Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals Never Stopped Believing During NFC West–Altering Comeback

It took an incredible finish late into the night Sunday, but the Cardinals are right in the thick of things in the NFL's best division. Plus, the Steelers are the last undefeated team left, how the Lions were prepared for an endgame situation, Jimmy G returns to Foxboro and much more.
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Kliff Kingsbury had watched his team fall behind by 10, then by 13, then 13 again in the first half. He’d seen Russell Wilson put his MVP credentials on display. He watched a potential pick-six by his best defensive player, Budda Baker, get wiped out by the freakish athleticism of Seattle’s rising young star D.K. Metcalf, and he and his team had somehow survived one botched game-winning field-goal attempt in overtime already.

It felt like his Cardinals were on their 10th life, past midnight on the East Coast.

And yet, what the second-year Arizona coach saw on his sideline as Isaiah Simmons picked off Wilson with less than a minute to play, to create one more chance for the home team to win the game, belied all the zaniness we witnessed in prime time. Maybe it was Kyler Murray. Maybe it was Larry Fitzgerald or DeAndre Hopkins. Whatever it was, the group Kingsbury was sending back out on to the field was totally unaffected.

“They never stopped believing,” Kingsbury said, driving home from State Farm Stadium. “In the first half, when it was bad, they had 300-plus yards and 27 points, I could tell in the locker room, our guys believed. And they continued to fight. That was no different. They knew we were going to win the game and find a way. Luckily, they bailed me out with the bad call on that first overtime drive.

“It’s just fun to be around those guys.”

America learned on Sunday night—if you missed them last Monday night, that is—it’s pretty fun to watch those guys, too.

It didn’t take Murray, Fitzgerald, Hopkins & Co. long to make good on Kingsbury’s premonition. Simmons’s pick gave Arizona the ball at the Seahawks’ 49 with 57 seconds showing. Murray hit Hopkins for nine yards, and Hopkins went out of bounds. Chase Edmonds then moved the sticks, covering three yards on a draw. Murray spiked the ball with 33 seconds left, then hit Fitzgerald on a screen for seven yards. And then, after one deep shot to the end zone, the Cardinals sent kicker Zane Gonzalez out for a second chance after the aforementioned botch.

This time his 48-yard kick was true.

Cardinals 37, Seahawks 34 in as wild a Sunday-nighter as you’ll see. And we’ll remember it for that weirdness, no doubt. But it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that we’ll also look back on it as something else: the night Arizona announced itself as a bona fide contender in the rugged NFC West.

“It’s getting to 2–0 in the division with our bye week,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to rest and heal up. And teaching a lot off of the win against a really good team, is the biggest thing. Would hate to have lost that one and try to make those corrections. There’s a lot we have to clean up, obviously. But to get to 2–0 at the midpoint, at our bye week, it’s kind of our goal.”

And the possibilities from here are pretty wild, when you consider where the Cardinals were just a year and a half ago.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports; Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports; Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

***

That was an awesome Sunday, so we’re going to jump right into this week’s MMQB column. Inside, you’ll find …

• JuJu Smith-Schuster on the perfect Steelers.

• How the Lions’ command of situational football spurred an unfathomable win.

• What returning to Foxboro meant for Jimmy Garoppolo.

But we’re starting with the off-the-wall prime-time finale that capped a jam-packed day.

***

It’s easy to forget now, but pulling the plug on Josh Rosen and going to Kyler Murray wasn’t exactly a popular decision in April 2019. Nor was the months-earlier call to fire Steve Wilks after a single season and turn to a just-fired college coach. And at the time GM Steve Keim led these controversial moves, plenty thought the roster he’d assembled, a few years removed from being among the NFL’s best, was the worst in pro football.

But there is one guy who won’t ever forget all that, and that’s Kingsbury himself.

“Yeah, I mean, it wakes me up in the morning every day,” he said. “I’m forever indebted to Steve Keim, because he saved my career, really. He saw things in me that I may not have even seen in myself at the time.”

In return, Keim and the Cardinals have gotten what most people are looking for in head coaches these days—a guy who’s developing a quarterback; building an inventive, fun offense; getting buy-in from across his roster; and leading a program that’s on a pretty clear upward trajectory. And, don’t mix it up, the direction the Cardinals are heading in was right there for everyone to see on NBC.

Arizona fell behind 10–0, then 20–7, then 27–14 in the first half, before a frantic two-minute drive set up a 49-yard field goal from Gonzalez to cut Seattle’s lead to 27–17 just before the break. After a Cardinals touchdown in the third quarter, the Seahawks’ lead went back to 10 on a circus toe-drag catch from Tyler Lockett with 6:50 left in the fourth—a catch initially called out of bounds, then reversed on review.

Arizona needed multiple breaks, and the first one came on the next possession, with Benson Mayowa flagged for hurdling the line on Gonzalez’s 52-yard field goal attempt with 3:02 left. A 15-yard personal foul penalty moved the ball from the 34 to the 19, and the Cardinals scored two plays later. And then, minutes later, a Tanner Vallejo stop on third-and-two forced Seattle to punt the ball away, giving Arizona possession at its own 20 with 52 seconds left.

Somehow, the Cardinals covered 54 yards in 49 seconds with no timeouts left—which seems borderline impossible, but happened because the whole offense was following Murray’s lead in keeping its wits, and twice Fitzgerald picked up the ball and ran it back to the official to get it spotted faster, which saved Arizona the time it needed.

“He’s phenomenal,” said Kingsbury. “He’s as good as anybody that’s ever played the game, in my opinion. At any position. And we haven’t done a great job of getting him the ball as much as we should have. And tonight, he made huge plays. Just his wherewithal, his awareness, he’s always giving me great information on the sideline or thoughts. He’s played so many years and been in so many offenses and different situations, there’s nobody I listen to more than Larry Fitzgerald. Just the leadership—can’t say enough good things about him.

