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MMQB: Cardinals Secure 6–0 Status Despite Unusual 48 Hours

Kliff Kingsbury and Vance Joseph explain Arizona's eventful weekend in Cleveland. Plus, how the Jaguars avoided their 20th consecutive loss with late-game decision-making, an interesting Ravens defense that's gaining steam and more.

Kliff Kingsbury may have been 2,000 miles away. But to all the Cardinals players and coaches on the other end of the Zoom feed on Saturday night, he might as well have been right there with them in the team’s Cleveland hotel. And that’s not only because they were all on Zoom anyway, since nothing could be in person, per NFL-mandated intensive protocols enacted after Arizona turned up a handful of positive tests at the end of last week.

It was also because his message drilled home a simple point that quickly alleviated the shock of a football team losing its head coach the day before a game.

“He told them that we had worked for this,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told me on Sunday night. “And that the work was already done.”

No one in Arizona asked for 2020 to rear its head again, with the Cardinals' 2021 season going the way it has. But if the pandemic’s shown us all one thing, it’s that COVID-19 doesn’t mind being an unwelcome guest at an inopportune time. So it was that Chandler Jones and a couple of executives returned positive tests last week. That sent Arizona into the intensive protocols, and on Friday, resulting daily testing turned up positive tests for Kingsbury, quarterbacks coach Cam Turner and defensive lineman Zach Allen.

Kingsbury received the news about his own test on Friday afternoon.

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About 48 hours later, Arizona backup quarterback Colt McCoy was taking knees and Kingsbury’s Cardinals were salting away a 37-14 road rout of the favored Browns.

In between, there was a real-life scramble drill by the coaching staff on Friday, decisions made on splitting responsibilities that night, changing travel plans and a couple more rounds of tests that led to just one more player being shelved in Cleveland. Then, there was a game played, and a team that found out just a little more about itself and how far it's come in getting from 5–0 to 6–0.

And after that, owner Michael Bidwill brought Kingsbury into the winning locker room via FaceTime, and the players exploded when they saw their coach.

Kingsbury smiled. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to, of course.

What he’d said on Saturday night had come true. By the time all hell broke loose on the Cardinals, the work was done and Kingsbury’s team was ready to show the NFL, again, just who it was. Most of all, they were ready for whatever came their way.

“I’m just really proud of how they all rallied together and got it done,” said Kingsbury, via text from Arizona on Sunday. “Nobody even blinked. Just went out there and got the win."


This Sunday may have lacked the theatrics of the last few NFL Sundays. But there were more than a few good storylines to cover. And we’ll try and cover them all in the Week 6 edition of the MMQB. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find ...

  • A rundown of the late-game decision-making that got Urban Meyer’s Jags their first win.
  • A look at where the Raiders are coming off a tumultuous week.

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  • A Ravens defense gaining steam, a Cowboys team winning ugly and Kirk Cousins starring.

And, of course, all the news notes you can handle. But we’re starting in Cleveland, with the Cardinals’ stunning destruction of the Browns under very unusual circumstances.


Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) celebrates with guard Max Garcia (73) after catching a touchdown pass during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) celebrates with guard Max Garcia (73) after catching a touchdown pass during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Joseph was already home when he got word from Kingsbury on Friday afternoon, a little bit after the staff had finished work for the week ahead of Saturday’s trip to Ohio. Kingsbury was already in what Joseph calls “fix it” mode—both arranging for the staff to divvy up his responsibilities and putting together a call sheet for the offensive coaches that would help them call the game as he would have.

The offensive coaches, sans Kingsbury and Turner, returned to the office after dinner on Friday, to go back over the gameplan and playsheet, so their handling of Sunday would sync with Kingsbury’s. And then Saturday morning, Joseph wound delivering the team the news, with a message that was similar to the one Kingsbury would give them that night.

“It's our job to coach these dudes and give them good plans, but once it hits Saturday, Albert, it's a player’s game,” Joseph told me. “So thank god that Kliff didn't pop until Friday because the work was done. Once it's Saturday and Sunday, man, the players play. I told them Saturday, 'Look, leaders lead. Ballers, you guys go ball. And coaches, you coach.' It's Saturday. It's on. The plan's already done. All the work was in, so again, it was our job to keep it as normal as possible and to allow those guys to play good football.”

