No championships were won at SoFi Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but the smile on Matthew Stafford’s face, the one Fox kept showing through the Rams’ showdown with the Buccaneers, was wide enough to make you believe otherwise. And over the phone, a half hour after it was over, Stafford made it abundantly clear that his glow still hadn’t dimmed.
“I’m having a blast,” he volunteered. “I’m having a great time.”
Winning, as always, helps. And the Rams did win the game that Stafford had just finished.
But this felt like more than just that. Maybe it’s being out of a situation that so often felt hopeless, as much as he tried to make it, well, not that. Maybe it’s getting to see where he can take his game, given advantages he’s so often seen other quarterbacks granted. Maybe it’s the coach he’s working with. Maybe it’s living in Southern California. Maybe it’s just the newness of getting to start over and reinvent himself, to a degree, as a professional athlete.
Or maybe it’s all of those things. And the stage he got to enjoy them on Sunday afternoon.
It wasn’t often that Stafford got to play in the kind of game everyone was watching over his 13 seasons on the Lions, which is exactly what Sunday’s game at SoFi Stadium was. The defending champion Bucs in town. A raucous crowd on hand. Real, true-to-life stakes being fought over in September. And a mano a mano heavyweight quarterback matchup.
Sixty minutes of football later, we know this: The stage sure wasn’t too big for the 33-year-old, and as a result he’s not done getting to perform on this kind of platform. Stafford absolutely sparkled against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, throwing for 343 yards, four scores without a pick, and a 134.0 passer rating. And the rest of the Rams followed his lead, taking control early and holding a double-digit lead for the game’s final 22 minutes.
“It was a lot of fun going up against Tampa,” Stafford said. “Obviously, Tom’s playing at a really high level. They’re a really well-coached team, so we knew we had our hands full and I was just proud of how we played. It was a total team win. I thought our defense did a hell of a job, and we were able to put enough points on the board there to get the win. But as far as something being unique, I mean I’m just enjoying my situation right now.
“I’m enjoying playing ball for the Rams, leading these guys, and I’m having a blast doing it. That’s the biggest thing I took away from today.”
If he and Sean McVay have their way, the fun’s just beginning in L.A.
And by the way, on this Sunday of Week 3, that fun in L.A. wasn’t just confined to what the Rams were doing in their new palace.
Last weekend was wild and set a high bar for this weekend. And at risk of falling victim to recency bias, it feels like Week 3 actually matched Week 2. It’s been a great season so far, and as such we’ve got a lot to get to in today’s column. Inside this edition of the MMQB column, you’ll find …
• A look at the Saints’ long road back to New Orleans.
• A dive into the adjusted play call that sparked the Packers’ comeback in Santa Clara.
• The psychology behind Justin Tucker’s big kick.
• What the success of the Bengals’ LSU alumni chapter can tell us about training camp.
And a whole lot more. But we’re starting out west, with the NFL’s bright future in our nation’s second-largest city.
Sunday was probably what the NFL had in mind as it rode out 21 years without a team in Los Angeles—with the thought that eventually, at some point, if done right, someone could really knock it out of the park in the entertainment capital of the world.
Because as the Rams took the field at their gleaming, $6 billion stadium and prepared to play in front of a crowd that, finally, seemed like more than just curious Angelinos mixed with visiting team fans, the second team the league moved to Los Angeles, the Chargers, were finishing up what might’ve been an even bigger game.
And the story they were writing behind their own young mastermind of a coach, and their own endlessly talented quarterback, might’ve been just as compelling.
Playing Patrick Mahomes and the mighty Chiefs at Arrowhead, the Chargers raced to a 14–0 lead, but Kansas City responded with 17 straight and, from there, the AFC West rivals traded haymakers until Alohi Gilman picked off Mahomes with 1:34 left and the score tied at 24. From there, Justin Herbert drove the Chargers to the Chiefs’ 30, where their drive stalled and their offense wound up facing a critical fourth-and-4.
The Chargers’ 38-year-old coach Brandon Staley told me afterward that he was going for it all the way there—“We felt really good about the fourth-and-4 for sure, really liked our matchup, really liked our play call”—but he wanted to mess with the Chiefs first. So he sent his field goal team out to, in effect, ice the Chiefs’ defense, before hustling the offense back on the field with the call.
But rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater wound up drawing a false start after the Chargers’ offense got back out there and lined up. That pushed the Chargers back to fourth-and-9 from the Chiefs’ 35, and despite the risk of giving the ball back to Mahomes in fantastic field position with 48 seconds left, in not punting, the choice, to Staley, remained clear.
“I wanted to put the ball in our best player’s hands—I wanted to put the ball in Justin Herbert’s hands,” Staley said. “I felt like we had protected well throughout the game, and I liked our matchups outside. I really did. And I think [coordinator] Joe [Lombardi] called a really good fourth-and-9 play. It’s a play that Justin’s really comfortable with … it’s a route combination he’s really comfortable with.
“And we like our matchups outside against their corners and their nickel, and we felt really strongly about our matchups with Mike [Williams], Keenan [Allen] and Jalen [Guyton].”
Herbert was, in essence, instructed to find the player on the field who was on the lowest rung of the Chiefs’ depth chart—and that’s why the ball wound up going, almost right after the snap, to Guyton. He was being covered by Kansas City’s fourth corner, ex-Giants first-round pick DeAndre Baker. Guyton broke hard at the sideline, Herbert fired a rocket between the 1 and the 5 on Guyton’s jersey, and Baker interfered to break it up.
