MMQB: Titans Emerge From Stretch with Disrupted Schedule as One of the NFL's Best Teams; Buccaneers Wax Packers

The Titans have had very little practice time of late, but a Tuesday game and a short-week OT win now have them sitting pretty in the standings. Plus, that Hall of Fame QB battle wasn't exactly how it was billed, Raheem Morris gets in the win column, Philip Rivers leads a comeback and much more from Week 6.
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No matter who you might think was at fault, it was a strange three weeks in Nashville and a lot for everyone involved to navigate. Between the Titans’ Sept. 27 win in Minnesota and Sunday’s home game against Houston, Mike Vrabel’s crew staged a grand total of three real practices—a Sunday workout before Tuesday’s game against the Bills and sessions on Thursday and Friday before playing the Texans.

To be sure, COVID-19 has caused all NFL teams to adjust on the fly in some way since July.

But holding all of three practices in three weeks was a lot more than just that. It was blowing up and rewriting the plan, and doing it without really any precedent to go on. There was no coach whom Vrabel could call to relate with, nor was there research to study in preparation for it. The Titans, for the most part, just had to figure it out as they went.

Which meant the plan was really that simple: Figure it out.

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“Well, I mean, nobody wants to hear how bad the pregnancy, the delivery was,” Vrabel said, driving home from Nissan Stadium on Sunday night. “They just want to see a baby. And we never really try to make any excuses. We understand that it’s critical to get into the building and have practice time, but our players focused in on the Zoom meetings, the ones that we could have, and our coaches did a good job getting the information to them via Zoom.

“And everybody stayed flexible, and everybody was willing to adjust.”

Three weeks later, the baby came out, healthy as can be.

The Titans bludgeoned the Bills 42–16 on Tuesday, then fought off a furious rally from a feisty Texans team to score a 42–36 win on Sunday. Both games were uniquely in Tennessee’s mold—with Derrick Henry’s punishing style giving each one its signature moments—and both, if you listen to the players, were intended to make a statement to those who came after the team for its hand in the mess of the last month.

More important to Vrabel, though, is that his team emerged from it 5–0. And as a result, as normalcy (they hope) sets back in, the games will only get bigger from here.

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That was a fun Week 5 in the NFL, and we’ve got you covered all the way around. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• More on a Bucs team that’s about much more than just Tom Brady.

• What Frank Reich did to pump life into Philip Rivers’s 2020.

• How Raheem Morris navigated a challenging week.

• COVID-19 and the NFL, the New York teams and more.

But we’re starting with the Titans, who just may have come out of the coronavirus outbreak as the best team in the NFL.

***

Bottom line, it was hard to miss how the Titans’ players felt about the criticism coming their way the last few weeks. Kevin Byard was candid with me on it in Thursday’s GamePlan. Players like Taylor Lewan popped up on social media crowing after beating Buffalo. And others weren’t shy in sharing how they felt about the league office positioning what happened in their workplace as a Titans problem, rather than an NFL problem.

Vrabel, himself a former player, certainly understands how guys can pull motivation from almost anywhere—he, as you’ll recall, was a leader on the Patriots Spygate team that spent 2007 running up scores like a college blue blood to show everyone how little the rule-breaking mattered. But on Sunday, after beating the Titans, he wasn’t going to touch this one after all he and his team had gone through.

“No, I don’t have any comment on that,” Vrabel said. “That’s over, that’s in the rearview mirror. We were trying to get a team ready on a short week—for a lot of different reasons. I’m proud to be the head coach, I’m proud of the people that we have, I’m proud of the staff we have, I’m proud of the organization coming together and allowing us to play a game last week, and now on a short week, to get the players prepared, from the trainers, equipment staff.

“But I’ve got nothing to add to that, man. We’ve got to move on to the Steelers now. It’s another challenge every week in this league.”

Read between the lines on that, if you want.

The important thing, to the Titans, is the top line reads pretty simply: 5–0.

And it probably means a little more because of how tough it was to get there. Playing Buffalo in a fire-drill situation was no picnic, regardless of what the final score wound up being. The Houston game, despite the Texans’ record, proved to be even more difficult.

In relinquishing leads of 14–0 and 21–7, the Titans were starting to look like a team that was running out of gas, which would be understandable given the short week and lack of practice time leading into the game. The Texans, behind interim coach Romeo Crennel, rattled off 16 straight points to take a 23–21 lead into the fourth quarter. And that’s when Derrick Henry made the game his.

With 9:46 left, Texans punter Bryan Anger dropped a 46-yard boot at the Titans’ 6, and Henry wasted no time going to work. On the very next play, he found a cutback lane to his right, burst through the seam, ran through two Houston defenders, and from there raced back over to and up the left sideline for a 94-yard touchdown that put the Titans back on top, 29–23.

It was the first of three signature plays he’d make down the stretch to punctuate his outsized production (24 touches, 264 scrimmage yards). The second was a 53-yard swing pass in overtime—on that one, he got the ball from Ryan Tannehill in the right flat and charged down that side of the field like a locomotive.

