FOXBOROUGH, Mass.—In the mess of a rain-soaked postgame, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht had to scramble to find two game-worn balls from the imperfect 19–17 win his team had just delivered. Eventually, he got them, then got to the locker room and handed them off to the team’s longest-tenured player, and defensive captain, Lavonte David.
David immediately knew where he’d go with both of them, as he started his address to the team. The first was going to Bruce Arians, who got his 17th victory as Bucs coach on his 69th birthday. The second was for the man of the hour, and the greatest football player of all time.
One problem—Tom Brady, in the moment, was nowhere to be found.
“Man, Brady’s out there with his people,” David bellowed. “But this one’s for Tom!”
Truth is, very few things on Sunday night went according to plan. Forecasted scattered showers became a pretty constant downpour. The NFL’s script to honor Brady's passing Drew Brees (who happened to be in the building with NBC) as the game’s all-time passing leader was disregarded in a pretty hilarious way. And the idea that Brady was going to come into Gillette Stadium and settle all family business in a pretty emphatic way?
Yeah, that didn’t happen either.
But in other ways, Brady’s first game against the franchise he took to dizzying heights was probably exactly what we all should’ve hoped for. His old coach brought, and called, a defense that gave No. 12 all he could handle, and in the end, Brady’s ability to summon a few more plays than Bill Belichick’s guys could when it really mattered perfectly illustrated the lasting legacy he’s left in Massachusetts.
Bottom line, the Bucs came into this one still smarting from a convincing loss to the Rams on the other side of the country, and they just needed a win. They got one, if barely. And that was the point of all this, even if it was dressed up differently from any regular-season game we’d ever seen, just like it was the point of all the games he played for Patriots here.
“It really wasn't for him,” Arians told me, contradicting what David said, before explaining himself further. ‘It was for us. We don't want to lose two in a row—we want to get back in first place. It just happened to be here for Tom. And Lavonte did a great job giving him a game ball after the game. But this game wasn't about Tom Brady. This was about the Bucs and the Patriots. There was way too much bulls--t about Belichick and Brady.
“This is a team sport, and our team beat their team.”
It took more than 59 minutes of game action for the Bucs to be sure of that, but they did wind up getting there. So, as Arians had hoped, Tampa Bay’s back in first place, even with Carolina after the Panthers’ loss in Dallas on Sunday. And clearly, for Arians, that was plenty to take from the Brady-Belichick showdown.
But if we’re being honest here, there was a whole lot more to this night for most people than just that—Brady himself included.
Week 4 wasn’t as wild as Weeks 2 or 3, but we did have our Game of the Century here in Southern New England. And if you’re sick of hearing about that one? We’ve got a whole lot more to get to in this week’s column, too.
• Insight into where the Bears stand at quarterback, from Matt Nagy.
• Why Dallas is starting to look scary good.
• A good capper to a great week in Washington for Ron Rivera.
• Carson Wentz’s baby steps.
And we’ve got more on the Niners quarterbacks, the Cardinals’ flourish in L.A. and all other things Week 4, too. If you’ve had your fill of Brady-Belichick, feel free to scroll down. If not, dive in with us.
In the end, the game came down to two throws Brady made, and the Patriots couldn’t stop. An offensive pass interference call on Mike Evans put the Bucs in second-and-17 with 3:37 left in the game from their own 49.
Brady took the first snap out of shotgun, waiting for Evans, running a crosser, to clear the coverage, then putting it out there for him 11 yards downfield. Evans wound up sliding to make the catch to get Tampa into third-and-6. From there, Brady threw an easy out route to Antonio Brown to pick up the first down, and get the Bucs to the Patriots 31, inside Ryan Succop’s field-goal range.
“Those were huge,” Arians said. “Those were huge to go win the game.”
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After Brady tried twice to get the ball to Brown in the end zone thereafter—Brown lost one in the lights and bobbled the next stumbling past the end line. Succop came in and delivered the 48-yard (eventual) game-winner. From there, the Bucs defense had to survive one last shot from rookie Mac Jones, who acquitted himself well in completing 19 straight passes at one point, and what they thought was a missed call (“We had a chance to stop them there at the end,” Arians said, “but we got picked and it wasn't called”), to force a 56-yard field goal attempt from Nick Folk, who’d clang the kick off the left upright.
By then, to the Bucs, it didn’t really matter how they won, just that they won. The offense was without Rob Gronkowski and Gio Bernard. The team’s secondary, sans Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting coming in, lost Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield in-game. And Jason Pierre-Paul, the heart and soul of the defense, didn’t play either.
“It was scratching the bottom of the barrel,” Arians said. “And the guys stepped in there and they played their tails off.”
In the end, Brady’s numbers (22-of-43, 269 yards) weren’t even as good as Jones’s (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TDs, INT) on the same soggy field. But Brady delivered when it counted, and that, finally, afforded him the shot to exhale and—after trying all week to position this as another game on the schedule, and even amid Arians’s insistence that it was—take in the homecoming the rest of us spent the last week obsessing over.
