Josh Allen had just muscled a 21-yard touchdown pass from the right hash to the left pylon, catching his Bills teammate Stefon Diggs over Arizona star Patrick Peterson in stride for six, putting Buffalo up 30–26 on the Cardinals with 34 seconds left. After a touchback, Arizona had two timeouts and a handful of snaps, at best, to cover 75 yards. And yet what left tackle D.J. Humphries was yelling during the TV timeout was firm and unmistakable.
“As long as there’s time on the clock,” he said repeatedly, and so everyone could hear, “we got a chance to win this thing.”
The sentiment was clear and, these days in Arizona, it’s believable, too.
“D.J. knows,” said one staffer within earshot. “Because we have Kyler. And we have Hop.”
And that proved, in the most dramatic way possible, to be enough in a pretty impossible spot on Sunday afternoon in Glendale. First, Murray put the Cardinals in position—connecting for 14 yards to Andy Isabella from his own 25, nine yards to DeAndre Hopkins from his 39, and another nine yards to Larry Fitzgerald from his 48. Then came a Hail Mary, from the Bills’ 43 with 11 seconds left, answered thanks to a whole lot more than luck.
It was more than luck because Kliff Kingsbury and his staff did set the play up by going trips right with Hopkins split left all the way down the field on that series.
It was more than luck because Murray was able to elude Bills pass-rusher Mario Addison, get to the sideline, then launch the ball a good 55 yards, falling away rolling to his left.
It was more than luck, mostly, because what Hopkins did was otherworldly, skying over two All-Pros (Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde) and a third wily veteran (Jordan Poyer) to somehow snatch the ball with the two hands he extended into a crowd with six others.
And it was also more than luck that the Cardinals found themselves there, again, coming up with something when they needed it most. Arizona’s now won four of five, with a close loss and a couple of dramatic victories over that period. In the process, the younger guys in the group are learning how to win at the pro level and, as Kingsbury told them postgame, this gives them one more thing to build on.
The 40-year-old coach also gave them this: 12 hours, rather than the normal 24 hours, to process and enjoy one of the wildest wins in franchise history.
The Cardinals, after all, have the Seahawks on Thursday in what’s become a very big game, way sooner than most people in the NFL figured Arizona would be in big games again.
Week 10’s almost done, and we’re wrapping it up for you. In this week’s column, you’ll get insight into …
• The Patriots’ return from the dead.
• The Dolphins’ roll.
• The Saints’ next steps.
• The Bucs’ big bounce back.
• The Rams’ defensive statement.
And, of course, a whole lot more. But we’re starting with the play of Week 10.
So maybe we’re throwing the word “believable” around a little too liberally.
If anyone told the story of what happened Sunday night ahead of time, it probably would sound a little out there—the 5' 10" quarterback dodging rushers, rolling against his body, launching a ball 55 yards while falling out of bounds, then waiting for his receiver to steal it away in a sea of accomplished veteran defensive backs. But in pieces, and then added up, it actually does make some sense.
Start with the quarterback, who thought he’d given himself, Hopkins and the Cardinals a chance as soon as he let the ball go.
“I want to say I knew when it left my hand it had a chance just because [when] you play quarterback, you can tell the trajectory, the touch of the ball,” Murray told reporters postgame. “But I was looking at the sideline when everybody [started celebrating]. I just got the reaction from everybody. I don’t think I saw him catch the ball. I really don’t remember—it happened so fast. But, I knew once it left my hand, it had a good chance.”
Then, go to the receiver, who plays like every ball is intended for him, and tapped on his head to explain to the media how he approached the play.
“In basketball terminology, that’s what they call this [motioning to his head], somebody getting dunked on,” he said. “It was on three people. Yeah. Yeah, they were in position. It was just a better catch by I.”
Then, go to the coach, who put his trust in those two in a huge spot—and in Hopkins in particular, after going away from him in last week’s loss to Miami.
“I went out of that game last week regretting we didn’t get it to him in crunch time,” Kingsbury acknowledged.
Kingsbury atoned for it, Hopkins rewarded the coach’s faith in him, and none of it could have happened without Murray’s physics-defying bomb. And sure, there’s more to what’s happening in Arizona than can be explained in a single play. Vance Joseph’s been reborn as a defensive play-caller. The offensive line’s improved. The weapons surrounding Hopkins—from Fitzgerald to Christian Kirk to Kenyan Drake—are pretty good too.
But when it really mattered most, Kingsbury went back to two guys he knew he could count on most. Both guys, for different reasons, were seen as high-risk acquisitions by GM Steve Keim. Both have fit into Kingsbury’s team, and so, no, it’s not any sort of mistake at all that they were front and center for the biggest moment of the season to date.
And since this one worked out like it did, they’ve all got an even bigger game coming Thursday.