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“He took the game over,” Vrabel said. “What, 94 yards, stiff-armed a guy? Guy went at his knee, he stiff-armed him, he out-ran everybody. And then, they covered a pass that we had him on. He worked his way down the sideline, they lost him. Ryan gave him a really good ball in stride, Derrick caught it—that’s something him and Tony [Dews], the running backs coach, have been working on, getting his body turned back to the catch—and that was a huge play in the game.”

And in between those plays, more had to be made. The Texans wound up scoring consecutive touchdowns after Henry’s 94-yard run, which put Tannehill back in the two-minute drill. And finishing off that drive to force overtime was going to require leaning back on the team’s situational work over the summer.

With 22 seconds left, Tannehill knew, and his teammates knew, the landscape. If the receiver Tannehill went to was brought down in bounds, with the Titans out of timeouts, the offense would hurry to line—but they wouldn’t spike it to stop the clock. Instead, Tannehill would take the snap and run a second play, to try and catch the defense flat-footed.

“Everybody involved was ready for the play and knew the situation,” Vrabel said. “They knew we were out of timeouts. They knew what we were going to go to if the clock was running. We’ve had that situation throughout training camp and ultimately, there was good communication, there was excellent execution. The operation, the linemen, everybody gets set, and then get the ball snapped and run the play.”

And so the scenario presented itself. Tannehill hit Henry’s backup, Jeremy McNichols, underneath. McNichols was dragged down at the 7 with about 16 seconds left. Tick … tick … tick. … Everyone lined up with nine seconds left, the ball was snapped at eight seconds, and Tannehill dropped it right over A.J. Brown’s outside shoulder for a touchdown. Tie game.

“It’s something that we’ve been practicing going back to training camp,” Vrabel said. “Two-minute situations and all those details of when you have to get out of bounds, when you have to get in the end zone, when you’re out of timeouts, when you use the timeouts. Those are things we practice.”

Then came overtime and the 53-yard catch and run, which was followed by a 17-yard burst from McNichols to set up one last piece of drama. On this one, the Titans had the ball on third-and-goal at the 5. That’s a throwing down for most teams, just not the Titans.

So instead of lining Tannehill up in the shotgun, Vrabel and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith put Henry in his place, creating an extra gap for the runner, declaring to the Texans what the plan was, daring them to stop it and setting Henry up for his third defining play of the afternoon. And while Smith and Vrabel were confident that this old standby would work for them, they also made the decision knowing a field goal wasn’t in the plans.

“At that point in time, it was I think we’re going to have four downs,” Vrabel said. “I thought we were going to be able to go for it on fourth down. We wanted to score a touchdown and end the game right there. So knowing that, that’s the play call we went with.”

Henry broke left at the snap, and from there, the rest was academic.

He was in the end zone. The Titans were 5–0. The three weeks from you-know-where were over. And now that they are, the upshot is that Vrabel had a few things about his team confirmed for him.

“We have great leadership,” he said. “This team means a lot to them, their teammates mean a lot to them. They love football. I’m just proud to be the head coach of this group of people and lucky that I get to coach them, I get to work with them. Now we’ll move on and try to get better—because we have to do that.”

And I’d say, after all this, they know that better than most.

***

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BUCS' DEFENSE CRASHES THE HOF QB PARTY

Buccaneers-Packers was supposed to be about the quarterbacks—43-year-old Tom Brady squaring off with 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers one more time, with prolific offenses surrounding both.

Apparently, the Tampa defense missed the memo.

The final score may fool you (the Bucs won 38–10), but it doesn’t take much more than a surface look at the box score to see the truth.

• Aaron Rodgers posted a 35.4 passer rating and threw for just 160 yards.

• The Bucs had nearly as many rushing yards (158) as Brady had passing yards (166).

• The Tampa defense was thisclose to accounting for as many TDs as Brady did.

And all that started with a pretty simple plan for countering what Rodgers brings.

“He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks in the game,” captain/linebacker Lavonte David told me. “We know the offense goes through him, and the main thing we wanted to do is try to get him off rhythm, do the best we can to disrupt him. Take away his playmakers. We were able to do that. It was a team effort. We had a game plan, we stuck with the game plan. It was just about talking to the coaching staff and going out there and executing.”

There were four parts to that plan, per David. The first was to take away Rodgers’s first read on every down. The second was to take away anything deep. The third was not to let him set his feet. The fourth was to mix coverages and force Rodgers to reach, which would delay his thought process and buy time for the rush to get home.

It didn’t work right away. The Packers covered 54 yards in 10 plays and kicked a field goal on the game’s first possession, then went 80 yards in 11 plays to push their early lead to 10–0. But even then, David could feel defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’s ideas working—Rodgers had just made a few scramble plays and converted a couple third downs to prevent David and Co. from making the plays that were coming.

And once they started coming, they didn’t stop.

On the third play of the Packers’ third possession, Rodgers flung the ball down the sideline to his left—and corner Jamel Dean was waiting there to collect.

“Third down, it was a great route read by Jamel Dean. It was something that obviously they like to do: quick outs,” David said. “And they wanted to get Davante Adams the football. Coach drew up a great call to have Dean be in a position to jump that out, and he did just that. And he made a play on it.”

Dean took it the remaining 22 yards for Tampa’s first touchdown, and the Bucs were just getting warmed up. Three plays into the next possession, with the score 10–7, it was safety Mike Edwards’s turn.