The ensuing flag moved the Chargers to the Chiefs’ 20, where Herbert feathered a fade to his left to Williams to get L.A. to the Chiefs’ 4 with 36 seconds left. Most coaches, in that spot in a tie game, would kneel on the ball and attempt a game-winning field goal at the gun, to keep the other team from getting a shot. But the swirling winds, previous misses on a field goal and an extra point in the game by kicker Tristan Vizcaino and, of course, the presence of Herbert himself all factored into the decision from Staley to stay aggressive.
“[Draining the clock and kicking a field goal] was definitely under consideration. Going down-down, and centering it and all that,” Staley said. “It was definitely under consideration, but we felt like offensively that we wanted to score the ball. Again, there were a lot of things from a mechanics standpoint to unpack in that situation. Our kicker missed an extra point. There was a crosswind. It was loud, procedure, all those things. There’s just a lot of factors.
“And I wanted to put the ball in our players’ hands on offense to decide the game.”
In return for all of that faith, Herbert coolly got the ball out to Williams, who went over the top of Chiefs corner Mike Hughes for the four-yard touchdown to make it 30–24. And from there, Staley got two pieces of validation, one welcome, one not. The first was over his concern on kicking even a chip-shot field goal—Vizcaino missed the extra point after Williams’s score to keep the lead to just six. The second was in putting his defense back out there against Mahomes and with the game on the line and 32 second left.
The Chiefs only got to the Chargers’ 49 before Staley’s crew closed them out.
“That’s what I loved about the game, because you go back to how Justin got the ball back, we turned Pat over. We turned them over. We got the ball back for our offense,” Staley said. “We had a huge interception with 1:44 left, and then we can go drive it down the field and then finish it on defense. I think it’ll be a good confidence builder for us because you do have to have the respect level for a generational quarterback, a quarterback that is as good as there’s ever been in this league with two really, really special skill players.”
Of course, Staley will tell you he’s got a generational quarterback too, and that’s why he fully understands the hoopla we’ll all continue to make over Mahomes/Herbert, and where that could go over the next decade—“as much as you guys make of the matchup, you should because they are both that good.”
But he’s also quick to emphasize that, for Herbert, it really isn’t about chasing Mahomes, an idea that, Staley hopes, eventually rubs off on those around him.
“He’s driven internally to be the best that he can be, and that’s why I love him so much,” Staley said. “He’s really not worried what’s going on on the other side of things, and he’s got a lot of belief in himself, and that’s the type of competitor that we’re trying to build here. That’s what I want. I want our guys to be like him. That they’re not worried about what’s on the other side. We respect what’s on the other side. Let me make that extremely clear. And I know how much respect Justin has for Pat—like the ultimate respect, because they’re the two best in the game.
“But this was really more about our team than any one person, for me today. And I feel like what happened today is everyone saw head-to-head that our guy’s really, really unique. He’s really special. He just had four touchdown passes and no interceptions on the road in a place that’s one of the loudest places in pro football. So I think it’s just an expression of the way Justin plays all the time.”
And if the Chargers can play that way all the time, too, well, then they could make more inroads in L.A.
At 4 p.m. ET, in fact, it seemed like they’d made some progress there. Then, the Rams kicked off.
The Rams’ 34–24 win over Tampa absolutely lacked the drama that we got in so many other games on Sunday. But what was missing in nervous moments, Stafford and the Rams made up for in artistry and intensity.
Stafford’s 75-yard touchdown pass DeSean Jackson three plays into the second half really busted things open, and the Rams kept the Bucs at an arm’s length from there. Raheem Morris’s defense effectively made Tampa one-dimensional (the Bucs only ran the ball 13 times, and three were Brady scrambles), and Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Kenny Young, among others, turned up the heat as the visitors leaned heavier on TB12. Which kept Tampa out of the end zone, really, from the 10-minute mark of the third until garbage time.
Meanwhile, Stafford was able to go out there and play point guard—hitting six different receivers at least three times each, while hitting on six explosive (20-plus yards) pass plays over the course of the afternoon.
“I’m definitely just trying to throw the ball where I think it needs to go,” Stafford said. “We have talented guys that get open against coverage, and I’m just trying to read it out, read it through. I think our guys up front, against a team like Tampa, did a hell of a job today blocking it up and giving our guys a chance to go win down the field. And then I just tried to spread it around, get it to the right guys and our guys made plays.”
And that’s really the idea of all of this for Stafford in this fresh start of his.
He won’t say it himself, but it’s what’s surrounding him now that’s making the difference, and that brings us back to the head coach who, in June, said to me, on Stafford: “Bro, this dude’s a bad motherf----r.” McVay’s been talking up Stafford like that for months because he believes in him, and we’re seeing why now, with the way the Rams are playing on offense, and with how McVay seems to be coming out of his shoes with excitement (I’m sure everyone’s seen the pre-halftime display by now).
And yes, the feeling is mutual. Stafford says now that much of the time he and McVay spend together is on further tailoring the system not only to fit him as a quarterback, but everyone else in the offense too. On a day like Sunday, you can see where it’s going.