At 12:08 a.m. ET, Belichick, out of the shower and dressed in faded jeans and a tucked-in button-up shirt, made his way down the Gillette Stadium tunnel, head down and trying to keep a low profile (which, of course, was impossible) as he made a hard left into the Bucs' locker room.
For those of us who caught it, even as it was obvious what was happening, the whole thing looked odd—the opposing coach just cavalierly waltzing into the opposing team’s locker room postgame. But there Belichick was, seeking out his old quarterback. When he got in there, I’m told, he and Brady retreated behind a wall together, with most of the Bucs team already on the bus and ready to go to the airport.
At 12:32 a.m. ET, Belichick emerged from the locker room, and Brady came out 30 seconds behind him, and headed across the hall to his press conference.
“All those are personal,” Brady responded when asked about the interaction. “We got a personal relationship for 20-plus years. He drafted me here. We’ve had a lot of personal conversations as that should remain that way and are very private. And I would say so much is made of our relationship. ...But nothing is really accurate that I ever see.”
So whatever happened behind that wall stayed behind that wall. But most of the rest of this night was very, very public—with New England given the chance, and very clearly taking the chance, to say thank you to Brady for his 20 years in a Patriots uniform, as reluctant as Brady might’ve been to bask in it, given his place quarterbacking a team that was coming off a lopsided loss seven days earlier.
It started, really, in warmups, with the stadium half full 90 minutes before kickoff (that never happens) and the tunnel in the South end zone crowded with fans waiting to see 12 emerge from the Bucs locker room, and cameramen camped out right in front of the walkway on to the field.
Brady got his first pop of the night then—coming into the stadium to loud cheers, then chants of his last name, and finally an explosion when he ran the length of the field and gave the trademark, emphatic fist pump the fans here saw for 20 years as part of his pregame routine.
The next one came with a 60-second video tribute (the Patriots negotiated that time up from 45 seconds with NBC) as the Bucs were in the tunnel waiting to be introduced—Brady actually looked like he was intentionally trying to ignore it by talking to center Ryan Jensen, before briefly glancing at the video boards as he ran on the field.
And then, there was the record-breaking throw. Truth is, neither the Bucs, nor Brady, nor the Patriots wanted to stop the game when Brady broke the record—but the NFL insisted on it. So when that throw came, on a 28-yard connection with Evans on Tampa’s second possession, intentional or not, Brady hustled his teammates to the line and gave no one the latitude to stop the action.
Moments later, after a timeout, when the officials did stop the action, one flipped him the record-breaking ball, and Brady simply fired it over to an equipment man on the Bucs sideline and walked back into the huddle—seeming almost annoyed by the whole thing.
Of course, it’d be no surprise if he was. As Arians said, he was here to win a football game.
Brady did reflect in his press conference some, mentioning how his kids were born in this area, and how many friends he has here, and how he planned to be back plenty when his playing days come to an end. He conceded he had “a few emotional moments this week, just thinking about the people that have really meant so much to me in my life.”
And in leaving the field, he did, finally and very briefly, bask in it. After pulling away from his postgame interview with Michele Tafoya, Brady looked at the remaining fans who stayed in the rain to see him exit the stadium, and ran toward them blowing kisses into the stands, and taking in another set of Brady! Brady! chants.
By the time he got to the locker room, the game ball was waiting for him. If anything, it was the most tangible symbol from his teammates that they knew this couldn’t possibly be just another game.
“I think it meant a lot to him,” David told me. “I think he'd wanted to cry but he didn't cry. But it definitely meant a lot, man, for him to be able to [over his career] beat every team in the NFL. It's real cool, and then come back here in this place, I mean, you couldn't have a better story.”
Of course, Brady would tell you he wishes he played better. The Bucs left here with a lot of healing up to do—and room for improvement. But they also left with the most important thing.
“Just for us, it's just getting to 3–1,” Arians said. “That's all we talked about all week. It wasn't about any of that, this was just the next game on the schedule and we gotta win on the road. And we won one on the road.”
Brady found a way to get his team there in this place on a night that wasn’t his best. In that way, the whole thing was perfect, because that part was just like old times.
And even better, the Bucs can now move forward with their season.
“Yeah,” Arians said smiling, “I can’t wait to get on the next one.”
By the looks of it, the other guy who got a game ball around midnight last night here would agree. That is, after he got done seeing everyone he had to see.
BEARS BOUNCE BACK AS FIELDS SHOWS GROWTH
The way the Bears offense played last week around Justin Fields did more than leave a mark on the coaches and players involved—it led to some legitimate soul searching.