PATRIOTS RUN FOR THEIR LIVES
Damien Harris’s career hasn’t been a long one. So calling Sunday a career night isn’t saying a whole lot, considering where the Patriots tailback is, or where he’s going. But to him, reflecting on springing for 121 yards on 22 carries was enough to briefly veer from the Foxboro School of Public Speaking
“Yeah, I’m over the moon right now,” Harris conceded over the phone in the early Monday hours. “That was a moment that I’ll remember for a long time. It was one of the better moments of my athletic career. I’m pretty sure my mom’s probably at home crying right now. Because it was a special moment. I felt it, I know she felt it. Our whole team felt it. It wasn’t just a special moment for me, it was a special moment for everybody. It’s just a lot of good feeling coming out of that game.”
And Harris provided it for the Patriots on two different fronts, in one fell swoop, in a very, very big win over Baltimore on Sunday night.
First, Harris has helped give New England’s offense an identity, following weeks of the Patriots stumbling around trying to find one. At times, it’s been tough to see whether New England really wanted to build its offense for Cam Newton, or evolve back into what the Patriots have been for the last 20 years. Clarity has come the last three weeks, and Harris’s ability to be a bell cow has been a godsend in constructing a run-heavy offense around Newton.
“It’s definitely been a tall task,” Harris said. “But not just for us, for the entire league. With everything that’s been going on, I think a lot of people have been trying to find their identities, find what they’re good at and what they can excel at. For us, it’s always been about having faith in one another and having faith in the coaching staff, and the coaching staff having faith in us. Because together we know that regardless of what it takes, we’re going to try to figure this out. We have all the faith in the world in the coaching staff.”
That faith has been paid back in a run-first offense that’s designed to compromise defenses with Newton as the triggerman—an offense that, on a game-swinging 10-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter, churned out 39 yards on the ground before high school QB/NFL receiver Jakobi Meyers, throwing the ball off a reverse, found Rex Burkhead for a 24-yard touchdown that put the Patriots up 13–10 before halftime.
New England actually wound up calling more than twice as many run plays (39) as pass plays (19), and ended up outrushing the vaunted Ravens ground game (173 to 115).
Harris provides hope that, for a team that hasn’t drafted very well, things are starting to turn with regard to how the Patriots are drafting and developing players. He’s 23, is a homegrown draft pick and seems to be growing into his role like James White or Shane Vereen once did in the New England backfield. The fact is, the Patriots just need more young guys who can play, period, and Harris looks like he can, after a rookie year spent mostly as a game day inactive.
“The biggest difference between last year and this year was just my approach of being a pro,” Harris said. “I wasn’t 100% sure of what it took to be a professional last year. I felt like I knew what I was doing and I felt like I did a good job, but there were certain things that I still needed to learn and certain things that I still needed to improve. It wasn’t because I wasn’t trying, but you don’t know what you don’t know.
“So being here and having guys like Rex, James, Brandon Bolden, Sony [Michel], all the coaches, learning from them and just learning how to be a true pro, I think it was crucial to helping me develop as a player.”
And in turn, now the coaches have started to lean on Harris. He was on the field during the aforementioned touchdown drive, and he was on the field in the fourth quarter as the Patriots were salting away the 23–17 win—one that was really sealed when the skies opened and poured on Lamar Jackson’s last chance to win the game, right after the two-minute warning.
Now, does that mean the 2018 Patriots are back? It doesn’t. But it probably does mean that, after early hiccups, this group isn’t going to an easy out for anyone going forward. And if they sneak in the playoffs with Belichick at the helm and Newton taking snaps, who knows what’ll happen?
DOLPHINS KEEP ROLLING
I couldn’t hear a whole lot when the phone got passed to Dolphins veteran Emmanuel Ogbah late Sunday afternoon.
“Yeah, we’re celebrating right now,” Ogbah told me. “That’s why.”
Miami’s got plenty to celebrate. The Dolphins are 6–1 since starting the season 0–2, and scored their fifth straight win on Sunday by outlasting the Chargers at home, 29–21. And it happened this time in much the same fashion most of the team’s wins have.
In fact, it really took just five plays for this one to encapsulate the entire 2020 Dolphins experience. It started with the defense coming through with a sack and forcing a three-and-out. On the fourth play, Andrew Van Ginkel, who seems to pop up everywhere for Miami, blocked a punt, and Jamal Perry covered it at the Chargers’ 1-yard line. Salvon Ahmed then scored on the next play. And just like that, Miami was up 7–0, thanks to the offense, defense and special teams.
“We play together,” Ogbah said. “There’s no real egos on this team. We ball for each other. We give it our all every Sunday. We’re trying to be great. And we’re taking it one step at a time.”
From that point forward, the Dolphins were in control—pushing the lead to 14–0 at the end of the first quarter and never trailing from there. And that in itself was a step forward for Miami, with Flores’s message for the week resonating in the locker room.
The coach’s primary concern going into this week was that the team might grow fat and happy off the attention it was getting for its win over Arizona in Week 9, and it’s ahead-of-schedule level of 2020 progress. And that concern was well-founded with a group of players still learning to play together.
