re all clear, I don’t see why there would be any worries [beyond what’s normal]. … We’re still in a hotel tonight like normal so I think guys will get back on track tonight. New England getting off a plane, driving 35 minutes to Arrowhead, then playing seems like much more of a changeup than whatever we have to deal with.”

“We’d much rather play [Monday] than Tuesday or make it up during our bye week,” said a Chiefs staffer. “I don’t get the feeling our players feel [concerned]. Our guys have done a pretty good job following the protocol.”

On the flip side, some Patriots players were a little spooked on Saturday morning. And the fact that the team will be taking two planes to Missouri on Monday—one with Newton’s close contacts (there were around 20) and one with all other personnel—has to be unsettling.

But one player hit me with his coach’s famous line, “It is what it is,” before acknowledging that this was always likely to be someone’s reality.

“Pretty crazy,” he texted. “Have to be ready to go through all of it. I figured something like this would happen this year. Never thought it’d be our team, but that’s the NFL in 2020.”

This sentiment—that the players want to play, even after all this—puts us right in the place we were in the summer. The next question: Will they be able to?

***

In talking to Sills, travel came up a few different times. There was one particular nugget he gave me that I thought was interesting—it relates back to the contact tracing devices all team employees have to wear (either as lanyards or bracelets)—that was raised as a big concern coming out of this week.

“One of the things we've been focusing on a lot over the last week is travel,” Sills said. “And specifically, we've gone back and looked at data that we have from the Kinexon proximity-tracking devices. And we recognized vulnerabilities in regard to airplane and bus travel. We've actually done calls with all 32 teams with some specific findings and some specific suggestions about additional ways to mitigate risk while traveling.

“We've already seen teams employ some of those recommendations. Certainly, based on the knowledge from the current situation, we'll have some additional recommendations that we can pass along."

Now, Sills emphasized that the league was already working to patch some of the holes in the contact tracing. Here’s the example he used to explain that to me: If a club had teammates who were roommates and one roommate tested positive, and the other didn’t come up in his contact tracing, he would still be considered a close contact. Point being, they’re not relying solely on the device.

But it’s a hole, and it shows that none of this is 100% perfect. And another place where that shows up, of course, is in the testing, and this week’s timeline underlines that—with the Titans players and coaches having passed tests before traveling to Minnesota, only to encounter an outbreak within their ranks upon returning to Nashville.

“What this shows is we can never become complacent and think, ‘Well, everyone's tested negative, so we're all O.K.,'” Sills said. “We've said all along, we should behave as if someone has COVID-19 around us at all times. That's really kind of the golden rule of prevention. Because if you do that, you're going to keep yourself safe. And I think this even goes back to maybe a discussion that was popular last weekend, which is, 'Why are you making these coaches wear face coverings on the sideline?' This is why. Just because everyone tested negative, you can't assume that someone's not infected in the team environment.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the protocols aren’t getting better, or that new ideas won’t continue to be implemented. They will be. And that’s where Sills and I went next, hitting a few topics that should paint a picture of the next couple months.

Enhanced tracing. One area that Sills was optimistic about was in genetic sequencing. Because I’m no doctor, it took some dumbing down for me to get it—but in essence, this is a way of detecting a fingerprint for each infection, which can allow you to figure out if people have the same strain, which tells you if there’s a likelihood they got it from one another.

In this case, once genetic sequencing is available to the NFL, the Titans could in theory figure out if the people who tested positive last week got it from Mabin or Bowen.

“Did every single one of those cases have that same exact fingerprint?” Sills said. “That obviously would strongly suggest that you passed it from one person to another. On the other hand, if you find that there are three or four different strains of the virus, now you may be looking not just at one person that infected a number of individuals. ... Again, it's never going to be 100% perfect, but it at least allows you to have a little bit more information.”

Rapid testing. The PCR testing still takes almost a day to turn around, which creates another layer of margin for error, on top of the incubation period. And I know the NFL’s initial decision to go with the PCR testing over the summer was because it was far more accurate. But the rapid testing’s gotten better. So, I asked Sills if the NFL was getting closer to the point where it would use rapid testing for its daily screening, over PCR tests.

“We still have concerns about the sensitivity and the specificity of that test,” Sills said. “We continue to look at it in conjunction with our own data. Because, again, remember that we are using it. We are using it for certain situations, and in doing so, we're continuing to gain experience and to see where it can be helpful and where it has limitations. But right now, we would state that we believe the PCR remains the most sensitive, the most specific and the most reliable for our day-to-day testing.

“I think I've said to you before, also, we expect point-of-care testing to continue to improve, to continue to get better. There are always new test methodologies that are developing. And we and others will continue to get more experience with it. But right now, today, I think we're comfortable with the role that we have for point-of-care testing."

Traveling and bubbling. I asked Sills if the Titans’ situation after last Saturday’s travel influenced the NFL’s decision not to let the Patriots travel this Saturday. Interestingly, he said the decision actually came down to the tracing: “In this case, it was felt at the time of the initial positive test that there were a very large number of close contacts."

Sills said that was an example of how every decision made on travel (and he emphasized these aren’t just NFL decisions; they’re made in consultation with a panel of infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists) is made on a case-by-case basis. So then I asked if, in an effort to make everything more uniform, he’d be in favor of moving teams into hotels to create mini-bubbles in every NFL city.