“We as coaches listened,” Nagy said. “I, as a head coach, listened to the players, and I think it was good. I think for us, we wanted to come out of this thing whether we won or lost, we wanted to say on offense that we have an identity. That we created an identity somehow, whatever that is. It could be different every game. It could be the same every game, but I think that's probably the biggest thing and whatever we decide each week that we think gives us the best way to win, then we at least know what our identity is heading in.
“Credit to our coaches and players for doing that this week, and there's where we saw the difference.”
The difference, truth be told, was all over the place at Soldier Field on Sunday.
What was obvious showed up in the numbers. The Bears bounced back from last week’s 26–6 loss to the Browns with a 24–14 win over the Lions, and Fields went 11-of-19 for 209 yards and a pick after going 6-of-20 for 68 yards in Cleveland.
What’s less obvious was where that listening wound up getting the Bears.
For one thing, some of the feedback indicated putting Fields under center more often would help him get more comfortable, and get him going off play-action. So after the Bears were under center on just four of 45 snaps a week ago, they went under center on 28 of their 57 snaps Sunday (and a lot of the shotgun snaps happened situationally in the two-minute drill).
For another, Nagy felt a tug to do a better job, specifically, as the head coach. So he handed over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, in an effort to help the Bears play a more complementary game against the Lions.
“I was so involved just being able to understand and be there with the defense, when they were out on the field, and being there on the headset with [coordinator] Sean [Desai], listening to the calls that were going in, understanding situationally where we were,” Nagy said. “Early on, we had a fourth-and-1 on the first drive at midfield and we went for it and got it. And that's something that we as a staff, Bill and I and Flip [QBs coach John DeFilippo], all of us, we get together and we always talk through situational football and we come up with stuff that we want to do at certain times.
“For me, big-picture, I'm able to give a heads-up there [to Desai].”
And while that didn’t result in Fields blowing up statistically, anyone watching the game could see a different player at work—one who looks far more comfortable than the young guy who started for the first time against Myles Garrett & Co.
For Nagy, that showed up quickly, and was obvious on Fields’s 64-yard connection with second-year star Darnell Mooney at the end of the first quarter. But it wasn’t so much the throw, as it was the process that Fields took to get there, from seeing the field pre-snap, to get the ball where he needed to post-snap.
“The biggest thing is he has an ability to, within the play, if he sees a certain coverage, make a throw and to make a decision to go to a certain player within that—meaning Mooney," Nagy said. “They did a good job of holding their coverages, and I just think that he gave himself an opportunity within the progression of the play, he saw what they did post-snap and he was able to see that. And sometimes for rookie quarterbacks, it's hard and you see the pre-snap that they give you and it's more difficult.
“I just think that him adjusting and seeing that post-snap, the coverage change within the play, and being able to make that throw was probably what I'm getting to most.”
So that’s a step forward, and a run game that piled up 188 yards is, too—which gave the Bears the identity they talked about seeking during the week, and also worked to keep Fields out of the long-yardage situations that got him smoked last week (to the tune of nine sacks).
“Identity for us is more of having answers within whatever your scheme is for that week, so that if they stop something, you can get to something else. You can work with it,” Nagy said. “And big-picture, is it running the ball? Yeah, it is. It's not every week for us, but as we get into it and create that game plan, it was constructive [just to build an identity for the week]. So those were very constructive talks.”
Now, the Bears are still 2—2, and the rest of October holds the Raiders, Packers, Bucs and 49ers on the schedule.
But for right now, finally, Chicago has some momentum going. And for now, it’s with Fields at the helm. As for later?
“When Andy [Dalton]'s healthy, he's the starter,” Nagy said. “That's what we gotta work through, see where he's at health-wise this week. And I think in the meantime, all we wanted Justin to do was come here today, on Sunday, and just play a complete game. Every coach on our staff would tell you that Justin Fields became a better NFL quarterback today, and that's all we can ask for is growth with him. And Justin would tell you the same thing.
“And so that's exciting for us, and that's important especially after a rough game, coaching and playing for all of us last week: Can we respond? Again, when that happens, these players come in and they practice their butt off during the week and they prepare, and Justin did all of that. He had his second week to prepare like an NFL quarterback. He had his second week of practicing like an NFL quarterback.”
And that’s really good news, even if all of Chicago might have to wait just a little while longer to get Fields as the full-time starter (which, I’d feel comfortable saying, is exactly what all of Chicago wants).
Zeke Elliott’s not done yet, and neither is the Dallas run game. It’s been so easy to doubt the Cowboys the last few years, because of the disappointments—whether it’s the injury-marred years, or crushing playoff losses on the Dez Bryant (non-)catch and Aaron Rodgers–to–Jared Cook—and the fact that America’s Team hasn’t made it to even the conference title round in a quarter-century. So if you still have your doubts ... understood. And now that I have that preamble out of the way, here’s something I find interesting...
- Week 1: 391 yards passing, 60 yards rushing
- Week 2: 221 yards passing, 198 yards rushing
- Week 3: 220 yards passing, 160 yards rushing.
