Reacting and overreacting to everything that happened in the Week 11 Sunday afternoon games...
Things That Made Me Giddy
Taysom Hill Was the Correct Play: I wrote in Football Things this morning how Jameis Winston’s play last week made Hill the obvious choice to start against Atlanta this week. But Sunday was also a reminder that QBs who are running threats, in schemes that effectively meld that mobility with the passing game, are defended differently, and that creates opportunities. With the Falcons preoccupied with the Saints' multi-dimensional run game—and the Saints protecting a lead for the entirety of the second half, keeping play-action alive—there were generous throwing windows for Hill at the intermediate levels. Plus, Hill brings a downfield element that they just don't have with Drew Brees. Hill had one bad miss when he short-armed a throw on a rollout and also lost a bad fumble on a designed run while protecting a fourth-quarter lead. There was a stunning downfield drop by a wide-open Michael Thomas on an on-target throw. Hill had a long TD pass called back by a hold, though he hung that throw a bit. And he was also part of whatever it is you see below (Emmanuel Sanders was ruled down by contact, by the way—the result was good, the process, well...). But overall, Hill showed more than enough with his arm considering how opponents will have to respect his legs. And the Saints are more than good enough around him (the pass rush dominated Atlanta), to justify Sean Payton’s decision.
The Saints Defense Has Arrived: After an uneven performance over the first half of the season, they’ve been clicking since that Sunday night beatdown of the Bucs. On Sunday, the pass rush completely overwhelmed Matt Ryan. After taking the lead late in the first half, the Saints held the Atlanta offense to four punts, two interceptions and zero points.
The Colts Punch Back: Can Indy play from behind? The Colts, victimized by a ridiculous 51-yard (and, for all intents and purposes, seven-point) pass interference penalty at the end of the first half, were down 14 at halftime. They proceeded to put up 17 points over their first four possessions of the second half. But it was Matt Eberflus’s defense that took over the game, holding the Packers scoreless for the first 29 minutes, 57 seconds of the second half. Ultimately, they took advantage of two Packers fumbles and got the win, staying atop the AFC South and doing it their way.
Derrick Henry Saves Christmas: It was a familiar script: The Titans, even trailing, never got away from Henry in Baltimore. He carried five times for 27 yards with the Titans trailing in the fourth quarter, as Arthur Smith stuck to the wide-zone plus play-action formula. Henry came back in overtime with three carries for 37 yards, including the game-winner from 29 yards out. His final line: 28 carries for 133 yards.
A.J. Brown, Like Super Grover, Shows Up: He spent most of Sunday on the milk carton for a second straight week (save for another bad drop). But with the Titans in need of a play late, trailing by five with a third-and-10 in the red zone with 150 seconds left, Brown caught a slant short of the sticks then broke four tackles end ended up getting pushed into the end zone.
The Cowboys Look Like an Honest-to-God NFL Team: Building off a near-miss against the Steelers before their bye week, and getting Andy Dalton back in the lineup, the Cowboys looked downright competent in Minnesota. They took advantage of a couple Vikings mistakes. After relinquishing the lead the first time in the fourth quarter, they got a long TD run from Tony Pollard. And after giving up the lead again, Dalton took them 61 yards in 143 seconds, with a nifty red-zone play call sowing confusion in the Vikings secondary and resulting in an easy game-winning touchdown to Dalton Schultz.
Justin Simmons Has the Antidote to FitzMagic: It’s not a taek to say the Broncos defense is glad they got to face Tua Tagovailoa—and not Ryan Fitzpatrick—for the bulk of Sunday afternoon. After driving the Dolphins to within reach of the end zone, Fitzpatrick was in a position where he was going to have to force a throw at some point. Simmons was there to take advantage.
Matt Rhule’s Staff Finds Answers: One week after allowing 10 scores on 10 possessions to the Bucs, the defense came out and pitched a shutout against Detroit. And with former XFL stud P.J. Walker getting an emergency start under center, they rolled up 375 yards of offense and would have had 30 points if not for a couple of red-zone interceptions. In short, the rebuilding Panthers completely outclassed a Lions team that was supposed to be playoff-ready in 2020.
A Very Vic Fangio Upset: The Broncos overwhelmed rookie Tua Tagovailoa with a fierce pass rush and a lot of blurry coverage looks, while a balanced offense was fueled by 189 rushing yards.