“So it’s awesome to see him have that role again, and I expect his role to continue to expand. Because he can still play at a really high level.”

But the truth was, on this night, getting the ball spotted was as big a role as there was, because it worked to set up Gonzalez’s 44-yarder to tie the game at 34 and send it into overtime.

Once there, the Cardinals had to win the game twice. On the first go-round, Edmonds’s runs of 32 and nine yards helped Arizona cover 54 yards in four plays, which led to Gonzalez lining up—after Murray lost five yards on a keeper—for a 41-yard field goal on second down to win the game. Gonzalez nailed his first try, but that was negated when Kingsbury called a timeout with the play clock running out. Gonzalez’s second try sailed wide left.

“That was just a complete debacle, honestly,” Kingsbury said. “Should’ve just kept running the ball until we got fourth down or scored. I got conservative. We thought the clock was going to run out, so I call timeout. We make it. We come back and we miss it. And then when we tried to center the ball, the quarterback’s blown out. It was, like I said, a terrible job coaching by me. But our guys found a way to bail me out.”

The first player to do so, it turned out, was Simmons, the eighth pick in April’s draft who didn’t play a defensive snap in the first half. Arizona had Seattle in third-and-14 near midfield with 1:04 left in OT, and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph called for his guys to crowd the line and feign as if he was sending the house.

That was enough to create an opportunity for Simmons to show off his freakish hybrid safety-linebacker skill set, in a way he hasn’t yet as an NFL rookie.

“He’s a guy we’re continuing to work in, trying to put him in positive situations,” Kingsbury said. “Without an offseason and preseason, we want to make sure we’re bringing him along the right way. He’s continuing to earn more and more playing time. The play, we were going to show blitz, we were playing cover-zero a bunch. Trying to get it out of Russ’s hands because when he has it, he’s just a magician. … He tried to throw hot.

“Isaiah did a great job getting underneath it and making that play. Huge, huge play that really won the game for us.”

The full-extension pick—in part resulting from what looked like a miscommunication—didn’t end the game, but it sure did make it a lot easier for the offense to give Gonzalez a shot to atone for his earlier miss. And Murray saw to it that the group was level going out there.

“He had his moments, but you can definitely see this year, the game has slowed down for him,” Kingsbury said. “The thought process has slowed down for him. Even in the motions, he’s kind of settled. And he’s pretty much got a ‘Hey, just give me the next play, I’ll make it work,’ mentality the entire night.”

And you know what happened next.

Murray got the next play, and he made it work, and less than a minute of game clock later, that was that.

The Cardinals, as a result, are 5–2—unbelievable as that might sound—and, if Sunday night is any indication, they’re just getting started.

***

ben-roethlisberger-pittsburgh-steelers-last-unbeaten-team

STEELERS STAY UNBEATEN

Before the haywire Sunday-nighter, the Game of the Day coming out of Week 7 was going to be the Game of the Day coming into the week—the unbeaten Steelers vs. the unbeaten Titans. That’s in part thanks to the AFC stakes, but also because of the winding path this contest took.

Pittsburgh, to put it lightly, beat the rough-and-tumble Titans senseless over the first 35 minutes, building a 27–7 lead while seemingly turning another supposed showdown into a beatdown, like the Steelers had the week before with Cleveland. But Tennessee showed its mettle, cutting the deficit to 27–24 with 10:13 left.

From there, Ben Roethlisberger led the visitors on what looked like a season-defining drive. Starting at their own nine, the Steelers covered 84 yards in 16 plays, taking the clock under 3 minutes and setting up a potential game-clinching score. And that’s where the fun really began. On third-and-12 from the Titans’ 19, Roethlisberger spun one down the seam to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had three defenders in his vicinity.

As Smith-Schuster saw it, Roethlisberger was trying to give him a shot to make a play. The defense wound up making it instead—as the receiver reached up for it, he tipped it in the direction of Amani Hooker, who pulled it down to give Tennessee new life.

“I think it’s just the defense making a play,” Smith-Schuster said. “I had the ball in my hand, they knocked it out. Them having multiple guys there to make a play, that’s just a good play on them.”

On this day, it would take more than just the offense, and that’s now become a theme of Pittsburgh’s season. In the decade since they last went to the Super Bowl, they’ve had top-shelf offensive groups and stout defensive groups.

This group, they hope, is as well-rounded as any as they’ve had in a while. So Smith-Schuster could leave the field with 2:40 left and not feel like all was lost—because it really wasn’t. The Steeler defense’s consistent pressure forced Ryan Tannehill into a grounding penalty soon thereafter, then into an incompletion on third down, which kept Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal bid to force OT with 19 seconds remaining nice and long, at 49 yards.

He missed it right, and the Steelers are still perfect.

And in a game that had the feel of a prizefight, the Steelers threw the last punch.

“I think we’re a team that if we get hit in the mouth, we don’t back down,” Smith-Schuster said. “We come back, we hit them back even harder. There’s been multiple situations where, the Titans go down, they score. Titans go down, they score. For me, it’s more so like, ‘O.K., let’s go back. Let’s go back at them.’”

The Steelers could because so many of their guys were bringing the lumber. Both Smith-Schuster and second-year stud Diontae Johnson had nine catches, Eric Ebron had six, and James Conner carried the ball 20 times, while Ben Roethlisberger threw it 49 times. And the defense has rounded into shape and, while it might not be of vintage Pittsburgh quality, it keeps inching closer to that

They knew they’d need all of that against a Titans team that was plenty tough, too.

“Coming up to the game, we were really talking about it being a five-star matchup, because we’re in it, and being able to stop the run game,” Smith-Schuster said. “We stop the run game, we cause them to throw the ball, we make Tannehill throw the ball. Obviously, we did that today.”