“It was a zero blitz. We knew the ball was coming out quick,” David said. “I want to say Carlton [Davis] made a great play on the football, he batted the ball, and Mike Edwards was right there in position to get the tip. And he was able to get it. We just wanted him to get the ball out quick and guys make the play on the back end.”

Dean navigated traffic from there, and took the ball to the Packers’ 2-yard line. Ronald Jones gave the Bucs the lead on the next play, making it 14–10, and Tampa would never trail again. And that was in large part because the defense didn’t relent. Later in the second quarter, right after the Bucs’ first long touchdown drive of the game (11 plays, 65 yards), Davis stepped out on his own and sacked Rodgers on a third-and-3.

“We have a front we run to get 5–0 protection, to get everyone in basically one-on-one matchups,” said David. “Lucky for us, we got the matchup that we wanted, we got the offensive line to slide a certain way, and I was able to get one-on-one with the back. But the back had to come across so I knew I could beat him with speed and get on the outside, get to the quarterback. It was just a look that we wanted.

“Once coach called the play, got the look that we wanted, we were able to make a play.”

Rodgers lost 11 yards and the Packers punted. The Bucs then went 62 yards on seven plays, and that was pretty much that—with the hosts carrying a commanding 28–10 lead into the break. Brady didn’t need to complete a single pass in the fourth quarter to put this one in the books, which sort of explains why we didn’t get the Brady–Rodgers shootout most of us wanted. The talent around Brady is really good, which, without question, lightens the burden on him.

“It’s just all-around team football at the end of the day,” David said. “Don’t turn the ball over, no penalties and play great defense, offense control the tempo of the game. That’s all it was. We came together, played together, and it was great football.”

And the amazing thing is, with how Rob Gronkowski looked Sunday, and Chris Godwin working back into the lineup, it looks like there’s still plenty of room for everyone to grow.

***

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FALCONS FINALLY HOLD A LEAD

It’s been 10 years, so Raheem Morris wasn’t blind to the opportunity in front of him.

But being named interim coach didn’t make it any easier for Morris to watch Dan Quinn—who he first met as a player at Hofstra, where Quinn was defensive line coach in the 1990s—go through what he did this week.

“It’s awful for the whole organization, because they lost such a great man in Dan Quinn,” Morris said. “And I lost like a great figure for me, in coaching and everything that I’ve been a part of, in his life and my life. You talk about a guy who coached me in college and did all the things necessary to go out and get wins, and show you how to do it, and absolutely take this team to the highest level. When he got fired, I felt as if I failed him.

“And I let him know that, and he said, ‘No way.’”

And even after the firing, Quinn actually helped Morris behind the scenes. When the team had a second positive COVID-19 test, the two talked through the procedures. As Morris’s first game drew closer, the two had an open dialogue.

So by the time Morris got to Sunday, he wanted to win the game for Quinn.

He and the Falcons delivered, drilling the Vikings 40–23. In the process, Morris thinks it’s possible they all found a little something to build on.

During the week, Morris talked to the players about forcing their will on the opponent, and for the most part that worked out, with Atlanta building a 20–0 halftime lead. But there was something about how the first half ended that irked Morris—he thought he and his staff had coached for the field goal (they did get it) in the final minute more so than a touchdown that would’ve made it 24–0.

So when Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and other leaders brought it up, he actually apologized for not following his own guidelines to impose his will on the opponent.

“They wanted to be aggressive when we came out in the second half, and that’s absolutely what the offense did,” Morris said. “They played aggressive.”

Similarly, Morris coached aggressively in the third quarter to ensure the Falcons wouldn’t blow yet another big lead. And nowhere did that show up more than in the decision to go for it on fouth-and-3 from the Vikings’ 40, with 2:14 left in the third quarter and the Falcons up 23–7. Ryan took the snap, scrambled left, approached the line of scrimmage, then backed off before dumping the ball over the head of the defense to Jones, who did the rest, covering 40 yards to make the score 30–7.

By the time the Vikings sniffed the end zone again, it was over, and now the Morris Era is underway in Atlanta. With that comes a great opportunity for the 44-year-old to show how far he’s come since Tampa dumped him after the 2011 season.

He knows all that, of course. But he swore to me his focus isn’t going to go past what’s right in front of him. “I’m really trying to keep a short mindset, and I’m just setting it on each week.” And so maybe this leads to something bigger. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Morris wants to make the most out of right now.

“It’s really hard for me to be selfish at this moment because of how many people helped me get to this point, including Dan Quinn. Including Arthur Blank. Including all the coaching staff and all the people that’s involved,” Morris said. “So it’s really hard to think of things personally. But I know it felt so damn good to get a win, man. It’s just an awesome feeling in general.”

And one that’s been a long time coming in Atlanta.

***

PHILIP RIVERS LEADS THE COMEBACK

The Colts rode their defense through a three-game winning streak earlier in the season, and the question lingering was the obvious one: Will Philip Rivers hold up his end of the bargain?

On Sunday, he finally did. The vaunted Indy defense allowed touchdowns on the Bengals’ first three possessions of the game. And Rivers answered the bell, thanks to a subtle tweak that the staff made to try and get the quarterback, and his offense, going.