Yannick Ngakoue Making Noise: The Titans were starting a couple of backups at the tackle spots, and Ngakoue took advantage. It was a reminder that he’s a game-changing talent coming off the edge for an already excellent Ravens defense.
Adam Thielen in the Red Zone: He had two more red-zone touchdowns on Sunday, giving him a league-leading 10 on the season. Stats Inc. has the stat going back to 1991, and the single-season record for red-zone TD catches in a year is 14, held by Randy Moss, in 2007 (a Patriots year).
T.J. Watt Was Unblockable in Jacksonville: Though not unholdable—the league has relaxed holding calls this year, but Watt should have drawn at least a half-dozen flags on Sunday. It’s a two-man race for Defensive Player of the Year: Watt vs. Aaron Donald. Everyone else: Get 'em next year.
Deshaun Watson Lowers the Shoulder: Maybe we’d all prefer Watson not lead with his throwing shoulder around the goal line, particularly in meaningless games in the back half of a lost season. But through all the GM-brained madness, sometimes it’s important to remember that it’s fun to win football games.
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Joe Burrow’s 2020 Is Over: He suffered an ugly left knee injury, bringing to an end a promising rookie year in which he was running for his life more often than not. We’ll wait and see if he’s ready for the 2021 opener. (And the good news? With all the upset wins on Sunday, the Bengals are in line for a top-three pick that would likely be Oregon OT Penei Sewell, the best non-QB in the draft class and a big protection upgrade for Burrow.)
Ravens Defense Runs Out of Gas: They’ve been great all season, but on Sunday, after Baltimore took a 21-10 lead with 9:34 left in the third quarter, they proceeded to give up a whopping 297 yards—including 8.3 yards per play—and 20 points over the Titans’ final four drives. And this, on the A.J. Brown go-ahead touchdown on which he should have been tackled short of the sticks on third-and-10, is egregiously bad tackling by Chuck Clark, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Queen (in that order).
Tua Not Up to the Task: It was unclear whether he was pulled due to injury or ineffectiveness, but this was a problematic performance for the rookie on an afternoon where the Dolphins needed just a little bit of help from the offense. Tagovailoa was too often helpless working from a muddy pocket: 26 dropbacks, 11 completions for 83 yards, six sacks for 33 yards lost—less than two yards per dropback isn’t going to cut it. While Ryan Fitzpatrick eventually threw an end-zone interception, he at least moved the offense in Denver.
Bad, Bad Quarterbacking in Cleveland, Wentz Edition: Mark Schlereth broke it down perfectly on the broadcast, but this is unforgivably bad quarterbacking on the pick-six. The play design works—the linebacker gets sucked up by the play-action and the route is run nicely by Jalen Reagor out of the left slot as Wentz stares right at him. Yet instead of taking the easy completion, Wentz double-clutches and, after it’s too late, tries to check it down. He gets hit as he does, the ball is affected and it’s a free touchdown for the Browns in a game in which points were at a premium. I don’t think Jalen Hurts is the answer right now, but if Doug Pederson had benched Wentz and turned to the rookie after this play it would have been understandable.
Bad, Bad Quarterbacking in Cleveland, Baker Edition: Baker Mayfield was spraying the ball all over the field once again, including an overshot to a wide-open Austin Hooper in the end zone that was as bad a miss as you’ll see. Conditions were a factor, sure—it was raining in Cleveland again. But I still have a tough time wrapping my head around it because I was promised, due to the fact that a guy once missed a target square by six inches during a Senior Bowl drill, Baker would be forever accurate and Josh Allen would not. I’ll write more in-depth in next week’s Football Things column, but Baker is on the brink.
Boy, the Vikings Couldn't Afford That Loss: Minnesota had a real shot at muscling their way into the playoffs, but with trips to Tampa and New Orleans still on the schedule they couldn’t afford to get tripped up by an underdog for loss No. 6 on the year. The home loss to Dallas pretty much seals their fate.
This Is a 51-Yard Penalty: And it came with 20 seconds left in the first half, meaning the Packers went from very unlikely to get points to a guarantee of at least three (instead they got seven).
