By the end of Monday night, the Vikings and Lions might both be even with the Bears in the loss column in the NFC North, and two games out of the NFC playoff picture. And that’s pretty remarkable, considering where both have been the last two months. Until then …
• The revelation that Drew Brees has five cracked ribs and a collapsed lung should, first and foremost, illustrate for everyone that pro football players aren’t like everyone else. Most people wouldn’t be able to leave bed in that condition, and Brees was gutting through an NFL game with some of it. After that, of course, we can look forward and see where a really, really good Saints team goes next.
So let’s start with Sean Payton’s handling of Sunday’s game against the Niners. I’m told Jameis Winston has actually been the on-paper backup for New Orleans all year, but for a very specific reason. It’s because Taysom Hill’s other responsibilities on offense and special teams have grown to the point where he couldn’t put the time into preparing to be Brees’s backup, which explains why Payton quickly turned to Winston on Sunday. Hill, of course, will get more practice reps at quarterback this week.
That said, I’m also of the belief that Payton will probably go with Winston against Atlanta this weekend. He’s been solid in practice and has a good handle on the offense, and a lot more starting to experience to lean on than Hill does. On top of that, playing Winston would allow the Saints to keep using Hill in his gadget role. And then there’s simpler part: I think Winston simply gives New Orleans the best chance to win now, with a win-now team, and my guess is the Saints feel that way too.
That, of course, would raise larger questions about the team’s future at the position. But for right now, I don’t think that’s front of mind for a team that’s 7–2 and tied with the Packers atop the NFC playoff chase.
• Want more game-inside-the-game stuff on the Cardinals’ Hail Mary? The concept is actually one that Arizona walks through once a week—and the ball actually wasn’t designed to go to DeAndre Hopkins on the call on Sunday. The idea, in fact, is for Hopkins (all alone split to the offense’s left) to take coverage with him and clear the middle out for Andy Isabella, who’s coming across the formation out of trips right and, in theory, lining up with Kyler Murray as he rolls out left.
The problem on the play this time around, I’m told, was that pressure from Mario Addison forced Murray to sprint to the sideline. That threw the timing off—by the time Murray darted past Addison, Isabella hadn’t even crossed the middle of the field. So Isabella flat out wasn’t there. Which left Murray with a decision to make. He could throw it up to Hopkins, the only receiver in his field of vision, or he could throw it away.
We all know which way he went with that one. Oh, and the arm strength it took to get the ball there, 55 yards away, while he was running left and falling away? That only adds to what was an incredible, incredible moment for a team on the rise in Arizona.
• This week’s Ravens–Titans matchup is an important one—and an interesting one. We’ve all talked about how defenses have caught up to Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense. Would you believe that Tennessee’s running into a similar issue with Ryan Tannehill? That, as I understand it, is happening, with the Bengals, Bears and Colts having followed a fairly simple blueprint to combat what Titans OC Arthur Smith has done to make Tannehill go.
In essence, the idea has been to commit to slowing the Titans’ run game down, while flooding the middle of the field with defenders—with the thinking that taking the teeth out of play-action, and forcing Tannehill to play from the pocket and throw outside the numbers, would change the dynamic altogether for that offense. And it has. Over the last three weeks, here are the 32-year-old’s numbers:
At Cincinnati: 18-for-30, 233 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT.
Vs. Chicago: 10-for-21, 158 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs.
Vs. Indianapolis: 15-for-27, 147 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs.
To be sure, Tannehill hasn’t fallen off a cliff. But those last two games have been his least productive from a yardage standpoint since he became Tennessee’s starter last October, and the team has lost two of three. Now, Smith’s very bright, Tannehill’s got nearly a decade of NFL experience and Tennessee is getting 10 days to prepare for the Ravens. So my guess is they’ve worked on finding some answers.
But at the very least, we can say there are some questions here now that we weren’t asking three weeks ago.
• Here’s an under-the-radar move I liked Monday: The Jets claiming ex-Vikings C/G Pat Elflein. The former Ohio State All-American and third-round pick started 43 game in Minnesota, but slowly fell out of favor, and then fell out of the starting lineup. Chances are, he won’t make a big impact in his new home, and I get that.