“Yeah, we were hearing all about those [headlines],” Ogbah said. “[Flores] said, ‘Don’t listen to the media.’ None of that. We still play together. Go out there as a team and give it all we got. We came out with a good W against a good team.”
They did, again, because of the balance of the roster and how many different guys pitched in, whether it was the rookies on the offensive line, lesser-known homegrown talents like Nik Needham or mid-level free-agent adds like Ogbah and Shaq Lawson. The whole thing’s fitting together now, mostly because there’s been rhyme and reason to how it was assembled—and it’s not some mishmash of personalities.
“It starts with Flo,” Ogbah said. “He brought a couple guys together that love the game. We go out there, we give it all we got because he brought us here to make plays. Coming from New England, so he’s used to winning. He brought guys that are winners. I came from Kansas City. He’s just bringing guys together that know how to win and know how to play together. It starts with him.”
And based on where the Dolphins were as recently as a year ago, they’ve already come a long way.
Rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa’s Sunday was a testament to that. He finished 15-of-25 for 169 yards and two touchdowns—numbers that show how his accuracy and feel for the game are translating over to the pros, and also that Miami doesn’t need him to be Superman.
The time will eventually come for that. For now, he can just go out there and play his game.
His teammates, clearly, are good enough to take care of the rest.
SAINTS HANG ON WITHOUT BREES
The Saints are holding their breath and hoping for the best with Drew Brees Monday morning. The 20-year vet was driven to the ground, and onto his throwing shoulder, by 49ers defensive lineman Kentavius Street in the second quarter of New Orleans’s 27–13 win over San Francisco on Sunday. He finished the half but told coach Sean Payton during halftime he couldn’t go back out for the third quarter—something Payton said has never happened in their 15 seasons together.
And that was where things got interesting, because it wasn’t newly paid heir to the Brees throne Taysom Hill who went in the lineup afterwards. It was former first overall pick Jameis Winston instead.
“We knew if Drew’s not in the game, it’s either Taysom or Jameis. You never know which,” defensive captain Demario Davis told me postgame. “It looked like they were doing a little mixture of both of them out there. I trust the coaches’ game plan regardless. Whatever they do, I know they’re going to do what’s best for the team. Defensively, we just think about our stuff so there’s not a lot of time to really think about what they’re doing on offense.”
Which is good, because the offense really didn’t do a ton, regardless of who was playing quarterback. New Orleans finished with 237 yards from scrimmage on 56 snaps. The field goal and two touchdowns scored in the first half came via field position set up by a long kickoff return, the recovery of a muffed punt and a turnover on downs. Another turnover set up the Saints’ lone second-half touchdown.
So really, this game wasn’t so much about Brees or Winston as it was the rest of the roster’s ability to keep rolling regardless of what was happening at quarterback.
“The front office has done an unbelievable job of putting together a real sound team, a well-rounded team,” Davis said. “Of course we’ve got a lot of weapons on offense and one of the best quarterbacks in the game, so that allows us to do well and move the ball quickly and rapidly down the field, and be very efficient with how we move the ball. But also being able to get special teams plays, that puts us in good position—special teams had two turnovers tonight, that was big for us.
“And the defense can get after the quarterback, create turnovers, get high energy, get stops when necessary and have dominant performances. So that’s just a credit to our front office for putting together a well-rounded team.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean the Saints’ fingers aren’t crossed for Brees. They are. But where the season goes, as the rest of the Saints see it, can’t ride solely on No. 9.
“Drew’s our general,” Davis said. “It makes a difference whether he’s in or he’s out. So whatever’s going on, we’re always praying for a quick healing. But at the same time, it’s a game where it’s always next man up. So there ain’t no excuses when you roll out there Sunday. And so the good thing about it is we’re a team that knows how to play good complementary football, and that’s why we are in the position we’re in now, because we’re playing good in all three phases. And we’ve got to continue to do so.”
BUCS BOUNCE BACK
Speaking of those Saints, they made quite the statement last week with a 38–3 bludgeoning of the Bucs in Tampa, and that had plenty of the guys on the wrong end of that score wondering how Tom Brady would process it—and what it might mean for their work week in the days to follow.
The answer: It didn’t mean much. And as I spoke to Bucs receiver Chris Godwin about it after Tampa rebounded to drill the Panthers 46–23 on Sunday, I found that therein lies one of the biggest thing Brady’s new teammates have learned about him the last three months.
“Honestly, I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned, really, is just understanding that each week is a new week,” Godwin said. “It’s so hard to win in this league, and he emphasizes that often, that we have to be on our P’s and Q’s. No matter how much talent we have, we still have to put the work in, we still have to grind and earn the respect of each other, but also earn the right to win. It’s really inspiring to see [someone] as accomplished as him come to work every day and work as if he’s still trying to win the starting job.
“I think that’s the biggest thing.”
So last week? Per Godwin, “It was business as usual.”
And how business as usual worked for the Bucs, to me, showed up pretty routinely on third down, with Tampa converting 10 of 16 of those, and some of the long-yardage variety, giving the Bucs a dimension that only a quarterback like Brady can give them.