“Forward Progress”: A long Nick Chubb run to set up first-and-goal in the fourth quarter was followed by an avalanche of bad judgments on the subsequent play: The Browns, for putting it in the erratic Baker Mayfield’s hands on a first-and-goal. Mayfield for managing to cough up a fumble when protecting a two-point lead on a first-and-goal. But the worst was the “forward progress” ruling by the officials, which was not only objectively incorrect and completely unnecessary to announce, but announcing it erased the possibility of a challenge correcting the call for them. The Browns scored a touchdown one play later to stretch it to a two-possession game. It was a brutal, game-changing error by the officiating crew, and one that was completely correctable.
The Lions’ Death Deserves a Darwin Award: Against all odds, the Lions were sitting on the fringe of the NFC Wild-Card race as the day began. And on Sunday, they seemed likely to stay alive since they were facing a Panthers team that was (a) missing their best offensive player, (b) coming off a week in which their defense allowed points on all 10 opponent possessions, and (c) starting a quarterback who was playing in the XFL nine months ago. For Detroit's season—and likely the tenures of GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia—to end with a blowout loss in such a game is just the dumbest way to die.
Matthew Stafford Crumbles at the Wrong Time: After years of carrying an atrocious roster on his back, Stafford—nursing a thumb injury—delivered one of the worst performances of his career precisely when the Lions couldn’t afford it.
Darrius Shepherd and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Whether it was by design or not, the Colts repeatedly invited Shepherd to return kickoffs. On five returns, he got tackled short of the 25. On another, the ball bounced at the goal line and he had to scramble before getting tackled inside the five (upon review, it was ruled as a touchback as the ball just hit the goal-line paint). And on another, Shepherd coughed up a fumble in a tie game in the fourth quarter, leading to a short, go-ahead field goal for Indy.
Patriots Politely Bow Out of the 2020 Playoff Race: Sunday was a reminder that they don’t have a player as good at football as Deshaun Watson is.
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Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About
The Stiff Arm of the Season: Everyone got all giddy about Derrick Henry stiff-arming the much smaller Josh Norman on Tuesday Night Football, but this is Nick Chubb discarding a guy who outweighs him by a good 40 pounds.
A Receiver Onside Kick: This is a great attempt by Keelan Cole! And even if it wasn’t a great attempt: Heck yes, Jaguars, you’ve lost eight straight, your opponent has won nine straight, take some chances and win a game.
Andrew Van Ginkel’s Game-Saving Punch-Out: Would be a great title for a musical. And also, it kept the Dolphins alive as Melvin Gordon was about to seal the game with a late touchdown.
Logan Woodside Makes the Fake Punt Work: The fake didn’t exactly fool the Ravens—backup QB as personal protector might have tipped their hand—but Woodside fits in a tight-window throw on the move to salvage it. (That’s also the first career completion for the backup QB, so be sure to congratulate him on his Facebook wall or something.)
Midfield Logo Shenanigans: By the Titans in Baltimore. Which is always kinda lame, but they did back it up.
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What We’ll Be Talking About This Week
But Are the Ravens Really in Trouble?: They weren’t going to catch the Steelers in the AFC North regardless of what happened Sunday, and there’s still four very winnable games left on their schedule (home against the Cowboys, Jags and Giants, at Burrow-less Cincinnati) as well as a road game against a Browns team they’ve destroyed the last two meetings. The defense was the issue against Tennessee, but a lot of that had to do with Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams being out against a Derrick Henry-based offense. There were also issues with the always fickle red-zone offense (four trips, three of them goal-to-goal, but only one touchdown). Baltimore is still figuring things out offensively, though the tools are there, even behind an injury-plagued offensive line. There’s no reason the Ravens can’t be ready for January football.
Eagles on the Brink: Cleveland was the most winnable game they’ll have until after Christmas. The defense got its act together, but the offense continues to be a disjointed mess featuring a quarterback who doesn’t trust anything they do. You don’t want to say they had to have it on Sunday—who knows if the Giants will keep collecting wins—but Philly continues to make things difficult on themselves.
The Bills Get a Win Over the Bye Week: Miami’s upset loss in Denver means Buffalo keeps a one-game edge in the AFC East race, and they still have that early road win over the Dolphins in their back pocket. As always, it's a beautiful day in Western New York.
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