- Week 4: 188 yards passing, 245 yards rushing.
“Skill-wise? Definitely the best offense I've been a part of,” two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott told me postgame. “We've been hearing that the past two years. Last year, we were so skilled, but we didn't go and put that on the field. So I mean this year, we're healthy and we all got better. I think we're deep, and it puts a lot of stress on defenses because honestly, you don't know what we're gonna do. You don't know what our game plan's gonna be. You don't know if we're gonna want to run the ball all day or maybe we might sling it all day. It's definitely hard on those defenses.” Even, as the case was Sunday, a defense that was the best in football through September. The Cowboys went three-and-out and punted on the first series of the game, and that didn’t happen again thereafter. And for a team that had increasingly leaned to being more pass-heavy and Dak-centric early last year, and again in this year’s opener, it sure does feel like Mike McCarthy’s getting the Cowboys back to their roots behind a healthier (if not completely healthy) line. Which paid off when it mattered most Sunday. Carolina got to within a possession with 4:31 left, and Dallas got the ball at its own 19. From there: Tony Pollard ran for 18, Elliott went for eight, Elliott went for one, Prescott found Dalton Schultz for eight, Pollard went for five, and that was that. “It was just kind of our mentality of the team,” Elliott said. “We take pride in being a gritty group of guys. We knew that they knew we were gonna run the football, so for us to go out there and be able to just run it anyway that makes a statement in itself. Those big guys, they did a hell of a job today just winning the line of scrimmage and moving those guys out of there.” And remember, Dallas still has Prescott and CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper capable of what we saw on opening night. If the defense’s young stars (Trevon Diggs, Micah Parsons, et al.) keep ascending, the Cowboys could be more of a problem than anyone anticipated.
While we’re in the NFC East, Washington showed a lot of guts this week, and it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’ll be things to remember from the team’s win over Atlanta, of course, that even the WFT ledger at 2–2 on the year. Taylor Heinicke’s improv magic on third-and-7 with 46 seconds left, finding J.D. McKissic to his right while back-pedaling away from the rush to his left is one example, and McKissic taking it 30 yards and skying over the goal line for the game-winning touchdown is another. You can throw Terry McLaurin starry day (six catches, 123 yards, two TDs) in there too, and the fact that the team showed the maturity its coaches asked for coming out of an ugly loss to Buffalo, coming from behind on the road. But I think what the people in that building are going to remember about this past week is right here for you.
The story of how the team’s stirring tribute to Rivera’s one-year anniversary of being cancer-free actually starts with Washington’s coordinator of football programs Natalia Dorantes, who spearheaded the effort (which went from a simple recognition of the date to a whole lot more), and Rivera’s daughter Courtney, who works on WFT’s social media team. The latter ran point on the video tribute, while the former planned the helmet decal, then organized a player-driven donation. In each position group, a veteran took charge of collecting money, and they wound up with $25,000 to donate to proton therapy research and treatment—a treatment method Rivera underwent himself and believes strongly in. “[Dorantes] made it super easy; I just tried to help orchestrate it as best I can,” defensive lineman and team captain Jonathan Allen told me following the WFT win. “I mean, it was a very cool and a special moment for us, and then to be able to get the win on top of that, just really sealed it off for us to Coach Rivera.” And if you ask Allen, he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the resilience that Washington showed Sunday, reflective of the resilience last year’s team showed, is coming from a team coached by Rivera. “I would definitely say, when you have a guy like that as your leader, it really just gives a sense of encouragement and resilience that you see from him and just inspires everyone around him,” Allen said. “And it just makes you want to play harder and play good football for him.” Allen then added that, at least defensively, Sunday left a whole lot of room for improvement for the defending NFC East champs. But it’ll sure be easier to look for that improvement coming off a win. And it’ll allow them to look back on a pretty cool week fondly, too.