And Tannehill threw the ball well, even with the Titans rushing for a season-low 82 yards. But, again, the Steelers knew what they were in for, and got exactly what coach Mike Tomlin said they would—a street fight with a team capable of matching their toughness.

They come out of it now with a 6–0 mark and the inside track to home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Even better, with Roethlisberger getting his sea legs, there’s still plenty of room to grow.

“You gotta think about it, this is Ben’s first time playing with Diontae Johnson and Chase [Claypool],’ Smith-Schuster said. “This is all new to them. We’re still learning as the season goes on. We learn so many new things in practice. … And this is the same Ben I’ve played with, I think this is Super Bowl Ben.”

As far as getting back there goes, the Steelers, at the very least, took another step in the right direction on Sunday.

***

detroit-lions-celebrate-win-over-falcons

LIONS PREPARED FOR A WILD FINISH

Believe it or not, Lions coach Matt Patricia first heard about the Penn State–Indiana finish getting ready for the bus ride to the airport Sunday. It was after Detroit edged the Falcons 23–22, and it was raised to him for obvious reasons—just like Todd Gurley’s mistake of scoring cost Atlanta on Sunday, a similar move by Penn State’s Devyn Ford opened the door for an Indiana upset on Saturday.

So Patricia was still new to the comparison everyone was making to describe his team’s win as we talked late Sunday afternoon. But just as clear, he certainly wasn’t new to the circumstance. In fact, he and his staff had coached it, and even called it on that snap.

And that’s why Sunday’s win, as much as anything, was a victory for situational football.

While Patricia wouldn’t divulge the nomenclature, the Lions have a one-word call for the circumstance where they want the other team’s ballcarrier to score. This was clearly one of those times. There was 1:12 left, it was first-and-goal at the 10, and Detroit had just burned its last timeout, up 16–14. Atlanta could, in theory, bleed the clock and kick the game-winning field goal at the buzzer.

So really, Detroit’s only hope was to block the field goal or just let the Falcons score a touchdown. As short as the field goal was going to be, the latter option made much more sense. So Patricia called it, and Gurley easily broke through the line at the snap. Then, Lions safety Will Harris grabbed him, as if to tackle him, and influenced him toward the goal line. Before Gurley realized what was going on, it was too late.

“It goes all the way back to the Super Bowl [in 2011],” Patricia said, on his way to the airport. “It’s something that we’ve always had in our defense.”

Patricia’s reference point there was from his time as Patriots defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLVI. The play was a second-and-goal with less than a minute left, and the New England defenders let Ahmad Bradshaw go through the line, then influenced him into the end zone. By the time Bradshaw figured it out—as was the case with Gurley—it was too late and he’d scored.

In that case, the Giants took the lead 21–17, and the Patriots couldn’t come back with the 53 seconds they had left. In this case, the Lions did come back.

Armed with 1:04 left, and no timeouts, Matthew Stafford hit T.J. Hockenson for 13 yards (the Falcons wrestled him down in bounds to keep the clock rolling) and Danny Amendola over the middle for 22 more to get the Lions in position for a miracle finish. After a pair of spikes to kill the clock, the Lions were left with 19 seconds, 40 yards to go and a six-point deficit.

That’s where situational ball comes in again. Detroit practiced for this very situation over the last couple of weeks—with a set time for what it would take to get one play off, spike the ball, then get another off to try and score. It was just under the 19 seconds they had, so the first order of business was getting the ball inside the 20.

“We need a chunk,” Stafford told me. “We need a chunk and don’t really care if it’s in bounds or out of bounds. We know obviously if it’s in bounds, we’ve got to be ready to hustle up and spike it as quickly as possible. These are situations that we work on in practice all the time. But we were able to hit it, which was huge. If we don’t hit that, we’re in a tough spot, probably throwing a couple Hail Marys. So it was a huge play to hit.

“Obviously a great play by Kenny [Golladay]. And a little bit of craziness ensued after that as well, but it was nice to get that play hit.”

The throw, a deep in-cut, picked up 29 yards, and the Lions hustled to the line and spiked it with three seconds left—and a review to confirm Golladay’s catch ensued. And while you might think the delay (which confirmed the call) would help, to buy the offense time to discuss what came next, it didn’t. Both Stafford and Patricia said the Lions would’ve actually preferred to go straight to the line.

“We know what we’re going to do there,” Patricia said. “It actually slowed it down.”

“I think we were pretty dialed in on what we wanted to do for the last play,” Stafford said. “In practice, we work on situational stuff, and we’ve got a menu of a couple plays to pick from that yard line. And we realized we wanted to run the one we ended up running.”

That one didn’t exactly go according to plan—you can see that in how the play was run, with Stafford scrambling, and tight end T.J. Hockenson getting in his vision—but what mattered was the Lions were ready for what was coming. And just as coolly as Stafford got the team to the line to spike the ball on the snap previous, he calmly bought time, then rifled the ball into Hockenson’s belly for the game-winner.

“Give all the credit to the players,” Patricia said. “They’re the ones that have to execute it. We practice those situations all the time.”

As a result, the Lions are 2–0 since their bye, to even their season mark at 3–3 and stay on the fringes of the NFC playoff picture, which isn’t a bad place to be considering where they were. And it’s in part because they confronted that reality and drilled back down on the details, and now, evidently, it’s paying off.

“We just reflected on a start that obviously wasn’t as good as we wanted, but was in a lot of ways close,” Stafford said. “So we just needed to tighten it up and find ways to win games. We were close to being 2–2 at the bye, we were 1–3. And we were what we were, but we knew we have a chance to go out there next four games and make a big dent. So we’re trying to accomplish that.”

And that, on Sunday, was one dramatic way to do it.

***

jimmy-garopollo-returns-to-foxboro

JIMMY G RETURNS

Jimmy Garoppolo might’ve wanted it to sound like this was any other week the last few days. The truth is, it wasn’t.