After the Colts fell behind in last week’s loss in Cleveland, Indy had to go no-huddle on offense—and while it wasn’t nearly enough to get the Colts a fourth straight win, for Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, it recalled memories of how efficient Rivers was in the hurry-up when the three were together in San Diego. So when the Bengals ran their lead to 21–0, the idea to use the no-huddle to spark Rivers made sense to everyone.

“It just puts him in control at the line of scrimmage,” Reich told me, driving home from the stadium. “You’ve seen it, we get up there, I think it tires out the defense with the rush. And he’s just getting completions. It’s like you’re a boxer. So just throw the short completion, throw the short completion and then take a shot. And you look for your opportunity to hit a shot. He just has a good feel for that.”

Sure enough, on the first possession in the hurry up, Rivers hit Jack Doyle short for 17 yards, Trey Burton short for 15, then uncorked one down the right sideline to Marcus Johnson for 55 yards, which put the Colts on the Cincy 1. They scored two plays later and were on their way.

Drives of 75 and 72 yards followed, and by the time the teams got to the half, the Bengals’ lead had been cut to 24–21. From there, with the playing field leveled, Indy was able to grind out the 31–27 win in the second half.

And just as significant as the comeback itself was how the Colts came back—on the shoulders of Rivers. Which showed the team its capability to win that type of game.

“We talked after the game, we said we’ve got a lot to prove yet in this season, but to prove that we can win a game like that is one of the things that’s important to prove,” Reich said. “If you want to go the long road, it’s good to prove you can win like that if you need to. So yeah, I think that was an important step. … Just a horrendous start, really, both offensively and defensively. But [the mindset] was, Don’t panic. And you look around, you just have confidence that you have the players.”

And as for the quarterback everyone was throwing dirt on this week?

“I just think part of that is that last week we didn’t have our best outing,” Reich said. “And it wasn’t just Philip, I mean it was everybody. It was the whole, it’s all complimentary. And sure, there’s always a couple plays, when you’re the quarterback and you get down—he said it himself—but it wasn’t just him. It was everybody. But today? He was just on point.”

The Colts, for sure, will need him to continue to be, if they’re going to keep pace in the AFC South.

***

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

The NFL’s COVID-19 issue isn’t going away. And that’s mostly because America’s COVID-19 issue, at least in the short term, isn’t disappearing either. Here’s how the end of last week went for the NFL …

• The Falcons shut their facility down on Thursday as a precaution after a staffer came up positive that morning off a Wednesday test, two days after rookie DL Marlon Davidson tested positive. Atlanta returned to work on Friday.

• The Patriots followed suit on Friday, and the Jaguars on Saturday, after positive tests and contact tracing forced some players into quarantine.

• Three players from three teams (Patriots C James Ferentz, Panthers C Tyler Larsen and Eagles G Matt Pryor) landed on the COVID-19 list on Friday, and six more from four teams (Falcons DT John Cominsky; Patriots G Shaq Mason, RB Sony Michel and DE Derek Rivers; Jags LB Josh Mauro; and Ravens DT Brandon Williams) were moved there Saturday.

• Saturday’s round of testing, with results back early Sunday morning, showed no new positives league-wide.

I’d say the Titans’ situation, as well as Cam Newton’s positive tests, 100% took this to a different level. Teams weren’t so quick to shut down practice facilities three or four weeks ago, and the change in their willingness to do it now sure looks a lesson learned. What happened in Tennessee can happen anywhere. And I also get not adding an 18th week to the schedule yet. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s inevitable we’ll get there so long as the league is so adamant on getting all 256 regular season games in. I think waiting, and twisting and contorting the schedule now to avoid it, will give everyone an easier road if and when the time does come to add a week to regular season—the more games you have in the books at that point, the easier the rest is to manage going forward. It also would lessen the chance of going to a 19th week, which would make moving the Super Bowl a necessity.

The Patriots’ draft issues are catching up with them. The Patriots currently have four homegrown first-round picks on their roster—three drafted within the last 30 months (WR N’Keal Harry, OL Isaiah Wynn and RB Sony Michel) and one a decade ago (S Devin McCourty). And of the 22 guys who started for them Sunday, just 10 were drafted by the team (four of those were on the offensive line). And that’s part of what bit the Patriots in their 18–12 loss to Denver on Sunday. In fact, I think, to a degree, it played into the litany of miscues we saw.

• A snap over Cam Newton’s head short-circuited a second-quarter drive that ended in a field goal. First-and-10 at the 19 became third-and-13 from the 22. A field goal followed.

• The Broncos converted third-and-21 on a shot from Drew Lock to Tim Patrick, good for 35 yards when all was said and done.

• A Ryan Izzo fumble negated a third-down conversion in the third quarter after Denver went up 15–3, and set up an easy field goal to widen the gap to 18–3.

• Newton was picked off by Bryce Callahan on the first play of the next possession, when Harry stumbled with the ball on its way.