So Joseph would take the reins as far as being the voice in front of the room on Saturday and Sunday. Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers, who’s very involved in game management anyway, would handle the big-picture decisions in that department, and carry the red challenge flag. Both Joseph and Rodgers would maintain their normal responsibilities in leading the defense and special teams, respectively.

But on offense, things were a little more complicated—and while there was an assumption run-game coordinator Sean Kugler would call the offense, as sort of the next man up on the staff list, things didn’t quite go down that way. Kugler’s the voice in Kingsbury’s ear on any Sunday when Kingsbury needs a run call, and he remained in that role on this Sunday, again, to give the players some stability.

Meanwhile, 32-year-old assistant receivers coach Spencer Whipple—regarded on the staff as a rising star in the industry—carried the playsheet and was the voice in Kyler Murray’s ear, effectively taking the offensive coaching portion of Kingsbury’s role.

“He's been with the passing game the longest in the room,” Joseph said. “He spends his time obviously with Kliff and the receivers and the quarterbacks, and he's been here the longest. His background was in this offense, and again, he wasn't calling it by himself. But as far as terminology, as far as what the formations should look like with the quarterback, it was natural for him to do it because he spends the most time with Kliff.”

From there, other pieces fell into place.

Veteran center Rodney Hudson, placed on injured reserve on Saturday, was planning on staying back in Arizona to rest his rib and shoulder injuries. But when he found out that Kingsbury was out, he asked to make the trip so he could help the coaches with the linemen on the sideline. And around the same time, Kingsbury’s chief of staff, Kenny Bell, suggested traveling an extra defensive lineman, because the team was thin there with Allen out and another positive test could put the Cardinals in a bind.

Sure enough, Corey Peters tested positive on Sunday morning, and that extra defensive lineman, Jonathan Ledbetter, had to dress for the game and wound up playing.

“Our two or three days, it was hectic,” Joseph said. “But again man, no one panicked and it's a clear sign that we have great leadership.”


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Leadership was something that Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim and the Arizona brass were looking to inject into the team in the offseason. As the coaches saw it, last year’s 7–9 team might’ve made the playoffs if they played smarter ball. So the team imported playoff-tested guys like Hudson, J.J. Watt, James Conner, Colt McCoy and A.J. Green to accelerate the growth of its younger guys.

It’s fair to say that on Sunday morning, as Joseph sat inside his Cleveland hotel room, waiting for test results to come back, it’s the one thing that gave him peace.

“I was on a couch just tapping my feet for two hours,” he laughed.

And so as he got the news of Peters’ positive test, and a handful of others that had to be re-run, his players were honed in on the 4:05 p.m. local time kickoff. They were ready, and it showed right away, and not just in Arizona taking a 20–0 lead before there were even 20 minutes off the clock.

It was also apparent in how the way the team was set up helped buoy a defensive front that was without Jones, Peters and Allen. In the first quarter, the Browns’ potent, well-rounded offense could muster just 47 yards and three first downs, with just 7 of those yards coming on the ground.

“It’s unit-based systems in all three phases, so you can plug guys in here and there and not lose your standard, and that's what good football teams have to do in this league,” Joseph said. “You can't lose one or two players and then say, 'O.K., two guys are out, let's lose the game.' It can't work that way. The systems that we've built with Coach Kliff, we can plug-and-play players and not lose the standard.”

On this day, it made Kingsbury himself replaceable too.

There were, of course, tweaks. When Joseph’s unit was off the field, he’d check in with Whipple, while receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and running backs coach James Saxon were there to help the first-time play-caller. Kingsbury’s rules on certain things transferred over—right down to a decision to go for it on a fourth-and-2 with 2:20 left (Jonathan Ward converted with a 6-yard run).

“Kliff would've gone for that, so we're going for that,” Joseph said. “That wasn't my call. That was Kliff's call. Everything that Kliff would've done, we did today.”

But most important, again, was the players taking care of their business, and taking care of business those guys did. Murray was a tidy 20-for-30 for 229 yards and four touchdowns, keeping himself very much front-and-center in the MVP discussion. DeAndre Hopkins scored twice. Arizona rushed for 144 yards. The defense, without maybe the league’s best pass-rusher, sacked Baker Mayfield five times and held Cleveland to 73 rushing yards.