“As of this point today, no, I would not … for several reasons,” Sills said. “One is I think that we have a very long season. You're talking about a period of four months. That's an extremely long time to keep people sequestered away. And I think beyond the infectious disease considerations, you have to think about the mental behavior and health and emotional considerations of keeping people sequestered for that length of time. And I think that's a very important point that people often don't consider.

“Secondly, it's not being sequestered together that keeps you safe. Because in any hotel or locked-down environment, you're still going to have people coming in and out of that environment. You're going to have food service workers and support staff and security staff. So there is still going to be vulnerability to the virus. … In some ways I would tell you you're actually at higher risk if you do get someone infected, and you've got people clustered together in one spot.”

***

And that brought me to really my central question for Sills: Are you less confident than you were a week ago that the season will be completed?

“No,” Sills said. “I still remain confident in the protocols that we have in place. And I remain confident in the systems that we have set up. I think that what we've said consistently is this is going to be very hard. And so we've expected all along that we'd have positive cases. Obviously, I'm distressed that we had an outbreak within a team, just like anybody is. And we want to always avoid those outbreaks.

“And most importantly, I'm upset as a physician for the individuals who contracted the virus. Because you never want to see anyone with that virus, and we know that that has implications beyond each individual, to their family members and their household members. So upset and distressed, yes. Lack of confidence, no.”

With that, Sills wanted to make a point.

“I’ll tell you one more thing, Albert, and I don't think we've said this directly … At every point starting Tuesday morning when the results came in, every conversation I had with the commissioner and with all of our leadership at the NFL has been centered around only one thing, and that is what is the best thing to do medically,” he said. “No one has ever brought up game schedule, television schedule, playoff implications.

“Those conversations have not been a part of the main focus, which is what do we think is the safest thing to keep not only each individual and team, but the entire league, safe. So I think it's important to recognize that and say that has to be our North Star going forward.”

So the league goes forward. The Chiefs and Patriots play Monday at 7:05 p.m. ET, the Packers and Falcons at 8:50 p.m. ET, and the Bears and Bucs just three days after that.

The reality is, this is how the NFL has operated since March. More measures will be put in place on Monday to curb violations of the protocols, when the league has coaches, GMs and executives on a conference call. But the train will keep moving.

Will it work? All along, I’ve thought it was O.K. to answer the question like I did at my kid’s hockey practice the other day, and I still feel that way.

My answer is simple. I don’t know.

***

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THE SAINTS' SCARE

The weirdest situation of all this weekend might’ve been what confronted the Saints.

Coming off consecutive losses for the first time since Weeks 1 and 2 of the 2017 season, New Orleans arrived in Detroit on Saturday afternoon facing a critical Sunday, at 1–2 and suddenly chasing Tom Brady and the Bucs in the NFC South, despite having beaten them in the season opener. And then, late into the night, news filtered through the team hotel that Burton’s last PCR test, taken Saturday morning in Louisiana, had returned positive.

Stressful? Probably, as long as you were awake for that.

"I woke up to a lot of text messages from people,” Emmanuel Sanders said, over his cell on the way to the airport after Sunday’s game. “The first couple things that I read was, ‘It's canceled,’ and then they changed their mind as they went. Then I saw—I got the ESPN app on my phone—that it said the game was going to be played. So after I saw that, I was like, 'What has occurred? What has occurred?'”

And for Sanders, there was another twist.

"Actually, I was sitting next to [Burton] yesterday at dinner, we were talking,” he said. “And so, when I first read that, I was like, ‘What the hell? I was just sitting next to this dude.’ But then when I saw it was a false positive, I was kind of excited about that, that I didn't have anything to worry about.”

If it seems like Sanders did O.K. taking all this in stride—after sleeping through the initial news hit—it sure was reflected in his play. And eventually his whole team’s play, too.

Just as the Saints’ start at Ford Field illustrated a team a little discombobulated, their flourish thereafter showed one that was resilient, and determined to pull itself off the mat after prime-time losses to the Raiders and Packers. After falling behind 14–0 in the game’s first five minutes, with Detroit touchdowns sandwiching a Drew Brees pick (intended for Sanders, no less), New Orleans shook off the cobwebs to rattle off 35 straight points.

They had to hang on at the end—they won 35–29—but they went to Detroit with a lot to prove. And given the circumstances, may have proven even more than that.

"I mean, we didn't blink,” Sanders said. “Even when we were down 14, I knew we were going to be able to come back, because I know who's at quarterback and I know what kind of players we've got. So we just took it one play at a time, drove down, cut the lead to seven. Then we got the ball back and were able to tie the game. Once we tied it up, I knew it was a wrap. I don't really like how we finished, I felt like we could've kept our foot on their necks.

“But at the end of the day a win is a win. And it's hard to win in this league. So we'll add that to the win column and try to improve next week."

So the first thing you take from this one, for the Saints, is what they went through to get that win.

From there, talking to Sanders, there were two other big points. One was the obvious—the team has heard its quarterback questioned plenty over the last few days. And this isn’t Sanders’s first rodeo with that sort of thing. He was in Denver down the stretch of Peyton Manning’s career, and remembers that, and this isn’t all that different.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter,” Sanders said. “And being in the National Football League so long, one thing I understand about this league is every week’s a wild week with the talk, with the fans, with the media. One week, they’re saying you're the greatest thing since oxygen. Then you lose and they say you don’t have it no more. Then you come back and you throw for five touchdowns, and they say, ‘Oh, he’s still got it.’