Now it’s not like this stuff never happens to the Patriots. What’s alarming more so is seeing it all hit at once. And I couldn’t help but wonder if this is, in any way, New England players trying to do a little too much, in recognizing that the situation was particularly bad on Sunday (with the aforementioned guys on the COVID-19 list). More evidence: Patriots coach Bill Belichick saying his team needed more practice, which seemed like an allusion to how all the COVID shutdowns of the last few weeks have limited his team’s work. It’s rare, to be sure, to see Belichick trying to explain away a loss, and you wonder if the honesty here was a way of sticking up for a roster that’s just plain outmanned at this point.

I think Christopher Johnson has a lot to think about right now. And maybe the smart thing to do is wait for his brother Woody to return from the U.K. before the Jets make a final decision on the fate of coach Adam Gase. After all, it’s Woody Johnson who’ll have to stroke checks to Gase in 2021 and 2022, regardless of whether or not Gase is working for him anymore. And to be clear, I don’t think the Jets should move because Atlanta and Houston did, nor do I think all that Gase has done in the NFL before the last two years is invalidated. It’s not even just about going 0–6. It’s how dead the team has looked in getting there—the closest of those six losses was six points, and four of the last five were by 18 points or more. So at this point, the question isn’t so much about whether or not it’s possible to climb out of that hole (it’s not) or signaling to candidates that the process is starting (there’s really not a big difference between doing it three or four weeks early and 10 weeks early). It’s about the development of Joe Douglas’s first draft class, as well as getting a clean read on Sam Darnold in a critical season for the quarterback, and I can’t imagine all of this is helping. So it’s incumbent now on Johnson to get the right read on his building. I’m not saying he should dump Gase tomorrow. I am saying this is the sort of juncture at which an owner needs to have the right feel for what’s happening behind closed doors.

The other New York team is now ahead of the Jets. And not just in the standings. Unlike their North Jersey co-tenants, the Giants were competitive week-to-week in starting 0–5 (only the Niners really ran away with one on them), and I don’t think there’s been much question about the team’s buy-in or commitment under new coach Joe Judge—buy-in and commitment that was rewarded on Sunday. I was actually at Giants camp this summer at the height of the “controversy” over players having to run laps. Judge and I talked about it, and he explained it in pretty simple terms, that a standard would be set and taken seriously. He also said that he explained it to the players and they were on board, and you could tell Judge meant it in how he then launched into, say, how smart Evan Engram is, and how tough Golden Tate had been. And weeks later, what he said Sunday was right along those lines: “To see them smile and to see them rewarded for their hard work, that’s really what you play for. You really want to teach someone and when you see somebody carry out what you teach ‘em and have success with it, that’s really the reward in our profession.” Some people back in the summer saw Judge as a Belichick parrot. He was never that. He believes in process like his mentors, Belichick and Nick Saban, do. But he delivers the message in a very different way (one example was how he dove into the mud with his rookies over the summer). And how the Giants were fighting through five weeks was proof it was starting to work. Getting a win was just the next logical step.

I think the Steelers are for real. Chase Claypool was spectacular again against Cleveland. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick-six was another example of how the third-year safety looks like he’s always in the right spot. The offensive line was outstanding. And the front seven continues to create all kinds of havoc behind T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward (and even with the loss of Devin Bush, that should continue). They sacked Baker Mayfield four times and held the vaunted Cleveland run game to 75 yards. Ben Roethlisberger looks great too, even if his belief is, after throwing for 166 yards, that there are still a lot of plays that the offense is leaving out there: “It was one of those weird feelings, because it didn’t feel like we were doing a lot on offense. I mean, yeah, we ended up scoring 31 points on offense. I know that the defense got a touchdown for us. But it just never really felt like we did much.” Thing is, that’s the sign of a team that’s able to win a lot of different ways. This, you’ll remember, was about as big a game as the Cleveland Browns have played in since they last made the playoffs 16 years ago, and it took 25 minutes for Pittsburgh to build a 24–0 lead. And they did it, per Roethlisberger, somewhere short of their ‘A’ game. We’ll see if they can summon it for what could be a season-defining stretch, with the rescheduled game against the Titans in Nashville next Sunday and a trip to Baltimore following that on Nov. 1.

Baker Mayfield’s situation bears watching. The Browns’ quarterback didn’t want to point to his sore ribs as a reason for his lackluster play after Sunday’s shellacking in Pittsburgh, and that’s to his credit. When he was asked how health played into a horrid stat line (10-of-18, 119 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), Mayfield quickly said, “It didn’t.” But coach Kevin Stefanski was equally blunt in saying it was the only reason Mayfield got pulled from (not benched in) the blowout. “I didn’t want to see him get hit one more time,” Stefanski said. “I know he wants to fight, but it’s a long season, we’ve got a game next week, and I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to put him back there.” Case Keenum played the last 52 seconds of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter of the 38–7 loss. Now, do I think the plug is in the process of getting pulled on Mayfield? I do not. Not yet, anyway. One of the new staff’s main focuses with Mayfield over the last six months has been getting him to play a calmer, less frantic game—and they figured Bill Callahan’s run game would be huge in helping to establish that. And it has been. Sunday, conversely, presented a different challenge, in that it forced Mayfield to play from behind. To be sure, he didn’t handle that great. But he’ll learn. Or he won’t. Either way, the Browns have to get answers on him over the next three months, because going into his fourth year, they’ll have to make decisions on his fifth-year option (for 2022) and whether to start negotiating a long-term deal with him. And I’m not sure they’d feel like they have enough information yet to make either of those decisions.