“I mean, I tried to tell myself throughout the week that it’s just a normal week,” he told me early Sunday night. “But there’s obviously a different feel to it, just knowing so many players, coaches, personnel, all that stuff, on the other side. And then it really hit me when we pulled up to the stadium today. Seeing the stadium, seeing similar things, hearing they still play the same songs in between quarters and at the beginning of games.

“It brought back a lot of memories. It was a really cool experience. I couldn’t imagine it going any better.”

Beating the crap out of his old team is a good reason to feel that way.

There’s a lot to take from the Niners’ 33–6 win over the Patriots in Foxboro on Sunday. Garoppolo, save for a couple misfires, played well. Cam Newton didn’t. And New England’s defense was no match for Kyle Shanahan’s still-rolling run game (we’ll get to that).

But the biggest thing to me, really, is the resilience of the two programs at this point. Lots of really good teams have come and gone over the Patriots’ two-decade run atop the NFL. And the Patriots have routinely withstood pretty much anything and everything throughout. Along those lines, going into Sunday, both of these teams have dealt with a lot—injuries, opt-outs, attrition, and more.

For now, and for once, the Patriots aren’t the ones handling it best. The Niners are. With Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas out for the year, and a long list of others (Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, etc.) missing Sunday, Kyle Shanahan’s crew is rounding right into shape, beating New England seven days after running over the Rams, and showing enough to where it reminds Garoppolo of the place he came from.

“The standard when I first came here wasn’t set or anything like that,” Garoppolo said. “We had a really young team. But as guys got older, we kind of have that. It’s hard to put your finger on that. But the leaders and captains are setting the example. This is how we play, this is what we do. It just puts your team in a good spot. It allows the coaches to coach and it allows the players to play.

“That part definitely [is like New England]. Just holding each other accountable is something our players do great. We don’t really rely on the coaches, whether it’s discipline or something like that, players handle it in-house, and I think that’s the best way to do it.”

And the result is a defense with a beat-up line and secondary going into Foxboro and holding the Patriots to 59 yards in the first half, as the visitors built a 23–3 lead at the break. It’s also the run game, as that’s happening, and without Mostert, ripping off 127 yards on 20 carries through two quarters.

“It starts with the coaches,” Garoppolo continued. “Those guys, every week, they really take pride in the run game and making it look similar but different at the same time. And it’s just, when they can put in something that unique and different, it’s on the players to get it down and get it right in practice. We’ve got a bunch of smart guys. Whoever you put in there, they’re going to know what to do and how to run the play.

“When you can do that, that’s how you sustain injuries and things like that throughout a season, especially in this COVID season. There’s just so many injuries, so many weird things going on. But when you have a system like that and guys who can buy into it and run it, it makes for a successful team.”

And yeah, that sure sounds a lot like what New England used to be.

Can the Patriots get back there? It’s hard to say, because we’re seeing a lot of things we haven’t in a long, long time. The last time New England lost three games in a row was in 2002. The last time the Patriots were two games under .500 was 2001. And a lot of this appears to be not bad luck, but a string of shaky drafts coming home to roost.

Next week’s game against the Bills, as a result, feels like a must-win for the Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Niners go to Seattle next Sunday and, despite everything, will arrive right in the thick of the NFC West race. And seeing how this happening, they sure have the look of a team that’ll be there year-in and year-out for the foreseeable future.

Which isn’t nearly as hard to comprehend as the idea that New England might not be there anymore.

***

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady talks with New wide receiver Antonio Brown near the line of scrimmage against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

I understand the Bucs’ decision to sign Antonio Brown. What makes it justifiable, to me (and this is putting moral objections aside for the minute, to the extent you can), is that Tampa’s bringing him in under a much different circumstance than the Raiders or Patriots did last year. Consider the expenditure for each …

• Raiders: 2019 third- and fifth-round picks, plus a reworked three-year, $50.1 million deal.

• Patriots: A one-year deal, $9 million signing bonus, $1 million base and $5 million in incentives.

• Buccaneers: A one-year deal, $750K base, $250K in per-game roster bonuses, plus a $750K incentive for a Super Bowl win and $750K in statistical incentives.

Brown, in other words, has pretty much no leverage. In Oakland and New England, the teams had something tangible to lose. In this case, the Bucs really don’t. And it also helps fulfill the promise to Brady to be aggressive and operate in a win-now manner (remember, Tampa did similar things with Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette). So for the team, yeah, I get it, even if it might have taken some stomach to inject Brown’s presence into a team that’s just starting to roll now. We saw again on Sunday what Brady and the Bucs are capable of. The quarterback was at the top of his game again, connecting of 33-of-45 throws for 369 yards and four touchdowns, finding nine different receivers in the process, and hitting six of them multiple times. The defense eventually came around, too. How does Brown make all that better? Well, first, just by being Antonio Brown, assuming he’s still some significant percentage of what he once was. Second, he gives you depth, helping to ensure a team strength will remain a team strength if there are injuries at receiver again. Third, you keep your quarterback happy. I know what Bruce Arians said about Brady not being involved in this decision after his Bucs’ 45–20 beatdown. Truth is, Brady and Brown have been in touch, and Bucs management, bare minimum, is aware of what its quarterback wants. Over the last couple years, Brady had been charged in New England with taking responsibility for wideouts the team brought into help him—Like Brown and Josh Gordon. It stands to reasons the Bucs would arrange things similarly in this spot. And if it works? Look out.