“This [system] is different than any one that I’ve been in before, and it’s led by as a guy who’s as smart as anybody in the league right now,” Stafford said. “So I just feel really lucky to get the chance to work with him. We bounce ideas off each other and talk constantly, and I think it makes us both better. I know it makes me better as a player, getting the chance to work with him, and not only him but really, the guys that I step in the huddle with, too.
“I got a bunch of great players. I know the guys that I practice against every single day, some of the best defensive players in the world. So it really is a big challenge for me, but at the same time it’s making us better.”
At the end of our conversation, Stafford told me he still feels like the Rams could start a little faster, and he took the blame for that.
But the truth is that he’s in a really good place right now, both literally, and figuratively. And based on how Week 3 went, he’s not the only guy in L.A. who can say that.
SAINTS HEADED HOME
By the time you read this, DeMario Davis will be back home with his wife and four kids, and he’ll immediately go on Baby Watch with everyone else under that roof. The Davises are expecting their fifth child any day now.
Normally, just that wouldn’t be something that’d come up in a football column.
It is this week, because Davis is a Saints captain and the trip back home, to New Orleans, is his first since Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August. Just ahead of the storm, Davis, his teammates and the New Orleans staff relocated to the Dallas area, eventually settling near Fort Worth with practices set up at TCU. For the last four weeks, that was home. Finally, Monday, New Orleans is home again.
The Saints will move back in to their Metairie practice facility in the coming days, following Sunday’s 28–13 win over the Patriots, and after a month that included a COVID-19 outbreak on the coaching staff, a rash of injuries, some in-season ups-and-downs and even images of the Superdome catching fire.
“It’s just been one blow after another, and sometimes that can mount up on you and you just kind of like, What else is going to happen?” Davis said. “And when you mentally get to a place like that, that can be challenging. But it just pushes us closer man; it just pushes us closer and we just understand eventually it’s going to swing in our favor. But regardless of the situation, we still have to be ready to be locked and loaded when we step out there on that field.”
They sure were on Sunday. The Saints controlled the Patriots’ run game (2.9 yards per carry), got to Mac Jones (55.2 passer rating), generated three interceptions and survived a few miscues (two missed field goals) to score a convincing win over a proud, old franchise.
But as much as anything, what was impressive about how the Saints came out on Sunday was how they held up over time. After four weeks on the road this was, essentially, the last day of boarding school for the players, with the promise of heading back to the comforts of home lying out there for them on the postgame charter. So if complacency crept in, that certainly would’ve been understandable.
Instead, the opposite happened. The Saints saved their best for last. After the Patriots scored on a beautiful Jones fade to Kendrick Bourne in the fourth quarter to cut a 21–6 deficit to 21–13, the Saints embarked on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that took 6:45 off the clock, ended with seven points and essentially ended any shot New England had. Marshon Lattimore punctuated the win with an interception shortly thereafter.
Along the way, a Saints defense playing without Marcus Davenport or David Onyemata had to pick up the offense at points. And an offense without Michael Thomas had to do the same, in spots, all of which means a little more now that Drew Brees isn’t around anymore.
“A lot of it’s just our culture. We have a great culture here, it’s a lot of ways to win a game,” Davis said. “We understand what our team makeup is, we understand how we ought to win, we’ve played in a lot of games, won a lot of games, so we win a lot of different games a lot of different ways. That’s what we do—we play the game that’s in front of us. We know from a defensive standpoint that if we can dominate offenses the way that we know that we can, it puts our team in a situation to where they get to manage a lot more manageable situations and not have to go and do anything heroic.
“That’s our formula.”
And the Saints will get back to building off the formula later this week.
But for the next couple of days, the focus is going to be on reacclimating everyone to New Orleans, before gearing up for their home opener on Sunday. Which, admittedly, will be a little easier to do coming off a win.
“It was just good man,” Davis said. “It was good to get that, to finish this bizarre past month with a win and be going home, just a really good feeling for us. Lot of guys excited to be home and to be able to go home and enjoy the next 24 to 48 hours of victory and then be able to come back and go back to work again. Right now, we get to enjoy this, man, and it’s a really good feeling.
“Took a lot of work. That was a really good team that we went up against, a really good defense that they have. They drove down the field in the fourth quarter, and for us to get off the field with the game still in hand, was just really great. It’s a really good feeling that we get a chance to enjoy it.”
And you can add to that—they most certainly deserve it, too.