The Cardinals also won the turnover battle (3-0) and had fewer penalty yards (88-45) than the Browns. And then when it came time to close the deal, Arizona emphatically did that, going 93 yards on 11 plays, eight of them runs, to chew 7:18 off the clock and leave the Browns down 37-14 with less than 5 minutes left. When the Cardinals got the ball, it was a two-possession game and a Browns comeback was plausible.

When they gave it back, it was over.

“You have a three-, four-receiver offense that's a high-flying passing team that’s finishing that game with James Conner with [eight] runs. And to burn eight minutes and punch that ball in? That's good football,” Joseph said. “That's good football, man. If we continue to do that—stop the run, run when we want—that's gonna pay dividends for this football team moving forward,”

The funny thing about that drive is Kingsbury missed all of that. Back home in Arizona, he actually decided to use the three-hour block the game was played in to work ahead on the Texans, the Cardinals’ opponent next week, while keeping track of the score his team’s game on his phone.

Finally, with about three minutes left, he decided to tune in, most because he was happy for the guys and wanted to see them celebrate a win they’d so richly earned.

Of course, now, the byproduct is going to be the rest of the world considering how real the Cardinals—a team that was last in the playoffs six years ago—are at 6—0, and if the league’s only unbeaten really is its best team. And how the team got through the last few days will certainly be part of that story.

But I can tell you that conversation is not one the Cardinals are going to participate in. Mostly, because avoiding getting sidetracked by that sort of thing is exactly where the growth in the team is showing up. So when I asked Joseph if the team he led Sunday should be considered the NFL’s best, his was, well, just what you’d expect.

“That's not our call, man,” Joseph said. “I'm gonna tell you this: Kliff coached this team like we're 0—5. So now it’s 0—6, right? No one even talks about that stuff. We are literally day-to-day man, especially now with the COVID stuff. We are day-to-day, and this team's mature and they get it. So no one's talking about being the best team in the league. That ain't our concern, man. We are on to the Texans. That's our only concern.”

Of course, Kingsbury, Joseph and the rest of them really don’t have to be worried about how the rest of the world looks at them. Because days like Sunday have shown pretty clearly who they are.


JAGUARS SNATCH FIRST WIN OF SEASON

Ball at the Dolphins' 44. Five seconds left. Game tied at 20. Fourth-and-8. And if you were listening to the broadcast, you’d have thought Urban Meyer’s only option was to throw the ball into the end zone, and, barring a miracle, head off to overtime.

But Meyer, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and passing-game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had other ideas.

On third-and-20, the play before, Trevor Lawrence hit Laviska Shenault to pick up a dozen yards. The clock ticked down. Miami called a timeout with 5 seconds left to force the Jaguars to make a decision. And the Jags quickly decided, during the timeout, not to punt. Instead, they’d either throw a Hail Mary to the end zone (which would drain the clock), run an out-cut to get the ball out of bounds and set up a long kick or call a play named Slider.

Now, the interesting thing is that initially, the Jags were going to throw it into the end zone. But coming out of the Jags' timeout, the Dolphins showed a soft defense, then called a timeout, which allowed for Meyer, Bevell and Schottenheimer to react. There are two Slider calls. One is Slider Kill, which calls for a quick throw into the middle of the field, the receiver to pick up the yardage, and then the offense to rush to the line and spike it. But with just five ticks left on the clock, there was no time for that.

So in went Slider Timeout.

Lawrence came out in an empty, 3-by-2 look, with Shenault in the right slot. The second-year receiver, running a quick streak against an off-playing defense, had three jobs on the play—catch the ball, get the first down, hit the deck. In practice, Meyer says, it takes five seconds to pull it off. Here, it’d need to be quicker.

“[Five seconds] is the number, that's the exact number,” Meyer said. “And it obviously depends on how far you're throwing it, but five, six seconds is the number.”

The Jaguars did it in four. At the snap, Lawrence quickly unloaded the ball. Shenault got 9 yards then dove. Meyer, stationed next to an official on the sideline, yelled and motioned to call a timeout. On went Matthew Wright to kick a 53-yarder to win the game, at which point Lawrence gave Meyer the moment he’ll remember from Sunday.

Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Matthew Wright (15) reacts after kicking the game winning field goal in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Matthew Wright (15) reacts after kicking the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“It’s really hard to execute within just five seconds but we did it,” Meyer continued, from the bowels of Tottenham Stadium. “And as [Lawrence] came off the field, he put his arm around me … and he goes, Coach, if he makes it or not, we're still going to win this thing. And it just … it's kind of cool.”

As everyone knows now, Wright drilled a 53-yard field goal to cap a comeback win for the Jags in London, Meyer’s first NFL win, Lawrence’s first NFL win, and the Jags’ first win in 13 months. And while the story above is a pretty interesting one, it’s just the last part of it that really encapsulates how this all got done.

It shows Lawrence’s effort and belief never wavered, and that’s really been reflected in what we’ve seen on the field the last few weeks.

And through a messy October in Jacksonville, that’s one thing I’ve picked up from coaches who’ve played the Jaguars. Through the losses, and the post-TNF mess, and everything else, the team kept playing hard. Which, Meyer will tell you, is a credit to the players themselves.

“I've actually shared that with them,” Meyer said. “The coach at Arizona said the same thing, the Bengals coach said the same thing. They got out of there with wins, and they're like, ‘Man, you guys played your ass off.’ And I share that with our players. I’ll tell you, college football has become this and now the NFL is too—that's a player's locker room. And when you start talking about ours, there are incredible people in there. And if we didn't have that, it would’ve been tough to survive losing the first five games.”

And so it was that belief that steadied the Jaguars coaches and players on Sunday, as they fell behind 13-3 and were badly outgained (224-120) and outplayed over the game’s first 28 minutes.

But more than just that, it did, at long last, give Meyer something to give back to his players. Part of what got Meyer to come back into coaching, beyond just the promise of getting Lawrence (Meyer gushed on him to me, saying, “There's going to be many more wins for that guy, if you just watch his maturation and his grasp of the offense”), was owner Shad Khan’s promise that the Jaguars would add staff and build a new facility that would reward players for doing all that Meyer and his staff would ask of them.

That said, Meyer knew that having the most advanced sports science staff, or the nicest hot and cold tubs, or anything in between would only go so far. Eventually, his asks of players would need to be justified with wins. So getting the first one was, indeed, a big deal for those reasons too.

“[Not giving players results] has always been a fear of mine,” Meyer said. “We do work hard here, we do try to give them the best of everything that they can possibly have, I'd like to believe we have the best sports performance model. We take care of them. I've always tried to take care of the athletes, give them the best of everything, and results should follow that. And our results have not. We've been close a few times, but what's interesting, and I see people roll their eyes at me at times—that's as good a locker room as I've been around.

“There's never been any wavering, no lack of loyalty amongst staff and players, and regardless of what's out there, that locker room was stuck together like glue. And we have incredible leaders, we have people that want to win, we have people that've been through a lot of stuff now. And to see that locker room, it's just one win but they really enjoyed themselves.”

What awaited Meyer after our talk was a long flight home, and then the Jaguars’ bye.

It won’t get much easier post-bye. The Jags play at Seattle (which isn’t much closer to Jacksonville than London) on Halloween. After that, the Bills come to North Florida.

But the hope is that this one win, added to continued work, will have an exponential effect. And Meyer’s excited for that, even if speculation’s swirled that he might go back to college or just retire again.

“[PR chief] Amy [Palcic] does a good job keeping me aware,” he said. “I just do not read a thing. I just stay away from it, I try to go on a submarine and go to work every day. And I care deeply about our locker room, care deeply about our staff, and other than that I go home. And I've been through this a long time and I know there's going to be things said. I have a great owner, a great owner that I’ve talked with frequently, and we have a great GM [Trent Baalke], and we're going to be working our tail off to get this thing flipped.”

What happened on the other side of the Atlantic on Sunday was just a step in that direction.

But a very big one, for sure.


Las Vegas Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia claps in the first half against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High.