It’s too early to pass final judgment on Baker Mayfield. I don’t want to overreact, either. Because it would’ve been easy to do that. But the numbers are just too overwhelming. After starting 0-for-5 with a pick, Mayfield was borderline perfect. He connected on 22 of his final 23 throws for 297 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, it was against the Bengals. No, I don’t really care. There were a lot of good signs here. The clutch touchdown throw he dropped in to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones is a good place to start. But there’s more there. There’s how, after Odell Beckham went down, he seemed to be more proficient—playing the position like a point guard would, which is naturally who he is. That added up to five receivers finishing with three or more catches. And this isn’t an indictment of Beckham. In fact, had Beckham played, he’d probably have had a big day—Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins slid over to Beckham’s spot and wound up with 110 yards on six catches. It’s an explanation of how an uber-talented receiver can influence where the ball goes without even trying, and sometimes negate his quarterbacks’ strengths. And on top of that, there’s also how Mayfield is taking his coaching. One example came on Mayfield’s second touchdown throw to rookie tight end Harrison Bryant. Coaches have been working on the quarterback’s eye discipline and footwork going back to the spring. On this particular play, Mayfield used his eyes to create a small opening to get the ball to Bryant over the middle in the end zone, and kept his feet calm throughout, allowing for an accurate throw into a tight window. For plays like that, and the rhythm he played with throughout, the staff felt like Mayfield played his best game as a pro. The trick now will be repeating that. We’ll see if Mayfield can.

I don’t think Jerry Jones wants to fire Mike McCarthy. And as much people may want to assign an itchy trigger finger to Jones, the Cowboys’ owner generally doesn’t have one. Only one coach he’s hired got less than three years, and that was 20 years ago. That coach, Chan Gailey, got two years. Jones held on to Jason Garrett longer than many thought he should, and he stuck with Wade Phillips for longer than some wanted him to, so the book on Jones says McCarthy will get time to make the Cowboys his own. Then, there’s the flip side—and it relates to the reasons why McCarthy was his choice last year, and Marvin Lewis and Ron Rivera were on Dallas’s list. McCarthy was hired to get immediate results with a roster that the Joneses believed was championship ready, a sentiment backed up by an enormous amount of spending on big contracts for their core of homegrown talent. So if McCarthy isn’t giving the team exactly what it’s looking for, where does that leave him? I think the answer’s unclear. If he has to start throwing assistants overboard to survive, well, it wouldn’t be the first time that McCarthy has shuffled staff, and that could put defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (and others) in the crosshairs. If he has to make personnel or scheme changes, we’ve seen him do that, too. But if the real question is whether McCarthy survives? Just keep an eye on the locker room. Here’s what captain DeMarcus Lawrence said postgame, via ESPN’s Todd Archer: “We need more belief and more high spirits around this team, and really more fight. That’s really, I feel like, one of our weaknesses.” That honestly may well be the first time I’ve heard a player call “belief” a team weakness, and it’s shown early in games—the Cowboys fell behind 26–7 to Atlanta, 30–15 to Seattle, 41–14 to the Browns and 17–3 to the Giants. They fought back in each of those and wound up splitting the four. The last two weeks? They fell behind and didn’t fight back the same way. Which leads you to two conclusions. Either Dallas isn’t very good, and needed Dak Prescott to keep them in games, or Dallas isn’t very good and their fight is gone now too. Neither acquits the coaches well.

Washington had itself a moment in the locker room after the game. In case you missed the video, the team’s star second-year receiver, Terry McLaurin, stepped in after coach Ron Rivera addressed his players postgame, following the 25–3 win over the Cowboys. “Man, I know I’m still a young guy, ain’t a captain or nothing, but the way we came out this week, it was better than last week,” McLaurin said. “And I thought we deserved to win last week, the way came out and practiced. That was complementary football, from the offense to the defense to the special teams. Man, feel this, enjoy this s---.” Knowing McLaurin’s rep coming into the NFL as a leader, and understanding the organizational overhaul he’s been in-house for, I just thought it was pretty interesting to see a 25-year-old emboldened to step forward like that. So I texted Rivera about it, and he said, “Just thought it was awesome that he said that. That helps me get my message out there about our team.” And as for McLaurin, when I hit him up, his explanation was similarly simple: “Honestly it was on my heart and I just wanted to share that with the team. We had a great week of practice and played complementary football and I just wanted to tell our guys we have to do that and more going forward to be successful and have a chance to compete for the division.” In other words, all this came very naturally to McLaurin, because he’s been in leadership positions before, which helps to make it authentic with his teammates. Washington still needs a lot to become a real contender. And building around guys like McLaurin won’t hurt as they look for that sort of help.

Drew Brees has something for everyone who thinks he’s got nothing left. Postgame on Sunday, Sean Payton was asked about having to play the Panthers without starting receivers Mike Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. And his answer was very contemporary to the NFL in 2020. “One thing that we know is that the games are going to be played,” he said. “There are a couple of other teams dealing with some pretty extreme adversity. Honestly, no one else outside of your building really cares. I am proud of how our guys focused and found a way to get the win.” They had to scratch this one out—Matt Rhule’s feisty Panthers were alive right up until Joey Slye’s game-tying, potentially-record-breaking, 65-yard field goal attempt fell a couple end-over-end spins short of the crossbar with 1:55 left. So it wasn’t pretty. But it was encouraging in that Drew Brees may have played his best game of the year, and did it throwing to, among others, kick returner Deonte Harris and undrafted rookie Marquez Callaway. Those two had a combined 18 career catches going into Sunday. They had 12 between them, good for 121 yards and a touchdown, against Carolina. And that, to me, matters, because losing Thomas was a pretty big deal for the Saints’ offense early on. They’ve adapted, and it looks Brees has too, and that New Orleans can still ride its quarterback when need be is a good sign for what’s still a very, very talented roster.

It was against the Jets, but I think the Bills might’ve stopped the bleeding. Buffalo came undone in the second half in Nashville and looked shaky overall against Kansas City—and that made Sunday a little bit of a referendum on the progress we all thought the Bills were making during a 4–0 start. And, again, it was the Jets. But with trouble staring Buffalo down, the Bills choked the Jets into submission, even if it was a slow death. The second-half numbers are eye-opening.