“He gives us a lot of confidence in those situations,” Godwin said. “Obviously he’s been in a ton of those before. We have so many confident guys on offense, and we work so hard. We still have things we have to work on, but we understand how dangerous we can be. When you have a quarterback like that at the helm, there’s no telling what we can do. Those third down situations, those are pressure moments. We’re all ready for them.”
Never more so than on the Bucs’ second possession, after falling behind 7–0. Tampa faced three third downs on that drive and converted all of them. The first was a bucket throw over the top to Mike Evans to convert a third-and-2, good for 19 yards. The second was to Godwin, covering 14 yards to convert a third-and-7, and if you weren’t looking close enough, it might’ve seemed to go through the bodies of a couple Panthers.
Slow down the play and you’ll see Godwin by the sideline with defenders playing the boundary and a scrambling Brady putting the ball back inside into a small window to throw his receiver open.
“I was just as surprised as everyone else was about that throw,” Godwin said. “I wasn’t supposed to be right there. But just based on how the defense was playing, sometimes he sees things that most of us don’t really see. I think we learned that early in the season, through training camp and early in the year. My mentality is I’m just trying to stay alert, so when the ball comes, it can come at any point in time and at any angle, so you’ve just got to stay ready. That was a phenomenal pass.”
Then came that possession’s final third down—a third-and-goal from the 5, on which Brady found Cam Brate running an out cut for a touchdown that tied the score at 7.
From there, the Bucs’ run game got its footing (as Ronald Jones’s 98-yard touchdown would attest), and Tampa wound up with 210 yards rushing to pair with Brady’s 341-yard, three-touchdown day, and the defense buckled down in the second half to hold Carolina to six points after the break.
The win, by the way, puts the Bucs at seven on the year—which matches their total from 2019.
EXAMINING NFL’S NEW MINORITY HIRE RULES
The new rule intended to help increase the hiring of minority coach and GM candidates, which owners passed on Tuesday, didn’t grab headlines the same way a more radical proposal that preceded it last spring did. But to Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director (and ex-Cardinals GM) Rod Graves, that doesn’t matter. And nor will this new initiative if results don’t follow it.
At this point, while Graves is all for these sorts of efforts, after the last couple of years, he’s going to reserve judgment for where it takes the NFL.
“We’re going to measure this rule, and other steps that have been taken, against the results of people actually being hired as head coaches, coordinators, general managers and others that may be in the C-suite of teams,” Graves said over the phone on Saturday night. “So, again, I applaud the league on taking these types of steps. But, you know, I would temper my excitement about it until we actually get results.”
Graves’s issue is the issue of many, and it’s well-documented. Five coaches of color were fired ahead of the 2019 hiring cycle, bringing the NFL’s total from eight to three, with Miami hiring Brian Flores to get it back up to four. Last year, the status quo held, with Ron Rivera fired in Carolina, then hired in Washington.
That’s one year of taking a step back, and another of spinning wheels, and the frustration resulting from that, from a lot of corners, is plenty clear and plenty understandable.
And yes, Graves and the FPA were, indeed, consulted on the NFL’s decision to propose a rule to award teams for having coaches and scouts of color hired away into head coach and GM positions elsewhere—such clubs will get bonus third-round comp picks in consecutive years in those cases. So they’re pleased the plan was passed in resounding fashion. But as he said, it’s a step forward that’ll be judged on everyone’s ability to cover more ground.
With that in the backdrop, here’s some more from my talk with Graves.
Graves took exception with the use of the word “pipeline.” I raised it to say that this measure seemed like one that was more about getting guys in the pipeline—since you’re rewarding teams that are putting them in position to graduate to the top level—than about addressing the final step directly. He mostly agreed with the point, but not the verbiage.
“I think that that’s fair,” Graves said. “Now I would say this, Albert, typically when I refer to pipeline, I tend to think of people outside of the league, when you start talking about college guys getting in and that sort of thing. I think when you’re talking about people inside the league, you’re really talking about development. And so when I look at our numbers, you know, there is no issue inside the league with pipeline, regardless of what people say.
“I can demonstrate a long list of names of people who, in my opinion, are positioned and qualified to be in high-level positions. So I don’t see it as a pipeline issue. I see it more or less as a development issue.”
Which makes this a measure to encourage development, rather than fill a pipeline.
The success of Mike Tomlin and Flores should help. I ran a poll of front-office people last week in my GamePlan column, and got 31 ballots back. Two of the league’s three Black coaches tied for the most votes. Tomlin got 14. Flores got 14. Everyone else combined wound up with three. Which can’t hurt the cause here.
“Both those guys are high-caliber coaches,” Graves said. “And I think they’re certainly deserving of the recognition that they’re getting. And you’re right, those guys have demonstrated a devotion to provide an opportunity to others who are black and diverse. And I just think that that goes a long way.”