“At the end of the day, that's just how it is. The week is going to be like a rollercoaster. At the end of the year, we just want to be holding that Lombardi Trophy, we don't really worry about the outside noise, that's all we're focused on.”

The second piece is just as interesting to me. The Saints have been without Michael Thomas since early in the Week 1 game against Tampa, leaving them a little out of sorts offensively. Sanders is new. Promising third-year man Tre’Quan Smith’s role has grown. And all that was an adjustment.

The hope is that, Sunday, a corner was turned. Sanders had six catches for 93 yards and told me he felt like Sean Payton was starting to scheme for him. “I could just feel that he was trying to get the ball in my hands, and that felt good,” he said. “The previous games, I can't say that I felt that.” Smith scored twice on four catches (for 54 yards). And Brees, after his game-opening pick, went 19-of-24 for 246 yards and those two scores.

Now, the thought goes, Thomas should return to an offense with more balance around him.

“You’re talking about the best receiver in the world, in my opinion, getting him back,” Sanders said. “With me and Tre'Quan, getting our confidence up to be able to catch passes, I just feel like it's going to make for an even more lethal offense.”

So maybe the Saints have finally found their stride in a most unusual way. Regardless, Sanders said the lesson from the scare overnight into game day was clear.

“Just seeing the reports that Cam has it and the Titans have it, all the shenanigans that's going on, that's enough reminder for me,” he said. “The goal is to try to get through a whole season. We all knew it was going to be challenging. Right now, we're facing those challenges. Hopefully it gets better. I don't know if it will. We're going to take it one game by one game and see how it goes, see if we can grab the championship at the end of it.”

***

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THE VIKINGS MAKE NO EXCUSES

And the Vikings’ situation going into Sunday wasn’t totally unlike what the Saints were facing. Minnesota entered Week 4 at 0–3 and faced a COVID-19 challenge, too.

The difference is, the Vikings’ challenge surfaced at the start of the week, not at the end.

Minnesota, you’ll remember, played Tennessee last Sunday. So news of the Titans’ outbreak landing on Tuesday morning necessitated the Vikings closing their building for 48 hours, which threw their work week into a blender. Tuesday was already the players’ day off, but is always a big game-planning day for coaches, and losing the ability to do anything in person on Wednesday wasn’t going to be easy on anyone.

Sunday’s game in Houston may well have been the biggest game on the schedule. Two teams that won playoff games last year came in at 0–3, with the knowledge that the last 0–4 team to make the playoffs was the 1992 Chargers. Thirty-year-old receiver Adam Thielen was all of 2 years old when Stan Humphries led San Diego on that epic run. So, even with the expanded playoff field this year, the stakes were pretty clear.

“I think guys didn't look at it as a negative situation,” Thielen said. “They just kind of took it as a positive and took care of their bodies, locked into the virtual meetings that we had Wednesday. And then just took it upon themselves to prepare and do what each individual needs to do to be successful. The coaches as well, not making excuses, not worrying about what's happening, focusing on what we could control.

“And I think they did such a great job of just kind of grinding and making it work.”

Vikings 31, Texans 23 is good evidence of that. That Minnesota, after all that, hung on in the end, is an even better illustration of it.

Mike Zimmer’s crew needed an overturn of a Will Fuller touchdown (they got it) on a fourth-and-goal with 1:12 to go to seal the win—the officials determined Fuller didn’t have control of the ball before it hit the ground, as he stretched out to keep his feet in-bounds. But in the end, really, how competitively the Vikings played throughout, and on that play, wound up delivering the win.

And, in a funny way, Thielen explained that the upside-down-ness of the week actually might’ve helped his group.

Remember what Thielen said about taking it as a positive? There’s a story to that too. Back in the spring, as a lot of other teams did, the Vikings helped their guys set up home gyms and recovery equipment at their houses, so they could stay in the sort of shape they needed to. In the process, Thielen wound up with a pretty sweet setup at his house. So in addition to getting extra classroom work in, he got to fit in a workout, and then tried to recharge his batteries, and mitigate the three weeks of game wear and tear on his body.

“Sometimes you've got to go run a little bit and move around just to work out some of the kinks from the week before,” Thielen said. “And then when you’re in those meetings, taking advantage of being at home and being on a computer so you can put the NormaTecs on and get in the sauna, things like that. And still preparing, you kind of kill two birds with one stone of taking care of your body. That was the positive of that, for sure."

He wasn’t the only one. This, he said, was a team-wide thing. And as a result, with the coaches treating the week like they would the lead-up to a Thursday night game, the Vikings got a strong full-speed day in Thursday, walked through Friday and Saturday, and had the legs to go four quarters Sunday.

“It just helps you be fresh and go out there and play fast and physical," he said.

That showed up in the Vikings outrushing the Texans 162-96, which set up Kirk Cousins (16-for-22, 260 yards, one TD) to be his most efficient, and put Thielen (eight catches, 114 yards) and Justin Jefferson (four catches, 103 yards) in a spot to star, and had the defense ready to push back when it matter most in the fourth quarter.

The result: Now the Vikings, finally, have something to build on.