I think Sunday night provided a great window into how the Packers have weathered the storm of the last nine months. Because as acrimonious as the Aaron Rodgers situation might’ve been since February—and it’s been acrimonious—my belief having covered it is that Matt LaFleur’s ability to maintain a strong level of communication, and the coaching staff’s ability to keep working with its quarterback, is a huge part of why they’ve been able to make it through a couple of weeks like the last two and come out on the other end with a win over a very, very good 49ers team. And the 25-yard strike from Rodgers to all-world receiver Davante Adams with 37 seconds left, the one that got Green Bay to the 50 and within shouting distance of the game-winning field goal, is really where you could see it. Rodgers told NBC’s Michele Tafoya postgame that was an idea LaFleur came up with, and LaFleur in his postgame presser said it was actually passing-game coordinator Luke Getsy who made the key observation on Thursday, which led to a tweak. What was the tweak? Well, as much as I could gather on Sunday night, the tweak was actually off Getsy mentioning that, on the play the Packers initially had, a safety would likely come off to get the receiver that was in the spot Adams wound up in, which led to the suggestion that they switch the route Randall Cobb runs out of the slot. And sure enough, if you go back and look at the play, you see Cobb in the slot, Adams out wide to his right, and, at the snap, Cobb’s running some sort of corner route and clearing ground out with Adams’s coming across into the middle of the field. Which is where Rodgers found him for the big-gainer. Another interesting piece to this—initially, in practice, Adams was the receiver split to Rodgers’s left, with Allen Lazard to his right in the spot Adams wound up in. That was another switch that happened, this one in-game, and the ball going to Adams wasn’t predetermined, it was dictated by the coverage (it was open coverage; had it been closed, the ball would’ve gone to the receiver to Rodgers’s left). Anyway, that one set up another to Adams, a 17-yarder, to position Mason Crosby for his 51-yard game-winner and to get the Packers out of California with a big conference win. But all the same, it illustrated the way that everyone’s still working together, despite all the water under the bridge—“Everything’s collaborative,” said one staffer. And how strong the room is with Rodgers, LaFleur, Getsy, OC Nathaniel Hackett and backups Jordan Love and Kurt Benkert. The result? The Packers feel dangerous again. And while that doesn’t mean everything’s fixed between Rodgers and the organization, how the difference-making play, and win, came together is a pretty good example of everyone’s ability to compartmentalize a lot of pretty recent history.
I don’t think there have been many kicks in NFL history better than the one Justin Tucker hit right after 4 p.m. ET on Sunday. There certainly have been few as dramatic. By now, you’ve likely seen the NFL-record 66-yarder, which bounced high off the crossbar and flipped end over end through the uprights with triple zeroes showing to give the Ravens a second consecutive win of the heart-stopping variety, by a score of 19–17 over the hard-luck Lions. But what you may not know? Tucker really had no idea where his limits were as Lamar Jackson worked the offense into position for the game-winner—because, really, he never does. Which, interestingly enough, is by design. “When you gotta have it, if that ball was spotted even a yard further away or a couple yards closer, it wouldn’t have mattered, we were gonna try to kick it anyways,” Tucker told me postgame. “But I’m not involved in those conversations. I just try to kinda stay out of it. I stay at my corner of the bench with Sam [Koch, the punter/holder] and [long-snapper] Nick [Moore], and just try to stay in the calm zone. That’s what we call it. As crazy as an NFL football game can be at times, all the ebbs and the flows and emotions that go into a given game, not being overly emotionally involved myself is something that we prioritize, something we actually work on.” That’s because while Moore is relatively new, in his second year, no one else is—Koch’s been in Baltimore for Tucker’s entire 10-year career, as has John Harbaugh, and special teams coach Chris Horton’s been around since 2014—which has allowed for all of those guys to tailor things to have Tucker in the best place to make a kick like Sunday’s. The best place for Tucker to be is with a clear head. “There’s something to be said for compartmentalizing everything that we are supposed to do and just focusing solely on that,” Tucker continued. “Anything else could be just considered drag. So for us, it’s just see the ball, match up my foot to the sweet spot. For Nick, it’s throwing back a strike with 12 o’clock laces. For Sam, it’s just getting the ball spotted quick, get it up right with the laces out. Those guys did an excellent job of that, to where I’m able to just think about smoking the ball off my foot and giving it a chance.” Which brings us back to Sunday, and the coaches’ waving the field goal team on, and Tucker smoking that ball. Add all this up, and it probably won’t surprise you that Tucker doesn’t remember Harbaugh or anyone else saying anything (“I couldn’t tell you, to be honest; I just kinda ran out there assuming that I’m kicking this ball no matter what”). But he does remember how he felt kicking the ball (“I knew it was gonna have a chance, but when it hit the crossbar, I paused for a moment”), and how he felt when it flipped through (“When it bounced up and through and I saw it fall on the other side of the crossbar, I just felt like I was floating”). It’s the longest field goal he’s ever attempted in a game, and obviously the longest he, or anyone else, has ever hit in the NFL. And if the officials had called a delay of game on Jackson seconds before the try? Would Harbaugh have sent him out there for a 71-yarder? Naturally, he has no clue. What he does know is what he got was about as bonkers as it gets: “You’re telling me! Holy s---.”