The Colts showed to be pretty resourceful themselves. And especially because this particular 0–3 Indy team was rolling an absolute skeleton crew out there—with Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Kwity Paye, Rock Ya-Sin and Khari Willis among those on the shelf. But in a certain way, it gave quarterback Carson Wentz (hobbled himself with two balky ankles) a sort of progress test he could absolutely use in this sort of restart to his career. All offseason, Frank Reich and the offensive coaches have preached that they weren’t bringing Wentz in as a savior and that they just wanted him to play quarterback. But this would be a true test of it, with the team beat up, and staring right at an 0–4 mark at the season’s quarter-point. “For sure, I think every quarterback wants to go out and make all sorts of plays and do all this stuff. And for me, I’ve played that game,” Wentz said, over the cell postgame. “I've played that game, and it doesn't always work out well. So for me, just keep reminding myself, ‘Hey, just do my job. Do my job, trust the guys around me and I‘m gonna make mistakes. Guys around me are gonna make mistakes, but hopefully we‘re gonna make more plays than we don’t.’ And so I think coaches have done a good job of A) calling the plays accordingly to help me continue to stay within myself, but then B) just us as a team, continuing to remind each other, ‘Hey, I got your back. You got mine.’ ”
Consider this interesting test passed. Through the first half of Sunday’s 27–17 win in Miami, Wentz played within himself, and the offense, going 12-of-16 for just 78 yards and an 84.9 rating. The Colts went into the break up 7–3, and Wentz trusted bigger plays would come, so long as he kept chipping away. Where Indy had just one explosive (20-plus yards) passing play in the first half, the Colts had three in the second half, and Wentz went 12-of-16 again, but this time for 150 yards and two touchdowns. And the last touchdown was illustrative of the message being driven home. With 10:46 left, the Dolphins pulled back to within 10, at 20–10, and Indy needed Wentz to shut the door. That happened with the capper to an eight-play, 60-yard drive—an 11-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to Mo Alie-Cox, that was more giving his guy a chance than a quarterback trying to be the hero. On the play, the Colts got the coverage they expected, which created contested catch situations across the board. Wentz saw the matchup he liked and told Alie-Cox, I’m giving you a shot, because you’re bigger and stronger than anyone covering you. “Sure enough, he really boxed the guy out, went up and got it, and that's the type of player he is and I'm learning that here,” Wentz explained. “Watched enough tape now, the last couple years. I've seen what kind of player he is and what he brings to the table, and I’m learning to trust that. It was big for us to connect on that one.” And that made it 27–10, and salted away Wentz’s first win in Indy. Admittedly, it’s just one win, and he and the Colts have a lot of room for improvement. Better health, for Wentz (“I’m still working through it but, I mean, way better than I was last week and I came out of the game relatively scot-free”) and the guys that didn’t make it Sunday will help too. But this was a start for a team with big goals, and seeing the quarterback they acquired following the plan in that spot’s a pretty good thing to build on.
Unfortunately, the situation that came up in San Francisco on Sunday is exactly why the Niners traded up for a quarterback at the draft in the first place. “It’s just tough,” Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo told the media on Sunday after the Niners’ 28–21 loss to Seattle, “I’ve been in this situation too many times and it’s getting real old.” Indeed, Garoppolo’s Patriots cameo in 2016 was ended by a separated shoulder, his second year in San Francisco (’18) was short-circuited by a torn ACL, and a high ankle sprain wound up taking a chunk out of, before ending his ’20. And so the Niners dealt up for a uber-talented, but raw Trey Lance, with the intention of redshirting him—only on Sunday the redshirt had to come off when Garoppolo couldn’t come out for the second half with what was characterized as a calf injury (he’ll have an MRI Monday). How did Lance do? He was O.K. He was 9-of-18 for 157 yards and two touchdowns, with one of those being a 76-yard scoring throw to Deebo Samuel on a broken play (he went 8-of-17 for 81 yards otherwise), and rushed for 41 yards on seven carries, and the Niners lost. As was the case in the summer, there was good and bad, and now we’ll get a longer look at how one side of it weighs in against the other. But as for where this is going? Kyle Shanahan’s been pretty open, both publicly and privately, in saying that he’s going to play the quarterback who gives him the best chance in any given week. So Lance will have a shot here, for however long Garoppolo’s out here, to show he can be that guy. And he’s jumping right into the fire next week, assuming Garoppolo can’t go, with a trip to Arizona to face the 4–0 Cardinals. Speaking of them …
Arizona’s big emphasis through this particular game week, in preparing to face the Rams, was in finding a way to be the more physical team. And that makes sense, because since Sean McVay arrived in L.A., the Rams really have pushed the Cardinals around—going 8–0 against their NFC West rivals with seven of those wins coming by double digits. Well, you can consider that mission accomplished. “I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet,” Cards coach Kliff Kingsbury texted, “but it felt like we played our most physical game.” And you don’t have to look far for proof—Arizona rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries, running the ball eight more times than Kyler Murray (who was incredible again) threw it. And you wouldn’t expect that from a Kingsbury team, right? Well, how about this sequence right here … James Conner for no gain, then three yards; Chase Edmonds for 54 yards, Conner for seven, then four, Edmonds for 14, then no gain, then 11 and three, then Murray for minus-3, and Edmonds for plus-1, to set up a 23-yard field goal. That 12-play, 94-yard drive, which didn’t include a single throw, tore 8:27 off the clock and effectively finished the Rams. The kick made it 37–13 with 3:38 left. And again, Murray was incredible for the fourth straight week, this time going 24-of-32 for 268 yards and two touchdowns in a hostile environment against a top-notch defense. But if the Cardinals can win the way they did Sunday, too? That’ll make them a tough out for anyone, and it sure made 4–0 seem a little more real.