Moral victories shouldn’t exist for teams like Philly, but that might’ve been one on Sunday. At one point, the Eagles were down 24–6. At another, it was 30–14, and that deficit held into the final five minutes of the game. So that this game came down to a two-point conversion in the end wasn’t the goal—but realistically, it might be a start. And I was mildly surprised to hear Doug Pederson actually acknowledge that postgame: “As the head coach, I can stand here and say I’m proud of those guys in the locker room. And I know they’re going to get beat down this week, and that’s your job. But my job is to encourage them, and say, Hey, I get it, there are no moral victories in the NFL. There are no moral victories at all, and we’re all graded on wins and losses, but for this team to hang together on the sideline, to not point fingers, to battle, to be in this position with all the mistakes that were made in the first half, really offensively, and then we missed the kick, the field goal at the end of the half … I’m proud of the guys for the way they battled today.” The Eagles are 1–4–1. But if Dallas loses Monday night, they’ll remain tied for first in the loss column, and there’s a lot of season left. And finally something for Carson Wentz, a receiver named Travis Fulgham, and the rest of the guys to build on.

The Bears have nothing to apologize for. The defense may not be the dominant unit it was in 2018, but it’s still plenty good. After the Panthers closed to within one score with 7:46 left, Chicago forced a turnover on downs and an interception to put a bow on the 23–16 win. And Nick Foles is perfectly fine as a quarterback. So long as he’s managed the right way, and Matt Nagy’s known Foles long enough to understand how not to ask too much of him, he can complement a stacked defense nicely. “I understand we want to look at all the negatives and stuff,” Nagy said postgame. “But really, guys, what’s pretty cool is that our defense played lights out today. They played awesome against a good offense. I just want to be careful of getting too much (into the offense’s struggles). I’m pretty excited right now. We’re 5–1.” Does the offense have to get better? Yup. Is that necessary to get more out of Foles? Sure is. But the good news is the defense is effectively buying the quarterback and his offense time to work all that out. And 5–1 is 5–1.

I’ve got a few quick hitters for to cover what we might not otherwise get to.

• The 49ers’ bounce-back game against the Rams was really interesting in that the offense was efficient across the board—Jimmy Garoppolo looked solid, Kyle Shanahan showed how big his plans for Deebo Samuel were before his injury and George Kittle was himself again—and carried that day against a playoff-caliber defense. With Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas out, and the secondary still a little messy, this is the way it’ll have to be. We’ll see if Garoppolo and Co. can keep it up

• The Lions might be feisty from here. At 2–3, they’re a game out of the NFC playoff picture and their schedule softens up over the next few weeks (at Atlanta, Indianapolis, at Minnesota, Washington and at Carolina between now and Thanksgiving). Don’t count them out yet.

• Kyle Allen is fine and Alex Smith is a great story. But if Washington’s out on Dwayne Haskins, and they’re definitely leaning that way, the future is wide open at the position for the Football Team. And given who’s in charge there, Cam Newton may just have another suitor.

Deshaun Watson again showed why he’s Deshaun Watson, even if he did it for a 1–5 team on Sunday. Watson brought the Texans back from deficits of 14–0 and 21–7, and finished with 335 yards and four touchdowns on 28-of-37 passing, good for a 138.9 rating.

• I know Albert Okwuegbunam, the Broncos’ fourth-round rookie tight end, faced questions on his toughness coming out of Mizzou, and had just two catches for 45 yards on Sunday. But if you really watched that game, you can see something’s there. Which gives Denver another good young keeper at the skill spots.

• The Jaguars’ and Vikings’ shaky Sundays put both teams at 1–5. And it wouldn’t shock me if we saw changes later in the year if this keeps up (though I don’t think we’d see Minnesota blow up its football ops like Jacksonville well might.)

Sid Hartman was a national treasure. I’ve spent a lot of time in Minnesota over the years for work, be it to cover the Vikings, NFL court proceedings before Judge David Doty or, more recently, Super Bowl LII. And everywhere you went there, press rooms weren’t just filled with men and women who knew Sid, they were also filled with, well, Sid himself. He was never afraid to tell you exactly what he thought and, old school as they come, he carried a gigantic recording device because old habits die hard. I didn’t know him all that well—or, certainly, as well as the Minnesota press did. But there’s no question he left an impression on me, like so many others. And what I’ll remember most after his passing on Sunday, at 100 years old, is how he was always there. We should all be so lucky to love what we do so much that we’d continue with it at that age, when no one else is telling you that you have to. So s/o to you Sid, here’s hoping they let you bring your recorder upstairs.

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clemson-undefeated-teams

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Trevor Lawrence looks like he’s turning the college football season into his own personal seven-on-seven drill. The Clemson junior was 22-of-27 for 391 yards and five touchdowns and built a 52–7 lead in the first half against a Georgia Tech team that’s 2–1 in ACC play. I was texting with a bunch of guys about it as it was going down, and one evaluator from an NFC team summed it up like this: “His placement on the ball before the half was perfect.” We’ll probably nitpick Lawrence at some point. But I think we all have an idea of what we’re looking at here.