Las Vegas Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia claps in the first half against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Raiders coaches and players shouldn’t have fingers pointed at them. We looked at the Jon Gruden email scandal, and Las Vegas’s future at length on the site this week, and one thing that I feel like has to be emphasized here—evidence we have is that this was a Gruden issue, not a Raiders issue. There are plenty of coaches on that staff, including interim coach Rich Bisaccia, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who are all very close friends of Gruden. There are players, too, like Derek Carr, that have relationships with Gruden that are strong and will live on. But that doesn’t mean they should be held accountable in any way for years ago emails that have nothing to do with them, nor should a promising team’s season be considered over. And I think we saw Sunday how the players feel about it through a pretty convincing 34-24 Raider win in Denver. So believe it or not, the Raiders come out of this week in first place in the AFC West, and if anything it seems like the chaos may have galvanized them, and put the players out front. “More now than ever, we had to step up and be a voice," Carr told the media postgame, after posting his highest passer rating (134.4) in nearly two years. “There will be a time for all the emotions, but now is not the time. If anything, what this did was it, for sure, brought us closer. ... We needed a win bad this week. It sucks not hugging Gru' after a game like that. Some of the plays we ran, he would have been so fired up, but it is what it is and we need to move forward. For those three hours, it's definitely easier to just focus on football.” Now, to be sure, these post-event bounces can be fleeting, and situations like this can linger—and all of it merits watching for all of us on the outside. But the Raiders did show a little something on Sunday, and we’ll see if they can turn it into something bigger.

I don’t blame Mark Davis for being upset. And very clearly, he is upset. I think his point here, and I hope I’m not misconstruing it, is that the league wouldn’t conduct itself like it was over the last week if it were the coach of John Mara, Art Rooney, Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones or Stan Kroenke on those emails. And sure, maybe there’s a little bit of inferiority complex at work here. But he has a point too, especially since he’s done a lot for the league over the last few years—from peacefully walking away from a return to the Los Angeles market, a market in which the Raiders are wildly popular, to landing one of the best stadium deals in league history in Vegas, and at a time when gambling money is being shot out of a cannon into the sports world. Anyway, my sense would be he’s gotten tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.

The Ravens' defense is interesting. Baltimore really thought, coming into the year, that group had a shot to be a vintage version of what we’re used to seeing from Raven defenses. Then the season-opening overtime loss to the Raiders happened, a shootout with the Chiefs and another overtime game last week against the Colts that was relatively high-scoring. And it sure seems like the 4—1 Ravens’ game was more about Lamar Jackson than stopping the other team’s quarterback. Maybe it still is. But Sunday’s 34-6 blowout of the Chargers seems like it was a good look into what the Ravens saw in preseason—a defense that could choke opponents out. This 6-point effort from L.A. came a week after the Chargers scored 47 on the Browns, and the same L.A. offense that cut through the Cleveland defense for 493 yards last week yet had 208 yards this week in Baltimore. “I mean, it was just one of those days where everything went your way,” veteran Calais Campbell told MMQB postgame. “We’ve had close ballgames and just hard-fought battles. And we didn't really play our best on defense last week at all, and really this whole season. We never really played up to our standard, we’d play one good half, three quarters of good ball, and then we let teams go. So I think we were just motivated to just play a complete game on defense.” And while the climb this week, given how Justin Herbert and his offense were playing, was steep, Ravens defensive coordinator hatched a plan the players believed in that was founded on three ideas:

  1. Change the picture of the coverage on Herbert post-snap.
  2. Get free rushers at and gets on Herbert early.
  3. Take away Keenan Allen and Mike Williams early, to drive frustration.

The first box was checked because the Ravens routinely disguise that way. The second was checked with Martindale and his staff feeling like they found a flaw in the Charger protection rules—that allowed for favorable matchups (Justin Houston was often blocked by a back), and for a guy to get free runs at Herbert, which sped up the young quarterback’s internal clock. And the third goal was achieved with Williams matched up with Marlon Humphrey, and Allen game-planned, with the two stars combining for just three catches and 40 yards in the first half. This all added up to a rough start for the Charger offense, which only gave way to a third quarter in which L.A. managed all of 4 total yards. Which led to the Ravens carrying a 27-6 lead into the fourth quarter. “He's still a young quarterback, but he is the future of the NFL—There are a great group of young quarterbacks,” Campbell continued. “It was a great game plan by coach Wink, he really had us moving around and it was a lot for [Herbert]. We did enough to mess with him and make him uncomfortable out there. He's the future of this NFL, great player, I expect him to have another big game next week, I'm a fan of his game, so I think we did a good job of mixing it up and making him uncomfortable. He hasn't had a lot of that throughout his career yet.” So Herbert got an education, and the Ravens got another win. And now it looks like the championship defense Baltimore expected to have is coming together, and starting to match what Lamar Jackson and the offense have been doing ("I believe Lamar is the Most Valuable Player in the NFL right now,” Campbell said), which is to say, all alone atop the AFC at 5—1, the Ravens might just be hitting their stride.