The Browns winning on defense probably feels pretty different for fans there. But I think there’s real value in doing it the way Cleveland did, in a 14–7 win in Kevin Stefanski’s homecoming to Minnesota. Greedy Williams’ pick in the fourth quarter—on which he basically ran Adam Thielen’s route for him—stole a possession away from the Vikings when it mattered most, and the Cleveland defense came up big shortly after that (even after a clinching pick from Grant Delpit was erased by a pass interference call), in stopping one final Minnesota bid to tie the game in the final moments. So there were big plays along the way, and where Nick Chubb bemoaned the effort as “sloppy” and Baker Mayfield clearly wasn’t happy with his personal performance (“There’s a lot of easy throws I missed”), Stefanski struck a very different tone. “That was what the game called for today. It might be completely different next week, and we have to be ready to do it to win in any which way," he said. And he’s exactly right. Playoff teams have to win games in different ways to keep advancing. Which is to say this was a different kind of win for Cleveland, and that’s a good thing.
The Packers seem to have hit their stride, and it’s reflected not in Aaron Rodgers’s wow plays (though he still has those) but in how they’re dealing with injuries. In the last two weeks, Green Bay’s been down not just All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, but also Elgton Jenkins, their interior-line star who moonlights in Bakhtiari’s place and some in the building believe is the best lineman in football. They also are out Marquez Valdes-Scantling. And despite all that, Rodgers went 20-of-36 for 248 yards, two touchdowns without a pick, and 95.6 passer rating, and Green Bay kept the Steelers down by double digits for the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s game at Lambeau. In the end, Rodgers was left talking about how it was “really fun” to get Randall Cobb a couple of touchdowns—“There's a knack to playing in the slot, and to have another guy in there who can get open like that and have the feel that he does just gives us a lot of flexibility in the offense, for sure”—but the truth was he spread the ball around plenty (five different receivers had multiple catches), Green Bay ran it effectively, and the defense choked out a struggling Steeler offense. And I feel a whole lot better about my Super Bowl pick than I did after Week 1, even if Rodgers is still a little edgy (trolly?) at times on what happened earlier this year (the Cobb comments did have a little “told you so” feel to them).
The New York teams showed some grit on Sunday in winning on the same day for the first time since—get this—three days before Christmas 2019. Both teams won in overtime. And both made plays to make it happen. For the Jets, those came on defense, with Robert Saleh’s high-effort, high-energy bunch tightening down at the end of OT, and forcing the Titans to go for a tie with 19 seconds left in a spot where kicker Randy Bullock was at the fringe of his range (he missed a 49-yarder). For the Giants, it was the offense, and Daniel Jones, who was excellent all day in New Orleans, finding Kenny Golladay on a deep out-breaking route for 23 yards on third-and-5 from the Saints’ 29, then Saquon Barkley fighting through traffic to score the game-winning, six-yard touchdown on the next play. New York football has been a punching bag for a little while now, so there’s some relief that comes with these wins for both teams. But beyond just that, each beat a playoff team on Sunday, and both have relatively new quarterbacks and head coaches (The Jets’, of course, are brand new) in the saddle. So maybe there’s finally a little reason for hope in the big city.
Joe Burrow’s way ahead of where a second-year QB should be. And the burgeoning Bengal star showed it again on Thursday night, with a sequence of two plays, the latter winning the game for Cincinnati. The backdrop—through the accelerated, short-week runup to the home date with the Jaguars, a big emphasis from the coaches to Burrow was on Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen having a Baltimore background. As such, Burrow was alert to the idea that, in just about any passing situation, a zero blitz (extra rushers coming with no safety back) could be coming and had the green light (as he now always does) to check to a screen to combat that. Now, the plays...
- On a second-and-5 with 7:42 left in the third quarter, Burrow saw a Jaguars safety walking up, and checked to a tunnel screen to Ja’Marr Chase. At the snap, Jacksonville backed off, and was in position to snuff it out, with Chase having to fight for even a one-yard gain.
- On a second-and-14 with 1:09 left (after the Bengals were backed up by a holding call), the game tied, and Cincy at the Jags’ 46, Burrow again Jacksonville coming up, this time with linebacker Myles Jack and safety Rudy Ford. Burrow checked again, this time to a similar screen, but to the opposite side and to C.J. Uzomah. The pressure came. Burrow quickly unloaded the ball, and Uzomah rumbled for 25 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.
And really, a couple of things showed here. One, clearly, the Bengals coaches are giving Burrow a ton of latitude. But beyond that, it’s obvious that Burrow is operating like a vet out there—he was wrong the first time, with the Jags’ disguise working as it was designed, and that didn’t deter Burrow in the least from following the work he’d done ahead of the game, or make him gun-shy. He was in total command. Also, it’s worth noting that in both situations, Burrow was in empty. He was in empty a lot on Thursday night, and played great in those sets, which is another sign of how much the coaches trust him (in those looks, the quarterback is personally responsible for extra rushers).