2) I’ve talked to scouts over the last year who insisted all along that DeVonta Smith was the best receiver on Alabama’s 2019 team, and top-15 picks Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy were on that team. And he showed why again Saturday night against a loaded Georgia secondary, and maybe most emphatically with an acrobatic, game-clinching catch in the fourth quarter. The scary thing? Now, he might not be the best—or first drafted—receiver on Alabama’s 2020 squad. Because Jaylen Waddle is ridiculous too. Through four games, the true junior has 25 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns, and scored a game-shifting 90-yard touchdown on Saturday night. In an NFL that’s putting more emphasis on speed at the position (call it the Tyreek Hill effect), scouts have told me he’s a sure first-rounder next April. And for what it’s worth, the comp one NFC exec gave me was, in fact, Hill—with Waddle being a little less dynamic, but a better route-runner than Hill was coming out of college.

3) Here’s a fun one: Saturday night’s Georgia/Bama game featured a pair of corners who might both land in the top-20 or so picks in April. Those two played against one another in Tuscaloosa but in tandem in high school. That’s right, Alabama junior Patrick Surtain Jr. (you may know of his dad) and Georgia junior Tyson Campbell graduated from American Heritage in Plantation, Fla. together in 2018 as the top two high school corners in America. As you might’ve noticed, both have lived up to billing. Even more wild? Surtain and Campbell also played with Marco Wilson at American Heritage. Wilson’s a year older than them, and now in his fourth year starting at corner at Florida.

4) We mentioned in the Thursday GamePlan column that many across the NFL will likely be taking a good hard look at the college ranks when the coaching carousel starts spinning again, given Matt Rhule’s early success in Carolina. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day have been obvious names, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Stanford’s David Shaw are the ones who’ve been on the radar a while (but have been reluctant to leave their alma maters), and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell is another one I’ve given you for a while. Here’s one more: Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck. His over-the-top enthusiasm (i.e. Row the Boat) seems made for the college level, but I think he’d be smart enough to adjust if he went to the NFL and he has won big at places that aren’t accustomed to it. He also played in the league for two years and coached in the league for one, and I think, if the Gophers have another strong year, the 39-year-old may get an inquiry or two.

5) I’ve met Mike Norvell before, and really like the new Florida State coach. He deserves time to build. But man, hearing his comment about what a “special” win Saturday night was really got my attention—and is a decent sign of how far the Seminoles have fallen. Since when is beating North Carolina in football “special” for FSU? (And I don’t care where UNC was ranked, because that was sort fraudulent anyway.)

6) Seemingly every year now, a quarterback emerges unexpectedly as a first-rounder (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow), and I’ve now got one I’m keeping an eye on: BYU’s Zach Wilson. The Cougars are 5–0, and Wilson (a true junior) has completed 78.7% of his passes for 1,641 yards, 12 touchdowns and a pick.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Technically, this was from Week 5. But I couldn’t let Derrick Henry sending Josh Norman into The Matrix on Tuesday night go unmentioned in this column.

Fair point.

Lots of funny stuff happened Tuesday.

That’s the Bucs’ GM, and I love when the football people come and roll around in the mud with the rest of us.

Did you know Clayton Kershaw’s going back to the World Series? (I think that’s right.)

Good for the Falcons.

Need to get to that assistant this week for a full recap.

Part I.

Part II.

Do yourself a favor and track down Derrick Henry’s high school highlights. They are hilarious.

Joey’s priceless.

This is why teammates love Fitz. You can see how happy he is for Tua right here.

How the NFL has changed, in one graphic.

The Steelers look like they’ll keep giving Claypool that feeling.

This stuff is so routine for Lamar, and Geoff’s right. We probably should appreciate it more.

RIP, Sid.

Not really NFL-related, but this was a monumental anniversary in my life.

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budda-baker-arizona-cardinals

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, Arizona’s 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl safety, Budda Baker …

MMQB: How has the contract [a four-year, $59 million extension] changed your life, if at all?

BB: The contract hasn’t really changed my life all that much because I was going into a season, still had my focus on the season. So the contract was definitely a great thing, a blessing, a plus. But in my mind, I was still focused on the season. Haven’t bought anything, or done anything yet. Right now, I’m just focusing on the Dallas Cowboys.

MMQB: How are you a better player this year than you have been in years past?

BB: Honestly, this is my first year having the same defense from the year before. My first three years, it was three whole new coaching staffs, three new defenses, three new positions. Each and every year, I was going into something different. And this year, it’s the same as last year for the first time in my career. So I definitely feel like I’m building on all types of things I did last year, I’m building off of that—whether it’s playing man on receivers and tight ends, or blitzing off the edge or doing my zone stuff, just trying to do everything that much better.

MMQB: How has [defensive coordinator] Vance Joseph’s system fit you then?

BB: Oh man, I feel like Vance’s defense gets a lot out of me. He’s a guy that likes to play man, a guy that likes to get pressure to the QB and have a body on a body. Defensive players, we play a lot of man, we blitz, we have some pressures, we play zone. His whole defensive scheme is what I pride myself in trying to be, which is everything, trying to be able to do everything. This defense has given me the keys to do a lot of things.