“The first one's always the toughest one, so I think that's No. 1,” Thielen said. “Just getting out of the hole. And then, there's a lot of things throughout the game that we've been kind of needing. To win football games, you've got to play team ball. And we haven't had a whole lot of team football before today. There's a lot of things we can build on. Obviously, there's still things we need to work on and fix.

“It's a lot easier to do that when you win, so you can go be critical and still have some joy.”

And like Sanders said he and the Saints would, Thielen’s taking some reinforcement from this week on the COVID-19 front.

“When things are going so well, you tend to say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Because it's different, you know? It's a lot,” Thielen said. “But at the end of the day, we know they're trying to protect us and our families and the coaches and their families, everyone in that building. And fans and people around us as well. We understand that. And yeah, you're right. It is a good learning moment to say, just so we don't have multiple guys if someone does get it. It's inevitable that people are going to get it.

“When you take the protocols seriously and you do that, it limits that exposure and hoping that it's maybe one guy and you can move forward. Yeah, definitely it was a wake-up call.”

***

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BRADY CATCHES FIRE

That we’re talking about Tom Brady’s breakthrough performance as a Buc this deep into the column tells you what type of year it’s been—a strange one.

But there’s very little question that Brady put a lot of folks on notice on Sunday.

Fourteen quarters of inconsistency and frustration to start the season were, at least for a day, washed away in an overwhelmingly dominant flourish from the 43-year-old. Brady completed 16 of his final 18 throws against the Chargers for 269 yards and four touchdowns. That, very quickly, turned a 24–7 deficit into a 38–31 win, and put Tampa all alone in first place in the NFC South, at 3–1.

“It just shows you a little bit about our team in general, offense and defense, and everybody, we put it together in that second half and showed everyone how good we can be and the potential that we have,” second-year receiver Scotty Miller told me Sunday night. “And then just as far as Tom goes, his fire and his willingness to compete means he doesn't want to lose at anything he does, especially not a football game, and you really see that at halftime when you're down 20-whatever, however much we were down.

“It's really awesome to just follow his lead and try and make plays for him.”

Yes, for now, it’s just one half of football. But for Brady and Co., it felt like more than that—a culmination of the work they’ve put in since the spring, when they were holed up at local high school fields, and the ups and downs they went through over the season’s first three weeks.

If you thought it didn’t always look quite right against the Saints, Panthers and Broncos? The Bucs would actually agree with you. And it sure didn’t look right in the first half against the Chargers. But Brady projected confidence to the other guys that eventually it would, and they followed that.

“I think that's been exactly it,” Miller said. “Tom's a new quarterback in the system and we didn't get the normal time that we would with OTAs and all that stuff, so we were trying to make up for that, getting together at local high schools and stuff like that. So every Sunday and every practice during the week that we can get, we just try to make up for all the lost time, and I think we've gotten better each and every game so far this year, so we're just trying to build on that and take advantage of every opportunity that we get.”

And it wasn’t just Brady, either. Ronald Jones rushed for 111 yards on 20 carries. Mike Evans hauled in seven balls for 122 yards. Miller, for his part, was one of six guys with multiple catches, pulling down five for 83 yards.

The biggest one, a 44-yarder, was, to Miller, the best example of how far they’ve come. It came with 1:40 left and the Bucs down 24–21, Tampa taking possession at the L.A. 37 after the Chargers missed a field goal. The call was for Evans and Miller to run go routes on opposite sides of the formation. Miller quickly saw the Chargers were in cover-3 and figured he could accelerate and catch the corner flat-footed.

It worked, and so too did all the hours that Brady and Miller had put in.

“I can't tell you how many times me and Tom have thrown that ball and missed it, honestly, but also I mean how many times we've completed it,” Miller said. “Just how many times we've thrown it in general over the summer, and then when we got here and we had to start the ramp-up period when we were just throwing routes on air, and then doing offense-only practices, all that time that we put in, throwing that route so many times.

“And then to see it come to fruition today was just great. And that's what you work for, you put in all the work and run all the routes and he throws all those balls so we're able to execute those plays.”

The ball was a dime. Miller hauled it in and got dragged down at the 19. On the next snap, Brady hit Miller on a seam route for a touchdown, giving the Bucs their first lead.

Tampa would have to fight back one more time—Justin Herbert was a pretty worthy opposite for Brady—when the rookie hit Jalen Guyton for a 72-yard touchdown to give the Chargers the lead back. But by then, that was almost academic. At that point, the Bucs offense wasn’t going to be stopped.

And yeah, it almost happened by accident, with a Chargers fumble at the end of the first half, setting up a 6-yard, Brady-to-Evans TD that ignited all this. But that’s O.K. too.

“We got that momentum changer at the end of the first half, the defense came up with the fumble recovery and then Mike with the touchdown, we just all got on the same page,” Miller said. “The coaches did a great job of making little adjustments, they went to a lot of plays that they saw and that we liked and we were just able to make plays. So hopefully we'll just be able to build on them moving forward.”

We’ll get to see soon if they can. The Bucs are in Chicago on Thursday night.

***

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THE COLTS' DOMINANT D

In this column, I always want to offer you something you might’ve missed—and I think I’ve got something that fits the bill for you here.

The Colts defense is ridiculous.

Check this out …

Total yards: 1st
Yards per play: 1st
Rushing yards/game: 4th
Rushing yards/play: 6th
Passing yards/game: 1st
Passing yards/play: 1st
Interception percentage: 1st
Sack percentage: 7th
First downs/game: 1st
Third down efficiency: 1st
Points/game: 1st

Now, it’s only been four games. But statistically, at least, Indy’s way out in front. And what’s more, the Colts’ players really felt like this was the way it would be before the fact.