Joe Burrow and his old college friend are making training camp observations look silly. Remember all the (digital) ink spilled on Burrow’s struggles with simulated pressure in August? And how Ja’Marr Chase was dropping everything? Three games into the season, the Bengals are 2–1 and in first place in the AFC North, Burrow posted plus-120 passer ratings in both wins and Chase has 16 catches for 220 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games as a pro. Back in August, Burrow told me that, for him, that period of camp was really about getting reacclimated to having rushers buzzing around him after his December ACL surgery, all of it was intentional and he’d come out of it fine. Turns out, he was telling the truth. And Chase’s persistence working alongside his former LSU QB set him up to be where he needed to be by September. “They just hit the ground running as the season started, which we knew they would,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor told me Sunday, after the Bengals beat the Steelers 24–10. “That’s what training camp’s for. Training camp’s so you can work out some of the kinks and get back in the flow of things, and so again, this is not unexpected from them. It’s really easy to communicate to the two of them, because they’re always on the same page.” That symbiotic relationship between the two showed up on touchdowns in the second and third quarters. And as for the fitness of Burrow’s knee, if there were any lingering question, it got answered just before the second of those touchdowns. The Bengals had just driven for a field goal to open the second half, and linebacker Luke Wilson then picked off Ben Roethlisberger for the second time (Wilson’s third pick in two weeks). Two plays later, on second-and-8, Burrow took what looked like a designed draw off left tackle and dove in between three Steelers for the first down. On the next play, he found Chase for the nine-yard score. When I asked Taylor after the game if he’d called the run, he laughed and said, “No comment.” But he didn’t mind providing some detail on what it meant to see Burrow do that. “We’re on him: When you get down the field don’t take unnecessary hits,” Taylor said. “But we need him to use his legs; that’s critical. We know that quarterbacks we face that can move the chains with their legs cause a lot of stress. And Joe’s got that ability, and he’s got the confidence in himself and uses it at the right times.” All of which is great news for a Bengals team that has a defense that’s growing around young players like Wilson, a veteran secondary and third-year coordinator Lou Anarumo, and an offense that’s starting to get better play from its line (and has always had good skill guys). And all the way back in the summer there were signs, in how fast the defense was playing and how the offense was growing through its mistakes, that a corner might be turned. So that it’s happened? Not a shocker for Taylor & Co. Nor was being able to win in Pittsburgh—something Cincinnati hadn’t done since 2015. “It’s a step we needed to take,” Taylor said. “And our team has a lot of confidence right now, but until you actually go do it and see that you’re capable of doing it, that really means something.” And so the Pittsburgh game did mean something, for Burrow and Chase, and also the whole team.
Last week in my GamePlan column, I asked the question of how three nouveau-riche 3–0 teams (the Raiders, Broncos and Cardinals) would handle prosperity. For now, it seems, they’re handling it just fine. And that especially goes for the Raiders and Cardinals. As I’m sure you saw …
• Arizona was in a dogfight early in Jacksonville, and then, just before halftime, gave up the rare kick-six. Kliff Kingsbury sent Matt Prater out for a 68-yard field goal with seconds left, the kick fell short and Jamal Agnew took it back 109 yards to give the Jags a 13–7 lead at the break. Jacksonville’s lead would grow to 19–10 in the third. “There was no panic,” Kingsbury said. “That’s about as big a moment of adversity as you can face in an NFL football game to have something like that happen right before the half. Guys didn’t blink. Even when we went down two scores, guys didn’t blink. I was really proud of that effort.” And backing up Kingsbury’s words: The Cardinals closed the game with 21 unanswered points. Kyler Murray completed his final 11 passes for 153 yards, Byron Murphy scored on a pick-six during that stretch and Chandler Jones notched a game-clinching strip-sack. So, as Kingsbury said, backs against the wall, the Cardinals got the best from their best.
• Truth be told, the Raiders made it sort of easy on the Dolphins early. Derek Carr, who sparkled otherwise, missed Foster Moreau wide in the first quarter and, in the process, served up an 85-yard pick-six for Miami’s Elandon Roberts to give the visitors a 7–0 lead. And on the following possession, Vegas, for some reason, went for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 34, failed to convert and gave Miami a short field with which to take a 14–0 lead. From there? Carr went 23-of-38 for 332 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Raiders on a 25–3 run, then outgunned Jacoby Brissett in overtime—with an absolute dime of a throw on a corner route to Brian Edwards for 34 yards that highlighted the winning effort in the extra session. Which wound up lifting the Raiders to 3–0 for the first time in 19 years, which also happens to be the franchise’s last Super Bowl year.
So the bottom line is both of these teams heard during the week how maybe, just maybe, they were growing up before everyone’s eyes. But it wasn’t until things got a little scrambled on them Sunday that we really got to see how much they’d matured. Both came out of those tests looking pretty good.
I didn’t group the Broncos with the other teams, because their story’s a little different. They opened with games on the East Coast, against the Giants and Jaguars, and won both by double digits. And on Sunday, they punctuated their September with a 26–0 drubbing of the struggling Jets. In the first half, the Broncos nearly quadrupled New York in total yards (198 to 55), registered 13 first downs to the Jets’ five and ripped off almost five yards per carry. And yet, while digesting all of this, you also can’t ignore the aggregate record of the three teams they’ve beaten: 0–9. “I think we’ve got a good team,” Vic Fangio told reporters postgame, when asked about where Denver stands. “We’ve been pretty damn solid for three weeks, both offensively and defensively. Today, we had to work for everything offensively; they’re a good defense. They’ve got a lot of good players over there and made it hard for us. [But] we were able to get enough drives going, make enough plays to put some points on the board.” So here, to me, is the main point/counterpoint on a team that ran the table in September, after coming into the month not having won a September game since 2018 …
• Many of the stars of the show are highly drafted young guys, like Courtland Sutton, Patrick Surtain, Noah Fant, Justin Simmons and Javonte Williams; and that’s with other rising stars like Jerry Jeudy and Bradley Chubb banged up. So maybe some of this is lightning in a bottle. But there are some big investments made that are paying off, too.
• Teddy Bridgewater’s playing great, but there’s a ceiling there. And the division, by the looks of it, may be as tough as any in football.
So look at that, and maybe the Broncos won’t be winning the Super Bowl. But when your biggest question mark is how far a former first-round quarterback who’s playing well can take you, things aren’t so bad. Or they’re at least a lot better than they have been the last few years in Denver.