And to wrap up the takeaways, I got another 10 one-liners (or maybe a little longer than one-liners) for all of you to dig through.
• Washington kept seven receivers, and DeAndre Carter showed us why on Sunday—wow, was that kick return something else.
• The Bills and Texans are in very different places, but that was very business-like the way Buffalo took apart Houston. Part of being a sustained winner, of course, is doing that to teams you’re supposed to do it to. And the Bills did it to the Texans, for sure.
• Cordarrelle Patterson’s stat line’s fantastic—five catches for 82 yards and three touchdowns, six rushes for 34 yards. But the Randy Moss-like catch he made over Washington’s Kendall Fuller was even better. It feels like slowly but surely, the NFL’s figuring out what to do with the former first-rounder.
• I’m not sure there’s much to say from Chiefs-Eagles. Patrick Mahomes is still awesome, and Kansas City’s defense didn’t really resolve concerns on its well-being.
• On Monday night, the Eagles called 12 run plays against 41 passes. On Sunday, against the Chiefs, that ratio was 19–51. I don’t know that it’s ideal to play that way with a first-year starting quarterback, especially when that rookie has wheels to make the run game go.
• No one’s giving out try-hard awards, but a couple Bengals coaches mentioned to me the effort they saw in the Jaguars on Thursday night. The team is fighting.
• I think we saw the value Teddy Bridgewater’s bringing to the Broncos in how the team swooned without him against the Ravens.
• Right now, style points don’t matter for the Seahawks. So they’re able to gut out a 28–21 win in a game in which they once were outgained 194 yards-to-minus-8? Call it resourceful, for now.
• Zach Wilson really took a step forward on Sunday for the Jets, which is a great sign in that he was able to compartmentalize the failures of the season’s first three weeks.
• Congrats to Andy Reid. Winning 100 games for two separate franchises is a pretty amazing (and outstanding) feat.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) That was a big one for the Univesrity of Cincinnati, of course, with the Bearcats now holding wins over Notre Dame and Indiana heading into the meat of the AAC schedule. It was also a big one for senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, who nearly left for the NFL last year, and was well thought of enough to where he’d have been invited to the Senior Bowl had he gone, and gets high marks for his poise, toughness, maturity, size and decision-making. Now, his arm isn’t elite, nor is his athleticism, but he’s got plenty in both categories to make it in the NFL as a starter. You also, on Saturday, got to see a lot of clutch play in a big-time environment. “I think he's a very solid college QB and a backend starter [in the league],“ said one NFC exec. “He can make every throw, but doesn’t have a huge arm. He can make plays with his legs, but he's not an exceptional athlete. He’s just a really good player.“ And from here on out, he’ll have a pretty solid platform from which to convince NFL types he's got a little more than that in his bag.
2) Georgia outside linebacker Adam Anderson might have the best shot of any of the guys in a very complete Bulldog front seven—one loaded with top-100 pick types, but without a Chase Young or Jalen Ramsey in it—to play his way into the upper reaches of the first round. Anderson looked the part again on Saturday, as a disruptive force in Georgia’s impressive shutout win over Arkansas.
3) Every year, NFS (which runs the combine) distributes grades on college seniors in early summer—and this year’s marks had Ole Miss’s Matt Corral as the nation’s top-ranked senior quarterback. And through three games, Corral had started to chip away at some doubts I’d heard on him. Against Alabama in Week 4? He was fine, mostly, going 21-of-29 for 213 yards and a touchdown against the Tide’s veteran defense. But it certainly wasn’t the sort of head-turning performance he was hoping for (the Rebels trailed 42-7 midway through the fourth quarter). For what it’s worth, the (optimistic) comp I’ve heard on Corral is Jets rookie Zach Wilson.
4) I hope the targeting call against likely top-five pick Kayvon Thibobeaux in the Oregon/Stanford game becomes a tipping point for that rule. Because while by the letter of the law, it may have been a correct call, no one could look at that and think there was any sort of malicious intent from Thibodeaux, and yet it took maybe the best player in America off the field and directly affected the playoff race. If you wanna flag something like that, fine. But ejecting a guy for it is, and always was, ridiculous.
5) It feels like Graham Mertz and Wisconsin need one of those “mutual” partings.
6) Keep an eye on Alabama receiver Jameson Williams—who transferred from Ohio State earlier in the year after falling behind future first-rounders Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and promising sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the Buckeye depth chart. Williams leads the Tide with 364 receiving yards through five games, has scored three touchdowns, and is averaging 21.4 yards a catch. And he’s a burner, which has new value in the Tyreek Hill era of NFL receivers. The expectation is he’ll very easily find himself in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash, whenever he winds up going to the pros.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I do like how hard Baker Mayfield is on himself.
Don’t know why I thought this was so funny, but it absolutely is hilarious.