“I kept saying it, I kept saying it—the pieces looked great,” linebacker Anthony Walker told me postgame. “But until you put the whole picture together, guys going out there, making plays together, flying around, we have to do it. You have to go out there and put the picture together. It looks good on paper, but when you put the pieces together and start playing, we gotta make it happen.”

They most certainly have.

Following a rocky start in Week 1—the Colts got upended by the Jags, you’ll remember—the defense has been almost airtight, allowing a total of 29 points over three consecutive wins. And this doesn’t look like an accident either.

It starts with guys like Walker and his All-Pro linebacking partner Darius Leonard (who got banged up against Chicago). But, really, you’re starting to see the vision for size/speed freaks that GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have on that side of the ball come together, with those young (Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Rock Ya-Sin, Julian Blackmon) and older (Justin Houston, Denico Autry).

And big-ticket addition DeForest Buckner really brings the whole thing into focus.

“He's special, man, he's a special talent,” Walker said. “He's huge, man. He commands a lot of attention, being the player that he is, taking a lot of double teams, so guys can go out there and get singles and win on the pass-rush And he still wins. For us, it's huge, being able to stop the run, he commands a lot of attention, allowing us to be able to roam free as linebackers. And then in the pass game, making guys free up and get singles and when they single him, he wins his matchup every time. So yeah, he is what we thought he was.”

So what the Bears got Sunday is what the Vikings and Jets got in Weeks 2 and 3—a fast, suffocating group.

They’ll need a little injury luck now, with Leonard and Ya-Sin nicked. But if those guys are O.K., the belief is the ceiling for this group still hasn’t nearly been reached. And while Walker wouldn’t declare the defense the league’s best quite yet, his reaction to the late touchdown the Bears put on the board (a circus catch from Allen Robinson) was pretty informative as to where the team’s expectations are internally.

“Definitely, we were mad,” Walker said. “You’re mad as a defense if you allow anything. We thought we had plenty of chances to get off the field before that one so, yeah, that's definitely one that I'm pretty sure that we're not going to like on film. The coaches, all the players, everybody was pissed off. Obviously, we understood that we won the game with the kickoff return team going out there and getting the ball back, but it still leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”

Indy has the Browns next—and we’re about to get to the challenge Walker’s defense has in front of it. Both teams go in 3-1.

Not sure anyone had Browns-Colts on the Week 5 marquee before the season started.

***

odell-beckham-cleveland-browns-winning

TEN TAKEAWAYS

I love where the Browns are right now. And it’s not just about record. It’s about identity. For the first time in forever, probably since Mike Pettine and Kyle Shanahan were together there, it feels like they’re laying groundwork for something lasting on the field. It’s most vivid in how the Shanahan-styled run game is producing, with Kevin Stefanski, OC Alex Van Pelt and, maybe most importantly, line coach Bill Callahan collaborating to devise it. Here are the results:

Week 1 at Baltimore: 27 carries, 138 yards.
Week 2 vs. Cincinnati: 35 carries, 215 yards.
Week 3 vs. Washington: 37 carries, 158 yards.
Week 4 at Dallas: 40 carries, 307 yards.

The going gets much tougher this week with that Colts defense coming to town. But what the evidence pretty clearly tells us through four weeks is that, no matter the opponent, Cleveland’s not going to waver in how it goes about its business this year—and maybe no matter the back, either. Bell cow Nick Chubb got rolled up on in pass protection after just six carries in Dallas (he’ll have an MRI on his knee Monday), was quickly ruled out, and the Browns didn’t back off in the slightest. D’Ernest Johnson (13 carries, 95 yards) and Dontrell Hilliard (5 carries, 19 yards) stepped right in behind Kareem Hunt and produced. Which is, really, a tribute to the job Callahan’s done rebuilding the line, the job Jedrick Wills has done stepping in at left tackle and the job guys like Wyatt Teller have done taking another step with their games. It’s helped the quarterback, too. Baker Mayfield is playing calmer, and that was a goal of the staff, to have him less frantic out there. That showed up big time on a handful of throwaways when plays weren’t there—throwaways the Browns don’t think would’ve happened last year. So, yeah, it’s early October. But so far, so good.

While we’re there, the Cowboys defense can be declared a disaster. Valiant comeback effort, but Dallas can’t play this way every week—they’ve allowed 39, 38 and 49 points over the last three weeks, and there’s very little fluky about it. They’ve allowed more than 500 yards three weeks in a row. They’ve allowed triple-digit passer ratings three weeks in a row. So the question is simple: What’s next? Mike Nolan’s a really great guy, and a good coach, but he hasn’t been a coordinator in six years and turns 61 years old in March. It’s hard to blame everything on Nolan—Leighton Vander Esch is hurt, Jaylon Smith hasn’t played great and Byron Jones did leave a hole at corner when he left in free agency—but the numbers are too much to ignore. If Mike McCarthy wants to make a change, he does have ex-Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards on his staff. The head coach’s post-game comments (“Refuse to be a one-call defense, that’s not the path”) don’t seem to bode well for Nolan. And the thing is, it’d be pretty interesting to see where the team would go with even an average defense, because the offense, if it can get healthy on the line and get more consistent holding onto the ball, has a shot to be really good.