MMQB: I’ve heard people call you a new-age safety, like where the position is going. Do you agree?

BB: Yeah, I definitely believe so. The NFL’s turning into a passing league, and there’s not those safeties that years ago could just be in the box and play like a linebacker. That’s not what offenses are doing now, offenses are spreading you out and trying to get the weakest link on their top receivers and so forth. So I definitely think me, the size that I am, the position that I play, it’s definitely a new-age type of safety.

MMQB: Has it been hard playing with the injured thumb, before and after surgery, at all?

BB: Of course, being a DB, using my hands, being able to take on blocks and shed them off, without your thumb it’s kind of hard. But at the end of the day, I have nine other fingers I’m able to play with and I have my cast on my right thumb. Hopefully, I’ll get it off one day.

MMQB: How have you had to make up for it?

BB: For me, it was probably the first game, the Detroit Lions game, wearing that cast, getting it fitted and everything. And then coming out there, early on in the game, maybe the first play, I missed a tackle. For me, it was just like, O.K., you just gotta figure out a way to get the guy down without necessarily getting to grab them. It made me think about tackling a little bit different. And then also catching the ball, when the ball’s in the air, with that cast on my hand, I have to track it differently than I would if I had the thumb. Those things are definitely something small. But I’m working every day, trying to get better at it. And going into New York, definitely felt like it was a better game for me personally, making tackles and all that.

MMQB: Is this as tough an injury as you’ve had to manage?

BB: I’ve definitely played through things more difficult. Good thing is, you can use your legs, of course. Nothing’s wrong with my legs and that’s always a positive. It’s not terribly difficult. It’s different but I can still play the game at a high level.

MMQB: Is it a challenge preparing for the Cowboys, playing a quarterback they haven’t played with much?

BB: We always try to think first, they have a great back, one of the best running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. For us, it’s gonna be about stopping the run first, because he’s a guy that can take over a game. And especially not having your No. 1 QB, you’re gonna rely on your run game a little more. So definitely trying to stop the run. When the ball’s in the air, they have great receivers to make plays on the ball. Andy Dalton’s a great quarterback, they’re still gonna run their offense, we all saw the New York Giants game, where he took a couple shots and got them into field goal range. He’s Andy Dalton at the end of the day, he’s a great QB, and we have a challenge coming ahead.

MMQB: Did you look at his Bengals tape?

BB: You may look at some Bengals tape, but with that, personally, you just want to see what they have on the field, and be able to watch Amari Cooper of 2020, and the rookie receiver, No. 88 [CeeDee Lamb]. So yeah, you go back and watch a little Bengals tape but you know at the end of day they’re gonna be running their offense.

MMQB: What’s been the toughest adjustment with the COVID-19 protocols?

BB: Me, I’m kind of an introvert, I like to stay at home anyway. For me, COVID hasn’t really been much different, I’m just staying in the house like I always do. But this year, maybe when you wanna go hang out with your buddies, you have to think. There are guys that aren’t in the facility that you wanna hang out with, but they’re not getting COVID tested every day, so you don’t want to take that chance. So limiting seeing your friends outside the sport of football is different.

MMQB: Are you paying attention to things like the Titans’ situation, or Cam Newton’s situation?

BB: Oh yeah, I most definitely keep up with what’s going on in the league. But we can only control what we can control. You always wonder: Damn, how did that happen at that place? Those are thoughts we have, but we just don’t want it to happen over here.

MMQB: What has Kliff Kingsbury brought to the table that’s made a difference for you guys?

BB: For me, Kliff is a very well-mannered guy who’s not gonna scream at you, not gonna yell at you. He’s gonna let you know with good conviction to do your job. Being a grown man and getting coached by grown men, he’s that guy that you really want to listen to. He’s not gonna scream in your face, he’s gonna talk to you like the grown man that you are. And he’s definitely a guy that brings the juice on offense, brought in K1 [Kyler Murray], and a lot of other guys, changed our offense. For me, 30 points on the board, I didn’t see that much the first couple years I was in the league. So seeing a quarterback that can put points on the board, great receivers, running backs, it’s definitely crazy to see, crazy going against them in practice. Some of their stuff is very unorthodox against what an NFL offense would normally look like. Seeing all things he’s changing in the league, it’s definitely a great thing and cool to see.

MMQB: So are you watching Kyler and the offense during games?

BB: For sure. Every time they’re on the field, I get the corrections from the defense and after that I’m standing up and watching the offense. They’re really something fun to see. Definitely excited that we get a national game, Monday Night Football in Dallas, it’s gonna be exciting to see the Arizona Cardinals.

MMQB: Then, do you feel like this could be a good chance to show everyone how far the team has come?

BB: Exactly. Exactly. Like you said, we’re gonna show everyone who the Cardinals are. A lot of people haven’t seen our games. So it’s definitely gonna be fun and exciting to have all types of people from around the world watch us play. Hopefully, we’ll play real good.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Monday Night Football starts at 5:00 ET, and we’ve got a couple good ones with Bills–Chiefs serving as the undercard for Cowboys–Cardinals. Or something like that.

See you this afternoon, for the MAQB.