Graves used to work at the league office, so he knows the deal. Or, at least, that was the thought I had after Graves said this: “I do commend the commissioner for his steadfast attention on the issues that have confronted the league in this area for the last several years.”
The truth is, Park Avenue has done a lot, whether it’s strengthening the Rooney Rule or adding measures like the one the owners put through this week. NFL EVP of football ops Troy Vincent has been aggressive in helping to organize events like the Quarterback Coaching Summit (that one was done in conjunction with the Black College Football Hall of Fame), which I wrote about in June. And this rule was a result of sticking with the more complex proposal that was tabled back in the spring.
But, in the end, the league office isn’t the one doing the hiring. The owners are.
Because of that, Graves was careful in discussing what’s ahead. And that much was apparent when I asked him if he’s optimistic about this year’s hiring cycle.
“That’s a hard one for me to commit to right now,” Graves said. “Let me put it this way to you: The NFL has taken significant steps to improve the process of hiring, but none of it is binding on the decision-makers. And we don’t want to be saying year after year that we’ll take steps, i.e. the Rooney Rule, and steps that we’ve taken more recently, and yet when we get into a hiring cycle, we find that there’s no more commitment to hiring diverse candidates, or in particular, Blacks and others of color that we saw in the previous years.
“So I just feel that we’ve got to go through a period where the owners have really taken this up as something that’s good for the game, and that is reflected in their decisions. And until we get to that point, I think we have to reserve our position on it.”
The Rams’ defense is worth paying attention to. Russell Wilson’s passer rating on Sunday was 57.0, his lowest in nearly two years. The Seahawks scored just 16 points, which is 11 fewer than their previous low-water mark for the year, and just the second time in 2020 they’ve been held under 30 points. And if you ask Leonard Floyd—a new Ram, over from Chicago, who had three sacks and fumble recovery Sunday—he’s not surprised in the least in what Brandon Staley’s been able to do in his first year as a coordinator. “Nah, it doesn’t surprise me at all because Coach Staley’s always been intelligent and deep into the game,” said Floyd, who worked with Staley in Vic Fangio’s defense in Chicago. “He’s just intelligent, man. He comes up with some of the best defensive calls, and we’re going out there and executing them.” It was a little more complicated than that against Seattle. Floyd said that the Rams’ plan was predicated on disciplined pass-rush. “The most important thing we wanted to do was rush as a unit,” he said. “Try to keep [Russell Wilson] in the pocket as much as we could and just wait on him to move around. Force him to make bad errors.” And that much worked, with the Rams consistently getting Wilson off the spot, but not letting him break the pocket. Six sacks, 12 quarterback hits and two picks against the Seahawks later, and it looks like Sean McVay’s plan to resurface his staff and create a defense mirroring the offense (aggressive and attacking, in the style of Fangio’s, a scheme that’s given McVay himself fits in the past) is working. And the Rams are tied with Arizona and Seattle atop the division as a result.
That Nick Chubb run to close out Houston, to me, was more than just a quirky play that cost gamblers and fantasy players. Bottom line, it was a winning play. And it was made by a smart, well-coached player. Remember, this wasn’t a goal-line snap, where it’s front of mind for a player to roll over before he crosses the goal line. Chubb was handed the ball at his own 40-yard line with 1:07 left, and broke free up the left sideline with the Browns up 10–7. If he’d waltzed into the end zone, it would’ve padded his individual numbers (and months before he’s likely to seek a new contract), and probably wouldn’t have hurt the Browns much. There was less than a minute left, and the risk in giving the ball back to Houston was that they could conceivably score twice with a successful onside kick happening in between. But guess what? If Chubb were to give himself up, then that risk would be gone, and the Browns would be two Baker Mayfield kneel downs from winning. So Chubb gave himself up, prancing out of bounds at the 1. Coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game that the staff did give the offense the “no mas” call—basically, if you get a first down, get down and let’s get out of here—but Stefanski then added he wouldn’t have been mad at Chubb if he had scored, given the way things played out. That Chubb didn’t, in turn, shows how Stefanski and his staff are getting through to the players, and it could be a decent sign of where the Browns are going, now at 6–3 and in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.
Alex Smith’s performance was even more impressive than you might think. You know what the Washington quarterback went through to make his first start in two years on Sunday in Detroit. You know he had to wait his turn, with Dwayne Haskins benched and Kyle Allen hurt, before he got his job back. You know he and his team came back from a 24–3 deficit on Sunday. What you might not know: how deadly efficient and productive Washington was on offense, despite being very much a work in progress personnel-wise, from end-to-end in Sunday’s loss to the Lions (Detroit needed a 59-yard field goal from Matt Prater at the wire to win). Washington had 34 first downs, 464 yards from scrimmage, went 7-of-15 on third down, 2-for-2 on fourth down, and scored touchdowns on three of four trips to the red zone. That doesn’t happen without solid, efficient quarterback play. And no, it won’t suddenly turn Washington into a contender. But it’ll help coach Ron Rivera and his 38-year-old offensive coordinator Scott Turner lay a foundation for what they ultimately want to be on that side of the ball, and help them develop the young guys around Smith. Which is to say that Smith has made himself a really important piece of an NFL team again. Which is remarkable.