Josh Allen is a very legit MVP candidate. Need me to repeat that? Josh Allen is a very legit MVP candidate. In Year 3, at 24 years old, he’s a different dude than he was in 2018 and ’19. When the Bills drafted him, they believed with better talent around him, his accuracy issues could be cleaned up—something a lot of NFL folks thought wouldn’t happen. The logic went that if he was no longer running for his life, as he did at Wyoming for three years as a starter, he’d be able to play with a calmer lower half. That’s why, on Sunday, I was more impressed with the stuff he did efficiently and on time than the every-week high-wire act we’ve come to expect. And his first big throw of the game was a good illustration. It was third-and-6, and Allen was in the shotgun. He took the snap and dropped three steps. Hung in there. Hung in there. Hung in there. Then, he calmly whistled the ball deep and outside the numbers to pick up 21 yards and, easily, the first down. It was one of five completions on the drive, and all five came within the design of the play and on target. And that, honestly, is where you’re seeing the next level of Allen’s game being unlocked.

Matt Rhule says a lot of smart stuff. And here’s one thing I picked up from his postgame press availability: the importance of F.I.O. Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater was asked about his dodge-juke-and-dive18-yard touchdown run in Sunday’s win over the Cardinals. The seventh-year pro then pointed out that Rhule was using the three-letter acronym with him, which stands for Figure It Out. Rhule later expounded with the Charlotte media: “Great players are way more important than great coaches, and great players figure it out. And that was a great example of Teddy kind of figuring it out.” And even better, Bridgewater’s figured it out without Russell Okung and Christian McCaffrey the last couple of weeks, as has the rest of the offense in wins over the Chargers and Cardinals. Now, I don’t know if the Panthers will win six, eight or 10 games when all this is said and done. But I do feel like I know they’re headed in the right direction, they’re tough to play right now and they’re bought into Rhule. Which is a really good start, and why they’re a lot better than I figured they’d be in the coach’s first year.

I know everyone’s caught up in the coaching hot seat stuff. It starts earlier each year. But in the three cases that have continuously come up, there are some interesting dynamics in upper management that will dictate how much rope Matt Patricia, Adam Gase and Dan Quinn get.

• In Atlanta, owner Arthur Blank has increased president Rich McKay’s influence over football ops. The former GM—he preceded Thomas Dimitroff in that role—was moved over from the football side when Dimitroff was hired in 2008.

• In Detroit, Sheila Ford Hamp was installed as the Lions’ new controlling owner in June, allowing her mother, Martha Ford, to step away from the football business.

• Jets owner Woody Johnson ceded control of the team to his brother Christopher in 2017 to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., and he could be back from England and reinstalled as the boss by the end of the year.

This, by the way, isn’t to say anyone is necessarily doomed or about to get a break. It just makes each situation a little less predictable.

All the best to Ron Rivera. I know he knows a lot of people are in his corner, and if anyone else ever had a question on that, Washington gave him a very literal, physical reminder on Sunday. The team created Coach’s Corner at FedEx Field and filled it with the cutout likenesses of 450 of Rivera’s friends and family. In there are former co-workers like Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, and ex-players of his like Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and Steve Smith. And Rivera got choked up talking about it postgame, and in particular talking about the one representing his brother, Mickey, who died of cancer. Meanwhile, all his current players wore Rivera Strong T-shirts pregame. All in all, it was a really powerful scene from a franchise that’s had its share of bad ones over the last year. Rivera admitted that his battle with squamous cell cancer had him waning at points on Sunday—he’s been getting a weekly IV at halftime to help—after a really tough week (he had to leave practice on Thursday). Here’s hoping his days get a little easier from here on out, and he’s able to pull some strength from all those people who’ve got his back.

Baltimore’s not dead. The formula for beating them, of course, has been well established—get a lead, take the Ravens off their offensive script, and wait for the meltdown. That’s real, and something Baltimore will have to overcome at some point. And the time will come, again, when that needs to be confronted. But there’s another reality here that gets less attention: There aren’t many teams that can get on top of the Ravens the way the Chiefs can or the way the Titans did behind a red-hot Ryan Tannehill in last year’s playoffs. The defense is too good. The offense is too proficient at controlling the pace of the games. So I’m looking ahead to their Nov. 1 game against rival Pittsburgh as the next real test.

Joe Mixon showed the value of a great running back. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Sunday, in reference to Joe Burrow, “He is not a rookie.” And we detailed in last week’s GamePlan just what Taylor means when he says that. Burrow deserves that. He played well in his first NFL win. But Joe Mixon should get credit too—because he was absolutely the engine behind the team’s 33–25 victory over Jacksonville. Mixon finished the game with 151 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, plus 30 yards and another touchdown on six catches. More than just that, he took the burden of having to carry the team off Burrow, and so it’s no coincidence the benefit of that manifested in Burrow’s performance. Outside of a 50-50 ball that Myles Jack somehow stole right from the hands of tight end Drew Sample for Burrow’s lone pick, that was about as well played a game as you’ll see from a rookie quarterback. And if a four-year, $49.2 million extension for your star running back is a part of the equation in getting that kind of performance out of the most important position on the field, I’d say it was worth it. Hey, it sure worked for Jared Goff (Todd Gurley) and Dak Prescott (Zeke Elliott), when they were coming up.