• The Bills had 233 total yards. The Jets had 4.

• The Bills had 13 first downs. The Jets had 2.

• The Bills got into field goal range on all five of their meaningful second-half possessions. The Jets punted on every possession except their final one, which ended in a pick.

• Josh Allen was 18-of-23 for 178 yards after the break. Sam Darnold was 1-of-8 for 4 yards.

Next up: New England. The Patriots come to Orchard Park, and the Bills have a shot to put them in the rearview mirror in the AFC East. As bad as Bill Belichick’s group looked Sunday, I know Sean McDermott knows his guys won’t be able to settle for field goals or start slow like they did against the Jets. So where this win was a start, the Patriots game should give them a shot to get all the way back on track.

The Chiefs are playing with a big-time margin for error right now. Within the first 25 minutes on Sunday, Kansas City had scored on offense, defense and special teams. And the Chiefs won by four touchdowns on a pedestrian day from Patrick Mahomes, at least by Mahomes’s standards, and Kansas City’s entire offense. The Chiefs had 286 yards from scrimmage in snowy Denver, which was their lowest total since Dec. 1 of last year—and they won handily on that day too (40–9 over Oakland). Clyde Edwards-Helaire (nine touches) got a breather, Le’Veon Bell got reps and Chad Henne actually got in the game. The opponent, of course, had something to do with all that. Denver’s not very good. But that they’re able to win like that without leaning on Mahomes is a pretty good sign for where Andy Reid’s operation is seven weeks in.

Matt LaFleur is a legit Coach of the Year candidate, and part of the reason is little stuff that a lot of people don’t notice. Like what? Like this: “It definitely wasn’t my best game.” That was LaFleur falling on the sword after his Packers got blown off the field in Tampa last weekend. A little bit of a lot of things went wrong, but that the coach was willing to take responsibility for it seemed to resonate with the players, and they responded in a pretty big way—Aaron Rodgers had a borderline spotless afternoon (23-for-34, 283 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), Davante Adams went off (13 catches, 196 yards, 2 TDs), and the defense got a crucial fourth-and-1 stop on Deshaun Watson in the fourth quarter when the team needed it most. And that made what Rodgers said afterward—”That [Tampa] game is an outlier I believe and today was more in line with our first four weeks”—pretty easy to buy.

The Titans’ COVID-19 penalties are probably a result of the league reckoning with the reality of the situation. The team received no suspensions. No draft picks taken away. Not even a single individual fine. Just a $350K organizational fine. So what gives? Well, for one, the rumors flying on what was happening inside the Titans’ facility a few weeks ago didn’t come close to matching the reality the NFL found in Nashville, and the team was also very cooperative. While the issues league investigators did find were problematic, they didn’t see the organization as purposefully negligent.

• Mask compliance was around 75 to 80%.

• Contact tracing numbers were high.

• Surveillance showed congregating in hallways, the cafeteria and locker room.

And that, like we said, is one part of it. The other is this: The NFL is learning this is a struggle for everyone, and dropping the hammer on the Titans wasn’t going to do much other than set a precedent that might become problematic as other issues arise and perhaps deepen some simmering club vs. league animosity over the handling of the protocols. So the league, in my mind, sent the message that teams won’t just get away with skirting the rules, but also that 345 Park Avenue is trying to better understand what everyone on the ground is going through to make this work, and the idea here isn’t just to punish people to show the public how serious they are.

I’ve got five trade deadline thoughts for you. And I’m passing them along while also directing you to the Oct. 22 GamePlan, where you’ll find more.

1) Going into the weekend, I was told the Texans’ path could be charted, in part, based on Sunday’s result. So getting dusted by the Packers means Houston’s acting GM, Jack Easterby, might be a little more willing to take calls on his receivers, and even some defensive players. I don’t think they’ll deal J.J. Watt in the next eight days, though.

2) At two different junctures this year—before the draft and toward the start of camp—the Patriots had discussions with other teams about a potential Stephon Gilmore trade. Would New England revisit that now? It seems increasingly likely that he could be elsewhere in 2021, so exploring the idea again, with the team at 2–4, wouldn’t be unheard of.

3) A fact I picked up doing research for my Sunday shows on NBC Sports Boston about a Gilmore trade: Ten players have been dealt for a first-round pick or a first-rounder-plus since April 2018. All 10 of those players were 27 or younger at the time of the deal.

4) Part of Atlanta’s reluctance to deal big names (I think they’d be willing to part with guys like Takk McKinley) is wanting to give Raheem Morris a real shot. Team president Rich McKay is pretty familiar with Morris—the two share Tampa roots—and the interim head coach is very popular in that building. So I think it’d take godfather offers to get the big names off that roster.

5) Offensive line is a pretty big need league-wide, which is why a player like Giants G Kevin Zeitler could bring home something of value for a seller. If you want to see why, go back and watch the early parts of Pittsburgh–Tennessee, and you’ll see how much the Titans missed their Pro Bowl left tackle, Taylor Lewan.

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SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) It was terrible seeing Alabama junior WR Jaylen Waddle go down with a broken ankle on Saturday in Knoxville, but here’s the good news—his broken ankle should heal fine (the timetable for his injury is generally four to six months), and he’ll still go plenty high in April, assuming he declares. The comp I got from an NFC exec on him, pre-injury, was Tyreek Hill, and an AFC scouting director agreed, post-injury, on Sunday. “Tyreek is very applicable,” he said. “Top 20 (pick). Rare speed and explosiveness. He doesn’t run routes like Tyreek, but the juice is the same.” This evaluator said, as he sees it, Waddle plays faster and is a better player than his ex-Bama teammate Henry Ruggs, who went 11th last April. Here’s hoping Waddle can get back to that level after what’ll be a pretty lengthy rehab process.