But to me, this is an example of GM Joe Douglas pulling every lever he possibly can to get the offensive line right. They have a building block in the 11th pick from April, Mekhi Becton, plus guard Alex Lewis and a bunch of shots that Douglas took in free agency (George Fant, Greg Van Roten, Connor McGovern, etc.). And if they wind up with one or two more building blocks from that group to go with Becton, it’ll have been worth the effort.
Add that to all the capital the Jets have next April, and it’s really not that tough to see how Douglas could, in short order, have a pretty decent group in front of Sam Darnold (or Trevor Lawrence) in 2021.
• I thought this was an interesting response, from new Patriots bell cow Damien Harris, on Cam Newton’s presence and comfort level in Foxboro: “I don't want to speak for Cam, but Cam's done a great job being a leader for this team. As he goes, we go. We know how great of a player he is, and he's an even better leader, an even better teammate. I can speak for myself when I say that I'm very fortunate to play with Cam.”
No matter how the rest of the season plays out, I do hope this puts to bed the question of Newton being any sort of issue fitting in with a team. Those who know him had very little doubt he’d assimilate quickly to New England, and he has. The only issue I’ve really ever heard Newton having with teammates was that he’d be a little mopey after losses—a dynamic we all saw in overdrive after Super Bowl 50.
Other than that? I think people like Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis would tell you they loved having Newton as a teammate, and the Patriots seem to feel that way about him too.
• As Washington and Baltimore roll back their opening of the stands to limit crowds—both will play in empty home stadiums on Sunday—it’s fair to wonder how the last two months of the season will look. For teams like the Jets, Giants, Patriots, 49ers, Chargers and Rams, it seems highly unlikely, given how governors in those states have dealt with COVID, that we’ll see fans in the stands before the 2021 season. And others might roll back like the Ravens and the Football Team did.
The Super Bowl is, of course, the elephant in the room now. The league had been planning on about 20% capacity in Tampa on Feb. 7. And while Florida’s governor has been, well, aggressive in encouraging just about everyone to return to life as we knew it, it’s hard to believe the NFL would decide to go gung ho between now and the beginning of February. In fact, at this point, a rollback seems more likely than adding on to the number of fans that’ll be at Raymond James Stadium in a little under three months.
• New deals for Chiefs coach Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach were pushed over the goal line the last couple days—with each running through the 2025 season. So, if you want to play this game now, we can: Reid currently ranks sixth all-time in wins by an NFL coach, with 215 (two past Paul Brown!). Over his first seven-and-a-half years in Kansas City, he’s averaged a little more than 11 wins per year, and he’s already got eight this year.
Let’s say, conservatively, he gets to 13–3 this year. That would put him at 220. And if he wins 11 per year over the life of his new deal (which might be a little light with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback and the schedule expanding to 17 games), he’d get to 275 by the end of it. That would mean passing Curly Lambeau into fifth and Tom Landry into fourth place all-time. And fourth is probably his ceiling, given his age. Don Shula (328) and George Halas (318) are out of reach and Bill Belichick (277 and counting) probably will be too when all is said and done.
• Veach also deserves credit, while we’re here, for building a sustainable core of players—since he took over in the summer of 2017, the Chiefs have found a way to fix their defense, and the young GM hit on veteran acquisitions (Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu to name two). And he’s also kept the pipeline of young skills players like Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mecole Hardman flowing.
No doubt, the Chiefs really have it working right now.
• I love what the Rams have done, and wrote about their defensive renaissance in the MMQB this morning, but the left tackle situation there bears watching. There’s a reason why L.A. worked so hard to convince the now-injured Andrew Whitworth to come back each of the last couple years, and it’s not because they see Joe Noteboom as the next Walter Jones.
Now, Noteboom—who’s started at guard and struggled with injuries the last two years—deserves a fair shot over the next few weeks. Maybe he’s better than any of us realize. If he’s not? Well, that would only confirm how valuable Whitworth’s been to that franchise since Sean McVay brought him in before he coached a single game in L.A. in 2017.
• Guilty or innocent, the Bucs are getting today what they signed up for with Antonio Brown. There’s always something going on with him. And today’s something happened to be really, really strange.