It looks like Sean McVay got his coaching staff hires right. And I liked his logic in making them from the jump. We can start with the defense. McVay basically went to the scheme that gives him the most trouble—Vic Fangio’s—and tried to find a coach who fit his program, which is what led him to pluck Brandon Staley from Denver. And though Staley’s unit isn’t at the top of all the rankings like Indy’s is, the details show a group that’s making big, game-changing plays, which has always been a mark of Fangio’s units. In Week 1, rookie Jordan Fuller made a goal-line stop on fourth down to ice a win over Dallas. In Week 2, Darious Williams and Troy Hill registered crucial picks. In Week 3, Aaron Donald was overwhelming in leading a comeback that fell just short against Buffalo. And in Week 4, Williams had another huge pick, this one to put away the Giants. So there’s lots to be encouraged with there. And then on offense, McVay wanted a coach to work closely with Jared Goff, who’d lost Zac Taylor and Matt LaFleur. So he got Kevin O’Connell, who was McVay’s eventual successor as Washington OC, a coach who played quarterback in the NFL and has background in personal coaching at the position. Goff, in turn, is on track for a career high completion percentage (70.0) and passer rating (109.6), and that’s after losing Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley. Add all of this up, and the Rams are 3–1, with the arrow pointing up.

The Eagles showed a lot of grit on Sunday night. And Doug Pederson said it: “It wasn’t pretty but it doesn’t matter. A win is a win in this league.” Carson Wentz still has a lot to work out. The defense sprung some leaks, and the offensive line is impossibly beat up. But the defensive line keeps flashing its potential, and the Eagles started to get contributions from weird places—linebacker Alex Singleton had a pick-six and ex–practice squad receiver Travis Fulgham had a big 42-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter comeback—which has been a staple in the resilience of Pederson’s teams the last five years. The hope now has to be that all of that, plus the tire fire that is the rest of the NFC East, will buy time for Wentz to get right and the line to get healthy. Even at 1–2–1, it looks like Philly’s got a decent amount of runway.

***

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Seeing the Big 12 wilt the last couple of weeks has been interesting. You see Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma team stumbling, and Tom Herman’s Texas team bumbling, and it reminds you that Herman was Riley before Riley—the young offensive genius who the NFL had its eyes on. These things can change fast, and Oklahoma looks different with a younger, less experienced quarterback at the helm. (Saturday was a good day, on the other hand, for another apple of the NFL’s eye, with Iowa State’s Matt Campbell knocking off Riley’s Sooners.)

2) Florida TE Kyle Pitts gets a mention here for a second straight week, because the expected first-rounder scored two more touchdowns after notching four in the Gators’ opener. And, well, because he’s been as impressive a player as there’s been in the early stages of this season. Last week, I told you David Njoku was a comp I got for him from a veteran scout. This week? The name I heard from someone else was Jared Cook.

3) While we’re there, I’m going to start keeping an eye on Florida QB Kyle Trask. I’m not saying he’s this year’s Joe Burrow, but what I’ve seen has been impressive (684 yards, 10 TDs, one INT through two games), he’s got a great backstory, and his measurables check out. There’s a lot of season left, so we won’t jump to conclusions yet, but I’m intrigued. “He was our top-rated senior QB, based off junior tape,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said, via text. “And he’s separated himself even more these first couple weeks. Don’t have the tape of [Saturday]’s game yet but Ole Miss game was impressive. He looks like an NFL starter.” For what it’s worth, Dan Mullen’s got pretty good track record developing NFL QBs too (Dak Prescott, Alex Smith, etc.)

4) Anyone stunned by the scene at Georgia probably didn’t have the college experience that I did. And any administrator who thought that wouldn’t happen if the door was left open for it to happen is clueless.

5) Speaking of Georgia, Zamir White sure looks like he could be the next great Georgia back to come into the NFL. He’ll continue a super impressive recent run that’s gone from Todd Gurley to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to, now, D’Andre Swift in Detroit.

6) North Dakota State QB Trey Lance’s college career may well be over now and if it is, at least he finished strong. His start was shaky, and he finally did throw his first collegiate interception, but he came on in the fourth quarter as the Bison pulled away from Central Arkansas. He finished 15-of-30 for 149 yards and two scores, and rushed 15 times for 143 yards and two more touchdowns. And now, with NDSU playing the rest of its season in the spring, I’d say he’s locked in a race with Ohio State’s Justin Fields to be the first QB taken after Trevor Lawrence.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

That’s Dolphins rookie Blake Ferguson, affirming what Ryan Clark is saying about quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Which is interesting and important context to his longevity as a starter in the NFL.

A perfect Kevin Clark tweet for your Sunday.

I was thinking about this the other day. It’s crazy how routine insane toe-tap catches have become.

This is great. Best part: For all the crap Philip Rivers talks, he won’t curse. Which is hilarious to me. (Probably because I can’t not curse in those situations.)

And this is the perfect picture.

You can Google the backstory on this one.

Stefon Diggs has been perfect for Allen. Credit to Bills GM Brandon Beane and the staff there for recognizing it, and going to get him.

Smoke Brown’s pretty good too.

I really don’t see how the Chargers can go back to Tyrod Taylor.

I’ll leave this one without comment.

That’s former first-round pick (and recurring pod guest) Bobby Carpenter on fellow Ohio State graduate Joe Burrow (that one’s for my buddy Rich Eisen).