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That Cowboys' win was really ugly, but valuable too. On one hand, the Cowboys should probably have run away with Sunday’s game in Foxborough—they were clearly the more talented team, which showed up in the cavernous gap in total yardage (567-335), and just the general feel of the game. The Patriots couldn’t really take advantage of the Cowboys’ two tackles being out and were resigned to putting Jalen Mills on CeeDee Lamb. On the other, they were lucky to win a game in which they 115 penalty yards to their opponent’s 47. Put it together, and I think what the Cowboys coaches and players found was the kind of game Dallas hasn’t won in the past, one where the team is able to compartmentalize bad football, and win when it matters. And Dallas did win, 35-29, in OT to move to 5–1. “It was a tough place to play. I think it shows how tough this team is, how we fight, how we got a will to win,” star corner Trevon Diggs told me late Sunday. “We're not gonna come off the field until we get that dub. We're gonna fight all the way until the clock's zero-zero. We got tons of players on this team, everybody got each other's backs and that's what I love about this team. We're like a real brotherhood. We're a family. You know your brother got your back at the end.” In a way, Diggs’s day was a microcosm of Dallas’s day. Deep in the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys down 21-20, Diggs was trailing Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne, and was on the spot (again) when a Mac Jones throw got tipped into his hands. Diggs ran that back 42 yards to make it 26-21 Cowboys. “I just seen the ball there and grabbed it,” Diggs said, laughing to explain his seventh pick in six games. And then, on the next play from scrimmage, came the clapback—Diggs former teammate Jones dropped a bomb over him, after Bourne got him on a double move. “It was my fault,” Diggs told me. “I take the blame for that. I could've been on top of the route and made a play on the ball. That was on me.” Which only set the stage, as Diggs said it would, for his teammates to have his back—and in particular Dak Prescott (who finished with 445 yards and three scores) and CeeDee Lamb (9 catches, 149 yards, 2 TDs). First Prescott found Lamb for 24 yards on third-and-25 to get the Cowboys to the Patriot 31, and set up Greg Zuerlein’s 49-yard overtime-forcing field goal; then it was Lamb toasting Jalen Mills for a 35-yard touchdown, with Prescott delivering the ball to cap a 7-play, 80-yard drive with the walk-off winner in overtime. “I got all the confidence in those guys like I said before. I see those guys every day. I know what they're capable of, and I know what type of players they are,” Diggs said. “They're elite, elite players. Everyone on this team is elite, we got a lot of elite players. And it's just showing.” Fair to say that when you rack up the penalty yardage Dallas did, turn the ball over twice in the red zone like the Cowboys did, and start the game with a failed fourth down, you need to be pretty talented to overcome it. And as Diggs said, the Cowboys are showing they are.

Don’t look now, but the Vikings are rolling and so is Kirk Cousins. While we were all forgetting about Cousins? Turns out, he was channeling John Wooden. “Sean McVay used to always say to me to just focus on continuous improvement, and that John Wooden always talked about that, continuous improvement,” Cousins told me after the Vikings’ OT win over the Panthers, referencing his time in Washington with McVay. “And that's really what I've tried to strive for more in my career as I play longer, is that am I improving? And I feel that I'm improving, I felt like I was improving during OTAs and training camp, and I think the fact that I'm improving is a good sign and Coach Wooden and Sean always saying that motivated me. So continuous improvement is something I'm always looking for, and I do think I'm improving as we go.” And Cousins, 33, quietly is putting together what looks like a career year, with Sunday’s gutty win in Carolina putting his Vikings at 3—3 after they started the season in an 0—2 hole with shootout losses to Cincinnati and Arizona. Where is better than it was? Well, it’s his comfort in the system he’s running for new coordinator Klint Kubiak, and that showed up with crucial throws, two in particular, he made to his third receiver, K.J. Osborn, on Sunday. Both came in overtime, and after the Vikings blew a 28-17 lead late, and after Cousins led a two-minute drive, with two throws to Osborn, in the final 42 seconds of regulation, only to have Greg Joseph just miss a potential game-winner from 44 yards. The subsequent throws to Osborn …