There was a pretty wide range outcomes at the end of that game, by the way. It at least felt like everyone in Detroit was fighting for their jobs in the 3 o’clock ET hour. Falling to Washington would’ve meant the Lions blowing a double-digit lead and losing for the fourth time this year, and the lead in this one (21 points) was bigger than in the other three. The Lions have the Panthers next Sunday, and with the Thanksgiving game three days after that, making a move would be tough in the couple of weeks following this one, so Matt Patricia and his staff making it this far means they get a new shot starting now. Winnable games against Carolina and Houston are next, and getting both would mean going into December at 6–5 and in the playoff hunt. Now, the Lions have had their chances, and skepticism is warranted here based on track record. But based on what we saw Sunday—where Matt Stafford got the team in position to kick a 59-yard game-winner after getting the ball with 16 seconds left on his own 25—says a lot about the fight the team has. So it’s not over yet.
The Packers slogged out a sometimes-ugly win over the Jaguars on Sunday. But organizationally, the biggest win of the weekend had to be getting left tackle David Bakhtiari signed to a four-year extension. The 29-year-old had $11.5 million left on his old deal, so the Packers folded that into a new agreement that’s got a base value of $103.5 million over five years—giving Bakhtiari $92 million in new money over four years, giving an APY (average per year) that sets a record for O-lineman, at $23 million per. He’s due $37.1 million over the deal’s first year and $64.5 million over the first three. So it’s a win for the four-time All-Pro and a big win for Green Bay too. And as GM Brian Gutekunst said during his postgame press conference, it’ll help the Packers manage what will likely be a COVID-19-racked salary cap next year.
Don’t look now, but the Steelers are starting to show their capacity to hit another gear. Pittsburgh blew out Cincinnati 36–10 Sunday, and I’m not going to pretend that was a revelation—the Steelers were due for an easier one, the Bengals have played lots of teams close and Mike Tomlin’s crew is just better as of right now. But there was a subtle nuance to Sunday in Pittsburgh.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: 9 catches, 77 yards, TD.
Diontae Johnson: 6 catches, 116 yards, TD.
Chase Claypool: 4 catches, 56 yards, 2 TDs.
In that group, you’ve got a fourth-year receiver, a second-year guy and a rookie, all playing in a place well known for developing the position. So it stands to reason what we saw against the Bengals is just the start. And for a team that’s solid at quarterback, on the offensive line and defense, having real threats outside could make a pretty substantial difference.
At 6–3, the Raiders merit your attention, too. Vegas ran for 203 yards against Denver, held the Broncos to 66 yards rushing and picked off Drew Lock four times. That left little need for Derek Carr to do too much, and he had just 156 yards through the air as a result, which he was totally fine with. “It’s nice we can win in multiple ways,” he said. And up next, the Raiders get a shot to sweep a Chiefs team that’s been impressive since Vegas dealt Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes their only loss a few weeks back.
The Eagles feel less like a first-place team than any I can remember. Yes, a big part of that is the fact that the NFC East is as bad a division as we’ve had in recent memory. But it’s not just that—Philly’s 3-5-1, its young quarterback looks lost way too often, the offensive line’s been shredded by injuries and the defense isn’t quite good enough to make up for all that. This stuck out to me too, from Doug Pederson postgame: “I felt like the guys were ready to go, I’m obviously disappointed, that’s on me the way we played today. Quite honestly, I felt the energy was good, it’s difficult obviously without the fans, but that is both teams to deal with it.” Credit to Pederson for taking the blame, but it sure feels like more change is coming here. And you have to wonder what will happen with the offensive staff going forward. Last offseason, the Eagles went through a second overhaul in that area, since losing OC Frank Reich and QBs coach John DeFilippo in early 2018. Mike Groh was fired and the team made runs at Chiefs QBs coach Mike Kafka, Cowboys OC Kellen Moore and Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline, before settling on hiring Rich Scangarello, pairing him with Press Taylor and leaving the OC title vacant. Could Philly fill it this offseason? Based on how all this is going, I wouldn’t rule it out.
On the flip side of that game, the Giants keep making progress under Joe Judge. Without the benefit of having Saquon Barkley, New York rushed for 151 yards—Daniel Jones’s 34-yard touchdown run helped goose that number—on the Eagles, and Jones was his efficient self. And I think Jones himself put it best when he was asked about his exploits running the ball, and said that, “We’re playing a tough brand of football right now, and I certainly try to be a part of that.” In short, it seems like a long time ago that people were worked up over Judge making a few guys run penalty laps.
And here are five quick informed opinions at 5 a.m. for you …
1) I think Zack Moss needs to be the bell cow for Buffalo coming out of the bye.
2) I think Denver will be in play to take a quarterback in April.
3) I think Mike Davis is doing a really good job in Christian McCaffrey’s place.