I made the comment that the Browns were quiet this summer—and that I thought that was a pretty good sign considering what a circus the franchise has been since reentering the league in 1999. And the team’s win over the Bears on Sunday was a shining example of how that should transfer over into the regular season. You probably didn’t hear much about the Browns on Sunday, other than when social media was discussing how their opponent was handling its rookie quarterback. But maybe people should’ve been paying more attention to it …
• The Browns rushed for 215 yards at an average clip of more than five yards per.
• Baker Mayfield was workmanlike, at 19-of-31 for 246 yards, a touchdown and no picks.
• Odell Beckham caught five balls for 77 yards in his first game back from an ACL tear.
• The Browns sacked Justin Fields nine times. Myles Garrett gobbled up half of them (4.5).
To me, that the dismantling came off as so routine to everyone shows how far coach Kevin Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry have brought this franchise. And that it matches so perfectly how Stefanski explains the Browns’ blueprint only drives home the point. “I think we want to play attacking defense, get that lead and then be able to run the ball like we did in the second half,” the coach said postgame. “That is not secret, that it is a blueprint for success. Now, you have to play great defense, you have to get the lead and you have to be able to run it when they know you are running it, so it is way easier said than done.” But the Browns got it done, and got it done, again, in a routine, even expected way. It’s a different time in Cleveland.
I think the Bears are going to have to do some very different things with Justin Fields next week. Part of the issue with Fields when he came out of Ohio State was that he’d hold onto the ball too long and have to see his open receivers before getting rid of the ball, rather than throwing with anticipation and to spots. And seeing as though that’s what Chicago’s staff was working around in getting him ready to play on Sunday, I was surprised to see how often the Bears just had him playing, basically, as a conventional drop-back passer, rather than getting him out of the pocket and moving, especially with the offensive line in the spot it’s in right now. We’ll see if that changes this week, with Fields set to start in place of an injured Andy Dalton again as the Bears host the Lions.
Josh Allen looked like an MVP candidate again, and there was a really tough story behind it. After riddling Washington for 358 yards and four touchdowns on 32-of-43 passing in Buffalo’s 43–21 win, the Bills’ quarterback went to the locker room to seek out his offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll. When Allen found Daboll, and gave him a bearhug, minutes later, it was about more than just football—and brought back memories neither wanted to relive. A year ago, Daboll was there for Allen after Allen lost his grandmother. This time around, it was Daboll who’d lost a grandmother. And truth be told, Ruth Kirsten was more than just a grandparent to Daboll. “She was the woman that raised him so he had a pretty tough week,” Allen said. “I know him and his family are hurting right now. It’s just crazy how the roles are reversed. Last year I got to come into the locker room and I had a heartfelt hug with him, and this year he falls in my arms. He’s a guy that I love dearly, and to go out there and play the way we did for him, the guys understood that and we wanted to go and execute and play well for him.” Afterward, Sean McDermott said the Daboll situation made him, again, “thankful for the togetherness” his team has. It’s shown up, of course, in how the group rallied from its season-opening loss to the Steelers. The Bills have outscored opponents 78–21 in the two game since. And obviously, it showed up in much more important ways, too.
I’ve got 10 quick-hitting things I noticed, or liked, during Week 2 …
1) I really liked Mike Vrabel’s decision to go up for two up by seven points. To me, if it’s late in the game, and the downside is being up seven, it’s worth taking a shot to go up nine and make it much tougher for your opponent to come back.
2) Another day, another 31 touches for Tennessee workhorse Derrick Henry.
3) I can’t believe the Colts are 0–3.
4) While we’re there, the Giants are 18–49 since their last playoff season. I knew it was bad. I didn’t know it was that bad until I looked it up.
5) I know it sounds cliché, but the Lions really are fighting their tails off. The work Dan Campbell’s doing in Year 1 reminds me a little of how locked in Brian Flores had his Dolphins in 2019, when everyone thought they were tanking for a quarterback.
6) Congrats to Eli Manning and Julian Edelman for being honored by their respective teams on Sunday. Fun fact some of you might not remember: Edelman was a reserve corner defending Manning for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
7) Jaycee Horn and Christian McCaffrey are two difficult injuries for the Panthers. But I’ve been on them from the start. I think they’ll be in the mix—and play into January.
8) Justin Jefferson’s a monster, and that LSU offense of 2019 was flat-out scary, both back then and now in retrospect.
9) It’s sort of alarming to look at the Vikings’ stat sheet against Seattle, and then consider how the Seahawks’ defense collapsed last week against the Titans at home.
10)I really like Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas. But that was not an encouraging afternoon for the Jets in Denver.
I’m interested to see if there’s any competitive fallout in the playoff scheduling tweak that the NFL rolled out this week. For those who missed it, the NFL shuffled the slate for the six-game wild-card weekend format it unveiled last year, in essence taking the Saturday 1 p.m. ET game, and moving it to Monday night. There are two reasons why …
1) The NFL had been considering this idea for a while, concurrently with considering expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14, and the College Football Playoff title game was the one thing that stood in the way. That game is played on the next Monday that’s six days or more after the CFP semis—which is routinely the second Monday in January. That usually lands on wild-card weekend. But now, with the Super Bowl moved back due to the move to 17 games, wild-card weekend is too. Which clears the way for the Monday night wild-card game.
2) Money, plain and simple. A Monday night primetime slot is better for the networks than an early afternoon Saturday window.