  • Third-and-3. Minnesota with the ball at its own 43, and 8:29 left in overtime: “If we don't get it, we're punting. And I put the ball a little bit behind him or on his back shoulder, there was a defender chasing him. And he did a tremendous job to hold on, and he's really No. 3 in the progression there. So it's not like we're making him the primary, but they had Adam [Thielen] and Justin [Jefferson] covered, so progressed to K.J. and he showed up and made a big-time play that kept us on the field.”
  • And then the winner, on second-and-13 from the Carolina 27: “It was a good call by Klint, he gave us a chance. I was just trying to balance taking a shot at the end zone with getting us a completion underneath. With the shell, the coverage, pre-snap, I thought they might be taking that deeper throw away, but as the play progressed, I felt the corner settle his feet, and then K.J. did the rest.”

In both these cases, in critical spots, you see Cousins weaponizing his knowledge of the offense, and going to someone other than Thielen or Jefferson. And to me, that’s significant, because it should command and confidence in everything, scheme and personnel, around you. As Cousins and I continued to talk, he mentioned part of his growth is happening in his rapport with Jefferson and rookie Christian Darrisaw. But it sure does feel to me like, really, the best part about this for the Vikings is it really is becoming everyone. Which should make their offense a lot more difficult to stop.

I loved Aaron Rodgers’s “I still own you” moment with Bears fans. To me, it means he’s having fun out there—which is bad news for his opponents—and that there’s still some pride in being a Packer for him. And I have no idea what that might mean for whatever happens six months from now. But Rodgers being locked in like he is now has made for some pretty entertaining football. As for his moment with Chicagoans on Sunday afternoon, here’s his explanation: “Sometimes you blackout on the field, in a good way. I looked up in the stands in the front row and all I saw was a woman giving me the double bird. I’m not sure exactly what came out of my mouth next.” While we’re here, since the season-opening debacle against the Saints, Rodgers is 109-of-158 for 1,303 yards, 12 touchdowns, a pick and a 116.61 passer rating.

The Chiefs are lucky to have Tyrann Mathieu and should do what it takes to keep him beyond this year. Yes, their defense has been a dumpster fire for the balance of the year. I just think in situations like these, you need players who take the failure personal—and Mathieu clearly does. He had a visible outburst in Washington on Sunday, first when the Football Team converted a third-and-16, then when a coverage bust to follow led to a 39-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Heinicke to Ricky Seals-Jones. "Most of it is execution, that really falls on the players," Mathieu told reporters. “We're pretty much running the same things we've ran the past couple years. Defensively, you have to stay hungry. You can't expect anyone to give you anything or put you in a great position. I think we took the field today with that attitude, not worried about what the offense was doing or what the media says.” Whatever it was that Mathieu said … worked. The Chiefs wound up pitching a second-half shutout and held Washington to 3.8 yards per play after the break, which is a little more than half their season average.

T.J. Watt falling to 30th in the 2017 draft seems nuts now. Overtime against the Seahawks on Sunday night was the second time he’s almost single-handedly finished off an opponent—he did it to Buffalo earlier in the year. This time around, an OT sack of Geno Smith on a third-and-4 knocked Seattle out of field goal range; and a strip-sack on Seattle’s next possession set up Chris Boswell’s walk-off, 37-yarder that put away a 23-20 win. And to think, this is a guy who went behind fellow edge rushers Haason Reddick, Derek Barnett, Charles Harris, Takk McKinley and Taco Charlton in the first round that year. Only Barnett remains on the team that drafted him, and Barnett’s basically a rotational pass-rusher. This means a lot of teams got it wrong on J.J.’s little brother.