4) I think D’Andre Swift has star potential. (And I think these are a lot of RB takes.)
5) I think the Vikings will win Monday night, and have a legit playoff run in them.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) I’ve mentioned Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell as someone who could represent an outside-the-box idea for a team looking for a coach this January. The comp I used was the Celtics hiring Brad Stevens from Butler seven years ago. And Fickell’s done nothing since I first brought his name up to make me tap the brakes on that one. The 7–0 Bearcats have won all their games by double-digits, and Friday’s blowout of East Carolina was their fifth win by four or more touchdowns.
2) Should Panthers OC Joe Brady’s name wind up circulating during the next head coach hiring cycle, it stands to reason that more teams might look to the college ranks to pluck offensive coordinators. And you’ve heard Clemson OC Tony Elliott’s name plenty in that regard. Here’s another one: Florida’s Brian Johnson. The Gators have been off the charts on offense, and Johnson’s developing a real NFL prospect at quarterback in Kyle Trask, just years after helping do the same with Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. Because he’s with Dan Mullen, his ability to coach offense in general, and quarterbacks in particular, gets overshadow. But it shouldn’t.
3) So if Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh draws NFL interest this time around, would he say no? It’s an interesting question to ask, because that program is in a really weird spot now, where it has a guy with such deep roots at the school in a serious downswing. And if it ever came to the U of M wanting to make a move, it’d be a lot of easier for the school if Harbaugh decided to leave on his own.
4) Miami QB D’Eriq King continues to be a highly entertaining college player and an increasingly interesting case to look at as an NFL prospect. On paper, you’d think that Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield would help King’s shot at staying at quarterback in the pros. But he’s even shorter than those two (a little over 5' 8") and doesn’t have the arm talent those guys do. On top of that, one veteran evaluator mentioned to me that he’s a better athlete than ex-Navy QB Malcolm Perry was coming out last year, and Perry was drafted to play receiver for Miami. Which, added up, would tell you that the biggest question facing King is where he’ll play. But at the college level? He’s a pretty good QB there (24-for-38, for 255 yards and a TD vs. Virginia Tech on Saturday).
5) I mentioned this on Twitter on Saturday—the Notre Dame offensive line pipeline has been roaring for the better part of Brian Kelly’s decade there. And it looks, again, like the NFL’s going to be interested in a couple of Irish big men in April. The one to keep close tabs on is fifth-year senior Liam Eichenberg. He’s Kelly’s fourth left tackle since arriving in South Bend. The previous three (Zach Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey) have done pretty well for themselves.
6) Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is going to get overtures again from the NFL, with his Wildcats at 4–0. My expectation is he’ll stay where he is. It’s been tough for the pros to try and entice him, and there’s long been a feeling that he doesn’t want to leave Chicago for another job until his three sons are grown. Which is why the conventional wisdom has held that, for the time being, the Bears might be the only team that would be able to get him to even budge.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
There are lots of angles of this catch out there. All of them are amazing.
Kyler’s dad and agent with an aggressive post–Hail Mary hug.
And there he is.
Referring to yourself as “I” in the third person is next level.
One benefit of (relatively) empty stands.
One of the great guys in the league, and this’ll be a huge loss for the Rams. Here’s hoping for the best for Andrew Whitworth, wherever this goes next.
It was pretty bad out there, I can confirm.
NFL players are ridiculous. Remember, this is a guy in his twilight as a player.
This is the Godwin throw I referenced above.
Good on Josh Norman for opening up about COVID-19.
And congrats to Michele—amazing accomplishment!
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, Vikings safety Anthony Harris.
MMQB: What’s changed for you guys as a team the last couple weeks, winning two in a row after a 1–5 start?
AH: As the season’s progressed, everyone on the team has continued to grow, continued to develop week-in and week-out, and things are carrying over. The in-game experience we’ve been getting, we’re continuing to develop chemistry with one another. That’s pretty much been the key, to continue the progress each week and now we’ve kind of got it to a point where guys are settled in and we’re getting used to the things that we’re gonna do offensively, defensively, scheme-wise. The chemistry between the coaches and the players is really clicking, and we’re getting to where we want to be.
MMQB: Is there anything the team as a whole or the defense is doing better specifically?
AH: Defensively, we’ve made some strides, we have a number of players that have stepped up in terms in making it their team and taking steps weekly. And then from an offensive standpoint, the offense has continued to do what they’ve been doing, running the ball and making explosive plays. And I think the chemistry between the two, just playing off each other, including the special teams, things are starting to come together a little bit.
MMQB: Do you think, with so many names out there and Yannick Ngakoue getting dealt, that getting past the trade deadline might’ve helped?
AH: I mean, I’m not sure. I think guys just focus on playing. So to say that was somewhat of a distraction or shook up the chemistry, I’m not really sure about that. I think the guys really enjoy each other on a daily basis, in terms of being in the locker room and on the field playing together. I think that’s been the focus the entire season. So in terms of getting past the deadline, I think the camaraderie between the guys in the locker room and then out there playing on the field, that’s been a main focus for everybody. I can’t say that’s been a distraction.