Burrow avoided his third loss as a pro Sunday. He lost three games total in 28 starts in college.

Feels a little like the Super Bowl record Jerry was going for 10 years ago (you can look up how that ended).

Very tough reality for Houston.

Not cool, but kinda hilarious.

This is really cool. Here’s hoping the Senior Bowl can happen in January—it’s one of the best events of the year for NFL people.

***

Fantasy Football: Aaron Jones

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Packers running back Aaron Jones.

MMQB: What’s the difference been in Year 2 of Matt LaFleur’s system?

AJ: I think it’s just having time in the system. This past offseason, through Zoom and everything because of COVID, our coaches really did a great job of breaking down the offense for us, along with A-Ron. I think all the guys got a chance to really understand it for what it is, understanding why we’re running plays, the power of the play, where it’s designed to go and, against different looks how it’s supposed to play out. I think those things really played a key role in letting everybody come out and be able to play fast without thinking.

MMQB: When you think about playing fast like that, is there a good example where it showed up the first three weeks?

AJ: I think you put on the film, Week 1, how we were moving the ball up and down the field. Some are chunk plays, but some aren’t, and we were constantly moving it. The time of possession, I think that speaks to an offense being in sync and on the same page.

MMQB: How about for you personally? That offense has great history with running backs going back to the ’90s, how has it worked for you?

AJ: Definitely, coach LaFleur gave me an opportunity to showcase my skills. Being versatile, being able to do different things for my team, whether it be lining up out wide, lining up in the backfield, whatever it may be. I know coach LaFleur coming in told us he liked to get the backs involved a lot in different ways. We sat down and watched film with him, and he would point it out, and it’s stayed true. Me and Jamaal [Williams] have been pretty versatile.

MMQB: How have you see a different Aaron Rodgers in Year 2 in the offense?

AJ: I feel like he wants it more—or maybe not wants it more, because he wanted it last year, but I just have this feeling that we were so close to making it to the Super Bowl last year, NFC Championship, we fell one game short. We all have that ugly taste in our mouth. We need to do whatever it takes to get it out and I don’t think it’ll stop until we get that Super Bowl.

MMQB: What’s the biggest challenge with Atlanta’s defense, and how does the way they blew those leads factor in, if at all?

AJ: I see a fast-flowing defense. Just because you’re 0–3 doesn’t mean anything, it’s the National Football League. Like you said, their record could be 3–0, they just didn’t finish. We know that’s a good team, and we know all the weapons they have. They’ve got Grady Jarrett on the D-line, Deion Jones at linebacker, he’s a speedy guy. They like to penetrate, they have a penetrating front. We know what we’re facing. And I know we’ve done a great job in practice. We’ll be ready for it.

MMQB: Football players say there’s always stuff you can get better at. Offensively, what aren’t you doing well through three weeks, because it doesn’t seem like there’s much to nitpick?

AJ: Like you said, there’s always room for in improvement in execution. Down in the red zone a couple times, instead of kicking field goals, you wanna throw for touchdowns. So that right there. That’s the biggest part. And getting stopped on fourth down last week, I mean, you can’t do that. Gotta convert that, but our defense had our back on that one.

MMQB: How big an adjustment has it been playing without fans?

AJ: It’s definitely been different. Now, it’s the norm, after a couple weeks, you don’t expect anyone there. But Week 1 was different, it was strange. The weirdest part to me was when someone would score, you wouldn’t hear the fans—usually you’d hear the fans. And then you got the Lambeau Leap without fans, that was the weirdest one to me. But other than that, I mean, it’s good, as long as I get to compete and a chance to play with my brothers.

MMQB: Is it actually an advantage for offensive players in a way?

AJ: For sure. For sure. You’re not having to worry about the crowd noise, you’re not worrying about having to get in that huddle tight. You don’t need to worry about getting the quarterback’s play call because the crowd is so loud. Things like that, we can use to our advantage.

MMQB: With everything happening across the league COVID-wise this weekend, how worried are you about it day-to-day, and how closely are you paying attention to the news on it?

AJ: I definitely pay attention. For me, I go from the facility home, home to the facility. The only stop I’m really making is to pump gas, and if I do I have some latex gloves in the car. We know it’s bigger than us. All of us have families at home, that we’re going home to. We have to make sure we’re being safe for our teammates, and our teammates are doing the same thing. We understand. We all want to play this game, and that’s what it takes to play the game.

MMQB: A bunch of backs you got drafted with have gotten paid this offseason—Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Christian McCaffrey—how close are you paying attention to that? And how much do you think of the life-changing money that might be coming?

AJ: You definitely see it. You get the notifications on your phone, things like that. I’m happy for those guys. They’ve done nothing but help all the running backs in the game. So when I saw [Cook and Kamara], I told them both congratulations, as well. That’s big-time. It’s not something I think about. I know if I control what I can control, and that’s my play, everything else will work itself out the way it’s supposed to. So I just go out there and worry about my play on the field, not doing extra thinking on it.

MMQB: Anything extra for you about playing on Monday night?

AJ: I like night games, it kind of takes you back to high school, playing under the lights Friday night. But for me, primetime or not, I still feel like the whole world’s watching. Just gotta come ready.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

I’m going to work on some quarter-season awards for Monday afternoon. So check out the MAQB for that in a few hours.

See you guys then.