2) When I saw Penn State’s mishap late in the fourth quarter on Saturday—the Indiana defense let Devyn Ford score, Ford didn’t realize it until it was too late and his touchdown opened the door for the Hoosiers to come back and win—I immediately thought back to conversations I’ve had with Chip Kelly the last couple years. Kelly maintains the biggest difference in coaching at the college level vs. the pros is that in the NFL, situational football is paramount. The reason? Most games in the NFL are won by seven points or fewer, so you have to win on the margins. Which is where Indiana won, despite being on the wrong side of a sizable talent gap, on Saturday.

3) At the very least, Justin Fields held serve as the 2021 draft’s No. 2 quarterback. Fields connected on 20-of-21 throws for 276 yards and two touchdowns—his one incompletion was off the hands of star receiver Chris Olave, a perfect downfield throw into the end zone that ended with Olave taking a good hit that jarred the ball loose—and rushed for 54 yards and a score on 14 carries. He looked comfortable and in command throughout, and won largely from the pocket.

4) Another Big 10 quarterback who went 20-of-21 over the weekend: Wisconsin redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Those throws were good for 248 yards and five touchdowns in the Badgers’ rout of Illinois. It’s early, but Mertz has an NFL look to his game, and the idea of pairing what Wisconsin’s been under Paul Chryst with a top-shelf quarterback sure is intriguing. (Mertz reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 two days after the game, so we’ll have to see when he next takes the field.)

5) Cincinnati is 5–0, and just routed previously-unbeaten SMU. The team’s fourth-year coach, Luke Fickell, is doing this coming off consecutive 11-win seasons at UC, and has been pursued by bigger schools. Could an NFL team kick the tires on him? It’s an interesting thought, sort of along the lines of Brad Stevens landing the Celtics job out of Butler seven years ago. Fickell worked for Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer at Ohio State, played briefly in the league and his best friend, Mike Vrabel, is among the NFL’s best coaches now.

6) There are a few reasons I’m not a huge fan of the targeting rule in college football, but the part I hate most about it is clear—the provision that players flagged for it in the second half of games have to miss the first half of the next game. It’ll cost Nebraska two starting defensive backs, Deontai Williams and Cam Taylor-Britt, the first 30 minutes of Saturday’s showdown with Wisconsin and, thus, could affect the balance of power in the Big Ten West. And that stinks. As I see it, if hits are that bad, then you can suspend guys. But extra measures like this do nothing to deter head-hunting, and feel like they’re built just to make administrators look like they care.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Bucs GM Jason Licht taking no prisoners!!

Not great.

Metcalf’s size is pretty jarring when he stands next to Baker, who, by the way, is a two-time Pro Bowl safety.

This was the angle that really got me.

I love that analogy.

How awesome is that?

Nice work, James.

Worst touchdown ever?

Looks like a suspension to me.

Not a good day in any way for Dallas.

Former Cowboys D-lineman.

More Cowboys issues.

Here’s the McLaurin video from Washington’s team president.

Serious question: Would Edelman make the team?

Sean Payton: Still a wizard.

Cold Takes guy got ‘em.

Not cool.

Really cool.

2020.

We’re going to get to this game a little later (scroll down).

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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, Bears safety Tashaun Gipson who, at 30, is his first season in Chicago …

MMQB: How do you view yourself at this point of your career?

TG: Anytime you’re a veteran player, you’ve been in the league nine years, you begin to understand there’s wear and tear, and there’s perception out there. It’s a battle, between yourself and the perception. But at this point, I feel like Father Time hasn’t caught up to me yet. I was always afraid of turning 30 and playing in the league, because as a young player, it was the age-old thing, once you turn 30, you fall off a cliff. And due to circumstances, I was a 30-year-old free agent, Bill O’Brien and the Texans decided to release me after the draft, after everything. Being a free agent for those four or five days that I was on the market, due to these times, that was a reality check. … Obviously, Father Time, he’s undefeated—I think Tom Brady’s giving him a good fight right now. But the things you do, the older you get, the more you take care of your body, watching what you put into your body, those things are more important than they ever have been.

MMQB: You think you have a better appreciation for it now?

TG: I think it was humbling more than anything. When Jacksonville released me, Jacksonville had to cut a lot of people. And I understood the business side of it, and I was able to land on my feet in Houston, my home state, a better deal. Everything worked out. This go-around, it was humbling. I’d been pretty much a solidified starter my whole career, since my second year in the NFL, playing on some good defenses, signed some nice contracts. To get cut at that time, there’s COVID happening, as well as the draft and free agency being done, teams have their rosters, I got a whole different appreciation. You had to sit back and appreciate the game, because I’ve never been on that side of the fence, where I didn’t know if I was gonna come in and be a starter. It was almost starting back at ground zero, it was humbling, made me work harder, made we work different, made me push my body to different limits, have a different approach this offseason, and absolutely man it made me appreciate the game a little more.

MMQB: Are you better than you used to be in certain areas?

TG: Stuff comes with age, so absolutely. I even go back and I look at myself from now to three years ago, to 26, 27, 28, and you’re in your prime, and there’s stuff I’m able to do, I’m able to see just from the shoulders up, I can dissect plays and do things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do. That comes with a lot of football, that comes with studying film a different way, instead of just relying on your athletic ability. Coming in, you’re a younger guy, at 26, I was a veteran in Jacksonville, I was the oldest guy in the room at 25, 26. … The age came, and I know how to study film, I know how to break down things, I know where I’m supposed to be, and I know other guys’ positions. This is the first time in my career that I’ve actually learned other guys’ positions, to put myself in better situations.

MMQB: On that note, you mentioned Chuck Pagano brought in Ed Reed this summer to talk to you guys. What did you take from that?