MMQB: So obviously, then, hearing your name out there wasn’t a problem for you?
AH: No, for me personally, it’s just about enjoying the moment, enjoying each day whether that’s out there on the field, in the locker room, it’s really just enjoying the process that comes with playing the game at this level. That’s been my total focus. And there’s no way I can enjoy it if I’m worried about anything else.
MMQB: Has there been any challenge for you being in a contract year in consecutive years?
AH: No, I take myself out of it. Contract year, not a contract year, my focus has been on trying to help the team win in any way that I can, any way possible. So that’s where my development comes weekly in my individual performance, and also with guys around me: How I can help make them better, how can I make the people around me play at a high level? With my frame of mind being like that, and my focus on the success of the team, and how we’re doing as a team, that allows me to step away from my individual stuff. Ultimately, I see myself as a winner, and as a championship player, and I want to be part of a championship team. So the focus is on how we can get better each week.
MMQB: Has it been cool to see people a little more aware of you and your ability?
AH: Yeah, that’s something I’ve picked up on. Last year, just going out playing, making a lot of plays. And then coming into this season, I didn’t really think much about that, it was just about going in and executing at a high level. And I think now people are a little bit aware of it, but we’ve got a lot of talent on this defense, so I’m not really focusing on what I’m doing numbers-wise, it’s more how I can help the team in a positive way, and it’s been a lot of fun watching the guys’ progress. Jeff Gladney’s been doing a really good job for us the last couple weeks. So it’s been exciting and I’m excited to be a part of it.
MMQB: Your path is interesting though, as an undrafted guy who made it. Do you try and help guys who are trying to do what you did?
AH: Yeah, that’s been a really exciting experience for me, just knowing how young our group [in the secondary] is, and seeing a bunch of guys come in with, essentially, an opportunity to have their career blossom right away, early on. For me, it was about staying patient and waiting for those opportunities. So I’m consistently talking to the younger guys, whether they’re a first-round pick or undrafted, telling them, You’ve got an opportunity in front of you to play early and, ultimately, build a resume for yourself right away. That’s exciting, to see those guys take on that challenge, and see the progress week-to-week, taking in the coaching, learning on the fly, and now just starting to have fun with it. That’s been exciting.
MMQB: Is there any challenge in the Bears changing play-callers? Does it change anything?
AH: Yeah, you hear those things. But at the end of the day, the game is about adjustments. It’s about preparing during the week, and then who can make in-game adjustments, based off what you’re seeing and how they want to attack you. Me personally, and as a team, we’re not gonna focus on chasing it too much. We’re just gonna go out there, having studied the tape, and play, and then adjust as we go.
MMQB: Biggest thing you have to take away from their offense?
AH: You take a look at the players they have on the roster and evaluate the talent level and how they’re being utilized. But that’s part of weekly preparation, knowing your opponent, individual players, the skill sets. But then also taking a look at who’s calling the plays, what they’ve done in the past, what they were with another team, and what they’ve done with the organization since they’ve been there.
MMQB: What’s been the toughest thing to adjust to within the COVID-19 protocols?
AH: I think from a leaguewide standpoint, the social aspect. Obviously, building camaraderie with the players in the locker room, whether that’s hanging outside the facility or even in the facility, playing games, jokes, those types of things are limited. You don’t get that experience. Also, in terms of being able to step away from the game, whether that’s family coming into town to visit, or going out to dinner and clearing your ahead away from football, getting a reset, that’s not available. Guys are doing a great job of following all the protocols, doing what they can to keep themselves fresh and recovered, physically and mentally.
MMQB: Have you found different ways to pass time then?
AH: I wasn’t a big gamer prior, but over the past couple weeks I’ve played games a little bit to step away. And then also, music is a big one for me—I’m finding myself doing more at home, whether it’s meditating or yoga-style stretching, to try to keep the body loose and keep everything nice and relaxed. It’s been good in terms of having more down time, and not really having to worry about entertaining family or having to organize some of those things.
MMQB: You said you’re playing video games, is there one in particular you’re playing?
AH: I’ve been playing a little bit of Call of Duty, and the new one’s coming out in a couple days or so. That’s kind of it for me. Other than that, I’m usually watching movies, stuff like that. That’s about it.
MMQB: Six years into your career, is there anything special for you about playing on Monday night?
AH: Any time you get to be in a primetime game, or in the only game on, it’s exciting. And being under the lights, getting to play a night game, it brings a different feel. But in terms of right now, with the quarantine and everything, the focus is just on practicing and getting to the game, and maybe it’s a little more exciting just because it’s the one thing you get to look forward to in terms of letting everything go, being prepared and just going and playing.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
That I’m killing myself, and my editor, with this 5:30 a.m. filing time. So s/o to Mitch and everyone else who makes this thing go every week, and we’ll see you in a few hours for the MAQB.