That’s also pretty good.
On this day, he most certainly was not. He was the solution.
LSU’s loss was worse than the Saints’ loss. By a little bit.
Guy definitely did some experimenting in the parking lot.
Josiah delivers again.
Lost it when I saw this one.
N’Keal Harry wasn’t the most popular member of the 2019 Patriots.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Chargers/Raiders, we’ve got L.A.’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month, Asante Samuel Jr.
MMQB: What does winning rookie of the month mean for you?
Asante Samuel: It’s definitely a blessing. I want to thank all the fans, my coaches and my teammates that helped me get to this spot. Without them, I couldn’t have done it. Definitely want to thank everyone for the opportunity. It’s a blessing.
MMQB: Is there a coach, or someone, that you feel is responsible for having you ready to roll as a pro football player this quickly?
AS: All my defensive coaches. Coach [Brandon] Staley, even though he’s the head coach, he’s with the defense. Coach Derrick Ansley, coach [Renaldo Hill], our defensive coordinator, I feel like they’ve played a major part, mentally elevating my game. I appreciate them, but it’s still a day-to-day grind getting better every day.
MMQB: What is it about your background—being the son of a pro athlete, being from Florida, going to Florida State—that had you so ready?
AS: I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things. My upbringing, I’ve been playing football since I was 4 years old, I played with NFL talent in high school at St. Thomas, Florida State, there are always NFL prospects at Florida State. And just being from Florida, there’s a lot of competition down there. That really helped me.
MMQB: What is the biggest thing you’ve improved on since you got drafted then?
AS: Definitely the mental aspect. I’m really using my mental ability more in the game, instead of it just being my physical ability.
MMQB: Where has that shown up in your production?
AS: I’d say it’s just in being able to play fast, and not have to think too much. Knowing where I’m supposed to be, knowing where my help is, if I even have help, what leverage I’m supposed to play, those little things make a big difference in the NFL.
MMQB: Was there a point over the spring or summer where it was like, 'O.K., I belong'?
AS: I’d definitely say it was training camp, when I was getting out there competing against guys like Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, going against Justin Herbert. Being able to go against those guys, I knew that if I could match up with them, I could match up with most of everyone in the league. Those guys are great players, and they help me on a daily basis.
MMQB: Is there stuff Mike and Keenan have done specifically to help you out?
AS: With them, I’d just say it’s being able to go against them. Once you go against them, you can go back and look at the film, see what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to play it, and just get those reps against great route-runners. Against great receivers, you’re naturally gonna get better.
MMQB: Do you think being the son of a pro football player has helped?
AS: For sure, that’s definitely helped. I mean, I feel like I’m supposed to be here, I’ve been working all my life for this. And yeah, then it’s going out there and proving it to everyone else.
MMQB: What did it mean for you guys as a group to be able to go into Arrowhead and knock off the Chiefs?
AS: It meant a lot, especially because it’s a division game, and we haven’t beaten the Chiefs in a minute. It was a great experience, but that’s in the past now. We gotta worry about the Raiders.
MMQB: Is there something, as a rookie, that’s stood out about Brandon as a head coach?
AS: Everybody, all the players, love him. He’s a great leader, but he means business. He’s all about business, he wants to win. And whatever we have to do to win, that’s what we’re going to do. It’s a family type of organization.
MMQB: Best advice you got going into the NFL?
AS: Just stay humble, keep your head down, and continue to work and grind, and soak up all of it, and enjoy the moment.
MMQB: When you look at the Raiders on tape, what sticks out as far as what you’ll have to do Monday night?
AS: We’re going to have to play physical, fast, and just execute our calls, it’s what we do every week. Nothing’s really changed. I feel like every week, it’s about the Chargers, more than the other teams. We just have to worry about the Chargers and go out there and play physical and fast.
MMQB: Is there a challenge in the different skill sets in their receivers from Henry Ruggs to a much different player in Brian Edwards?
AS: Yeah, just like every other week! I mean, every team has good receivers with different skill sets. So we just have to go out there and compete, and execute the call.
MMQB: Anything scheme-wise you have your radar up for?
AS: They’re a good team—the No. 1 passing offense in the league right now. They’re very balanced, a great team right now. So we have to just go out there and play.
MMQB: Anything special to you about getting to play on Monday Night Football?
AS: Well, it’s my first Monday night game, and that’s special for me. It’s a division game, big game.
MMQB: Did you set goals for yourself before the year?
AS: Yeah, but I’m more of a team-oriented player, I’d rather win than have individual stats. So whatever we have to do to win, that’s what I want to do.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’ll have some more leftovers on the Patriots, and Brady/Belichick, in the MAQB—including whether or not there was anything New England could’ve done back in March of 2020 to keep its quarterback in the fold. And more from Nagy, too. And from whatever else happens Monday morning.
It’s 4:59 a.m. ET here now. See you later today.
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