And if you need more reason to believe the second one, consider this: The NFL’s coaches subcommittee wasn’t consulted at all on the competitive-balance issues this one could create. Bottom line, the league has had a plan to do this for a while, and if it meant things got tougher on playoff teams, well, then that was something that was never going to make 345 Park Ave. or the owners hesitate. Now, my understanding is that the NFL will work hard to keep any team playing in that Monday night playoff game from having to go into a Saturday divisional round game. But when I asked if there’s a guarantee, the response I got is that nothing’s guaranteed. And that’s because now, with the need to reseed the six teams that advance, and only one team per conference static going into divisional weekend, there are lot of moving parts at work. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in January.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) In the early 2000s, after I got out of school, I went to work at the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass. And one of the things that happens at a local paper like that is you cover local colleges and local athletes who’ve gone on to compete collegiately elsewhere. One such athlete was a kid named Ricky Santos, who played at New Hampshire for an innovative young coordinator named Chip Kelly. And one such school I covered was Bentley, which made the Div. II playoffs in ‘03, and got routed there by Grand Valley State, on its way to its second straight national title. Grand Valley State is a Michigan school that was coached by another guy with ties to our area. That guy was Brian Kelly, who’s now the winningest coach in Notre Dame history. So I guess if you cover sports for long enough, you wind up with stories like these. (Thanks for indulging me on that one.)
2) Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz are becoming good cautionary tales—highly touted quarterbacks that a lot of us jumped the gun on, thinking they were destined to become high-end NFL prospects before they did anything. Those guys might eventually get there. But right now, those guys have to become good college quarterbacks before we go back to considering how they’ll look as pros.
3) While we’re there, the Spencer Rattler and Kedon Slovis situations definitely illustrate how wide-open things are with the 2022 quarterback class. Rattler’s numbers have been fine, but the Oklahoma offense has been very inconsistent under his leadership—unable to pull away in a five-point win over Tulane, and scoring just 23 and 16 in narrow victories over Nebraska and West Virginia. He has physical tools, and the Lincoln Riley pedigree, but NFL teams will be closely watching how he comes out of this. Slovis is a bit of a different story. The more people I’ve talked to, the more doubt I’ve sensed on whether NFL teams really viewed the USC QB as a first-round pick to begin with—because really there isn’t anything special about him physically. And this season hasn’t gone his way. Some reasons for it are out of his control (primarily his coach getting fired). But that interim coach Donte Williams left the door open for true freshman Jaxson Dart to take the job from Slovis, after Dart played in place of a nicked up Slovis and before Dart got hurt himself, raises a whole new set of questions.
4) Maybe it’s just me, but I think (outside of well-established neutral-site games like Florida-Georgia and Oklahoma-Texas) putting conference games like Texas A&M-Arkansas and UNC-Georgia Tech at an off-campus site, particularly when that site is a cavernous (usually soulless) NFL stadium, sucks. And I understand the recruiting implications and all that, but I don’t really care. It sucks.
5) You all know I like to give you coaches who could land in the NFL in this space—so keep an eye on Boston College’s Jeff Hafley. He was very, very highly thought of on Kyle Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco before leaving to become Ohio State’s defensive coordinator in 2019 (where he coached two guys taken in the top three of the ‘20 draft), and eventually to B.C. before last season.
6) Another player to keep on your radar: Arkansas’s big, fast No. 1 receiver Treylon Burks. He’s 6' 3", 232 pounds and can run. One exec told me right now he’s, baseline, a top-45 pick. Burks also went off for 167 yards and a touchdown on six catches in the Hogs’ upset win over Texas A&M Saturday. (Worth mentioning: Burks got hurt late in that game and didn’t return. So we’ll see where he’s at later this week.)
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Technology is cool.
So I guess that’s why he was so jacked at the half! He knew!
Shek nails it again!
Gotta be happy for the Saints.
Gus Johnson—still the best.
It is too bad they’re both coming in off losses.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid was taken to the hospital in an ambulance after Sunday’s game. Best to him and his family—the team did it as a precaution, and believes he’ll be O.K.
This is great.
… This too.
Not gonna lie, that freaked me out a little.
The Forrest GIF doesn’t get old …
… And if you missed it, here’s the actual video of McVay.
I don’t mind players’ doing this. We get it wrong, then go nuts.
That was definitely bizarre, seeing a completed pass for a safety.
I want to think Dan Campbell’s doing some different stuff. … History can be hard to overcome though.
Evidently, Mike—since the opener … the Bills blew out Washington and the Dolphins. And the Steelers lost to the Raiders and Bengals.
It’s gonna be a tough week in New York.
A for effort.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Cowboys-Eagles, we talked to the Eagles’ six-time Pro Bowl DT Fletcher Cox.
MMQB: You’re on your fourth head coach—how’s playing for Nick Sirianni been different than Andy Reid, Chip Kelly or Doug Pederson?
FC: Really, it’s just about being able to adjust, being a pro about it, being professional. As professional athletes, sometimes we can get stuck in our ways and get used to doing things one way. It can send off a bad vibe, or make a bad impression, on your new coach. So for me, being able to adjust. And no matter who the coach is, just getting to know them, getting to know the way they like to do things and what they expect from the leaders on the team, what they expected from the locker room—that part right there has helped me adjust pretty easily and smooth from head coach to head coach.