TG: The biggest thing he said is you truly have to appreciate and love, and think, sleep, drink football. Everything that you do, what you’re putting into your body, you gotta make sure that it’s in line with what you want to do with your performance on the field. How you watch film, how you prepare, he told us how he would prepare, how he would study the game. And you look back and you say, man, this is a Hall of Famer right here, I’m not even doing a quarter of what this man did. He was probably the best safety, in my opinion, to ever play the game. So to hear that, you say, I’m not doing nearly enough.

MMQB: How has Chuck’s defense fit you?

TG: The biggest thing with Chuck, and this is no discredit to any defensive coordinator that I’ve ever had—I respect my time in the NFL, I’ve had some really good defensive coordinators—but I think with Chuck, he doesn’t try to handicap you or limit you. He lets you play. He’s gonna tell you, ‘I need you to play within the defense, but my playmakers are gonna make plays. You see a play, go make a play.’ A lot of defensive coordinators around the league, it’s understood, ‘Man, this is how the defense is built.’ And a lot of defensive coordinators are like, ‘I know this defense better than anybody, this is my defense, you gotta trust the guy next to you and be where you’re supposed to be.’ Chuck, he’s not a stickler, with the talent we’ve got. And for a defensive coordinator to give you the reins like that, and obviously you can’t go out there and freestyle, so some of that stuff Ed Reed told us probably won’t work well for me, but within the defense, to be able to go out there and if you see a play, go make a play.”

MMQB: So is this the best defense you’ve been on?

TG: Man, that ‘17 defense in Jacksonville, it was crazy, we had no weakness. You go back and you look at this defense, and those guys know, some of those guys are still my closest friends, but this defense, it’s different. When you’ve got a guy like Khalil Mack, who, in my opinion, he’s a top-five defensive player in the league year-in and year-out. You got a guy like Akiem Hicks, you got Robert Quinn, you got linebackers, secondary, I think this defense is the best defense that I’ve played on. And that’s high regard, because that ‘17 Jaguars defense, I hold near and dear to my heart. The things we were able to do, people didn’t expect that from us, man, we shocked everybody. But this defense here, the good thing about it, for us to have so many guys, big names like Mack, Eddie Jackson, these guys still come out and put their hard hats on and they work hard. You would not be able to tell those guys have accolades.

MMQB: Is Eddie the best safety you’ve played with?

TG: I’ve played against some good safeties, I’ve played with some good safeties. The T.J. Wards, the Donte Whitners, the Barry Churches, Justin Reid, who I think is a good young safety. I’ve played with some good safeties. But none that are like Eddie Jackson, with the things he’s able to do. People don’t give him enough credit. His instincts are off the charts. Not many safeties, if any, are able to do what he can do. And like I said, it’s always different when a guy’s on defense, he gets the ball and you expect him to score. He touches the ball, I personally expect him to score. I’d seen his game from afar, but I didn’t really check out his game until I got here. You hear the rumblings, the year he had two years ago was crazy, obviously, for anybody who didn’t notice. … It’s truly crazy to see some of the stuff he’s able to do.

MMQB: What’s the biggest thing you have to do playing against Sean McVay’s offense?

TG: You gotta be disciplined. It’s a lot of gadgets, a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to keep you off-balance, keep your mind guessing. The one thing that you watch on film, a lot of times, and of course they have good players, but a lot of times, teams aren’t understanding what they’re doing. They’re motioning three different times within one play, your eyes have to be right. And a lot of the times, it’s wide open due to the confusion with the natural offense they run. It’s creative. And when you have those type of athletes with that type of offensive mind, you see guys running open. These guys are gonna put up points, and that’s why they’ve been a dynamic offense since he’s been there. He does a good job of putting those guys in position, he does a good job of attacking defenses, and if you’re not disciplined from a visual standpoint, you have no chance against this Rams offense.

MMQB: What’s the weirdest thing about playing in an empty stadium?

TG: That you can heard everything, man! It’s truly crazy. There’ll be some time I’ll hear my coach literally screaming­—’Hey, this play is coming, lean to this hash.’ I never would’ve been able to hear that before. I’ll never forget Detroit, man, he told us, ‘This slant is coming!’ He screamed to everyone, ‘The slant is coming, slide over!’ Kyle Fuller, Jaylon [Johnson] and Eddie broke on the slant, Kyle picked the play off. It was momentum changer, we wound up scoring, coming back and winning. It’s little stuff like that where you’re so used to the crowd being into it, whether it’s home or away, guys feed off that. Guys feed off road crowds and silencing them, guys feed off the home crowd, the energy. It’s a different thing, man. It’s crazy, because you really have to bring your own energy and juice.

MMQB: So that’s like Pee Wee football, with coaches behind you telling you where to go?

TG: That’s exactly what it is! Your coaches telling you where to go, what to do, that’s exactly what it’s like. It’s like an on-field cheat code, a little bit.

MMQB: Are you sold on Nick Foles being the right guy for the team?

TG: Absolutely. It’s hard to not believe in a guy like that, it’s hard not to root for a guy like that. He’s such a good dude. I never had many interactions with him until he got here. I know he was one of the reasons that I had to leave Jacksonville, man—but there’s no hard feelings. I got major love for Nick, man. You see the Super Bowl, and no one has anything but good things to say about him. You meet a guy like that, you talk to him, and I’ve had personal conversations from his experiences in Jacksonville, he was there with a lot of the same people I was there. Just being in the league, coming in at the same time, he’s a good dude off the field. He’s a better dude off the field than he is on it and that’s saying a lot.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

This was an overnight column for the ages: It’s 5:39 a.m. ET and I’m filing from my car because my cable line snapped and is lying in my driveway. Good thing the Tahoe was Wi-Fi. So … part of the column I’ll be pushing off to the MAQB, and that part will involve the Chargers, the Jaguars and quarterback Justin Herbert.

Until then, it’s time to go get my 90 minutes of sleep and wait for the repair guy to come in the morning. See you tomorrow afternoon!