MMQB: What’s the biggest adjustment going to Nick then?
FC: You come from Andy, his style of coaching, to Chip’s style of coaching, then to Doug, his style of coaching, and now Nick—it’s all different styles of coaching. For me, it’s just taking the way Nick, in team meetings and everything, he wants everyone to hear the message. Which all coaches do, but coming from the defensive side, special teams, offense, you go to the team meeting, and the same plays are up there. As a team, we get to know what’s going on, why stuff is happening. That’s a little different.
MMQB: And obviously the scheme’s a little different too, so what has [new DC] Jonathan Gannon done with you that might be different?
FC: He challenges you. I like a good challenge. Obviously, now going into our third game, everyone can see we’re playing different fronts, get some different mismatches and they’re moving me around a little bit. That’s new to me. I’m excited about it, still getting used to being moved around instead of playing on the left side all the time. Now I’m playing left side, right side, lining up over the center some. And I’ve done that before, but playing left and right, that gets me excited. When I first started doing it, it was a little uncomfortable for me. But you get used to being uncomfortable. You get over it and gotta get good at it quick, because time waits for nobody.
MMQB: So a lot of it is getting you in the right matchups?
FC: Yeah. We get different matchups on different people, depending on whatever we’re doing that week, where he wants me, where he thinks I can produce, where he thinks I can disrupt the most. Anywhere he puts me, my job is to crush people, whoever’s in front of me, so I just take that, get excited about it and go on Sunday and play.
MMQB: This is 10 years for you, and I know that’s a big deal. How are you different now from where you were in what people would consider your “prime”?
FC: I think just a lot smarter, a lot wiser, honestly. What I know now, I wish I’d known in Year 4 or 5. I’d have been that much better. But yeah, knowing what I know, understanding the whys, knowing how to take care of my body, knowing what it takes to get ready for a game, knowing what it takes in an offseason to get prepared for training camp, that’s the biggest thing for me. The way I train in the offseason always builds up to training camp. It’s a long season; you don’t want to peak too soon in the offseason, and wear the body down.
MMQB: So you’re just, I guess, more scientific about how you approach your year?
FC: Yeah, and that’s every year. The guy that trains me, Deion, he always used to preach that sometimes less is more. He said it all time, and I never really understood it early on when he was saying it—in the offseason, less is more. He always had a plan for what we were doing.
MMQB: How do things change with Brandon Graham out?
FC: I mean, it changes things a little bit. You lose a physical guy, you lose a guy that can run down the middle on people all the time, he just wears people down. This week, it’ll be a little bit different without him. But you have to adjust—it goes back to what I was saying, having to adjust, knowing who you’re with and knowing who’s out there with you. Me and B.G. spent so much time together, practicing and working on timing and things, knowing where he’ll be, knowing where I’ll be on certain plays. And as things unfold he’ll cover me up, I’ll cover him up. So now, it’s going to be getting on the same page, and getting timing with Josh [Sweat] or Ryan [Kerrigan] or Derek [Barnett] or Milton [Williams]. No matter who they put out there, just work on the chemistry of things and I think we’ll be alright.
MMQB: Is there a pride thing for you guys, too, maintaining the D-line as a team strength, even with Brandon out?
FC: Absolutely, absolutely. We look at it as whoever’s in the game, there’s no drop-off. We don’t have a starting group and a second group. Everybody in that room’s a starter, because of the way we rotate and the way the rotation is. Everybody’s gonna play a lot of football, so there can’t be a drop-off. You gotta hold that standard for everybody in there.
MMQB: It’s been two years since you guys played against Dak Prescott. Does is look different with him in there now?
FC: I don’t really see a whole lot of drop-off. Dak looks good. He’s throwing the ball around pretty good. I think he’s more alert, he’s not running [as much], he’s just being a quarterback—getting rid of the ball, taking what the defenses are giving him and creating big plays. He’s looked good these last two weeks; he’s playing smart. We just gotta go in and play our game, and it starts up front with us. That’s the way it always is when we play Dallas. It starts up front, and the game goes as we do.
MMQB: What did you think of Nick’s “Beat Dallas” T-shirt?
FC: You gotta respect that. If you’re in this building right here, anytime we’re playing Dallas, you feel that in the building. And I respect that a whole lot, because once it starts upstairs, it trickles down to the locker room, and you have to respect that and know that we’re playing Dallas. And there’s not a whole lot to be said beyond that.
MMQB: That division, everyone has history with everyone going back a long time. Is there something different about Dallas for you?
FC: It starts with the best fans—the best fans in the NFL, the Eagles’ fans, it starts with them. I’ve been around here playing Dallas for a long time. And it’s Dallas week. That’s all you gotta say. Look at the schedule, alright, there’s Dallas, they know us, we know them, let’s go.
MMQB: How important to you is being able to play 10 years for one team, and is it a goal of yours to finish there as an Eagle?
FC: Yeah, it’s very important to me. One, I don’t have to get up and move and go anywhere. It’s a blessing to be able to be here for 10 years, to handle myself the way I do, the respect people around here have for not only that, but the work I put in from every Monday all the way through that game, the way I practice, handle myself, the leadership I bring. I think all that kind of goes with why I’ve been here for 10 years. And hopefully I can continue that.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s 5:32 a.m., and I’m going to bed.
See you tomorrow afternoon. I’ll bring the MAQB with me.
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