And here we’ve got your 10 quick-hitters from this Sunday …

  • It’s definitely fair to start asking questions about where the Dolphins are headed at 1-5. Here’s one to get started—With Austin Jackson moving inside to guard, and rookie second-rounder Liam Eichenberg now the left tackle, I think it’s fair to ask whether trading a then-24-year-old franchise tackle Laremy Tunsil was the right move. Same goes for dealing off now Steeler Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
  • Sam Darnold had a roller-coaster day. But his fourth-quarter throws to Ian Thomas (on a seam for 41 yards) and D.J. Moore (on a fade for 25 yards) may have been the two best of the day … in any game.
  • Good sign of how the Patriots’ margin for error has shrunk post-Brady: Dallas has three red-zone possessions in the second quarter, and came away with a total of three points. And still won.
  • That said, Mac Jones has a set on him. Making that touchdown throw to Bourne right after getting picked by Diggs took some real stomach.
  • I love how Carson Wentz looked Sunday—confident and smooth, and good for a 127.7 passer rating. Good step. Now, let’s see it next week against the 49ers.
  • Very good, professional Sunday from the Rams. They were coming off their mini-bye, flying cross-country, and playing a 1-4 team. And it was 28-3 at the half.
  • It’s fair to start wondering if Broncos GM George Paton will want to bring his own coach in 2022.
  • Yes, it was the Lions, but Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase continue to look lethal. And the Bengals are somehow 4-2.
  • The Panthers, Eagles, Dolphins and Broncos all, you’d think, will continue to monitor the Deshaun Watson situation, based on where their QB situations sit right now. Their starters haven’t done nearly enough, yet anyway, for those teams to not consider an eventual upgrade.
  • Good on Logan Ryan for being accountable for an embarrassing Giants loss at home: “It’s not acceptable. Honestly, it’s not acceptable. And that’s just it.”

The NFL’s move to play games in Germany should give the International Series a good jolt. And being able to give fans something new, and maybe even incorporate Oktoberfest into the NFL calendar, are not the only reasons why going there is the right thing. The league counts 19 million fans in Germany (a country of around 83 million), and considers it the best market for the sport outside of North America. That’s backed up by the aforementioned numbers, and a corresponding rise in TV viewership (up over 20% in each year since 2017, with record Super Bowl audiences three years running), and also the pipeline of actual German-born players into the NFL. The list includes Super Bowl champion tackle Sebastian Vollmer, former first-round pick Björn Werner, as well as current; Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson, and a couple of guys now working through the league’s player pathway program (Washington’s David Bada and Seattle’s Aaron Donkor). And these guys are in part a product of Germany being the one place where NFL Europe really succeeded—which is why five of the six teams in that operation were there at that league’s end. So if anything, you could argue that this is long overdue. But it’s here at any rate, and this weekend was a big one in finalizing the NFL putting a game on this fertile ground. Officials from Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich met with NFL folks on Saturday in London and attended the Dolphins/Jaguars game Sunday. Here are a few things to file away as we get closer to a likely 2022 kickoff in Deutschland.

  • The three finalist cities were selected from a group of seven bidders. Among the factors that were involved in picking Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich: Presence of an NFL-ready stadium, local and regional government supports and the presence of local stakeholders and potential commercial partners.
  • The idea of having the reps from those cities in London this week was to allow them to prepare for the deeper dive each will now enter into with the league, and give them the chance to see an international game, and the ancillary events around it, to ask the right questions and continue tweaking plans within their respective bids.
  • The league would like to roll out its selection of a German city around the Super Bowl in February. The idea here would be to strike a long-term deal with that city to hold games there annually, similar to the way the league focused on London and Wembley 15 years ago, rather than having games in different German cities. That, the thinking goes, allows for the league and city to grow the game and events around it together.
  • Düsseldorf’s bid stadium is Merkur-Spiel Arena; Frankfurt’s is Sport Park Stadion; and Munich’s is Allianz Arena, which is the home of international soccer power Bayern Munich.

One other thing—it’s not set in stone there’ll be a game in Germany next fall. That’s the target, but if the NFL and selected city think it’s best to wait until 2023 for one reason or another once we get into the early stage of next year, they won’t rush it. Because the idea here, after waiting this long to put a game there, is to get it right.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) I don’t want to be the guy who’s declaring anything too early about a young quarterback—because that sort of thing has gotten a lot of us in trouble in the past. But it’s very hard not to start to think about 2024 when you watch Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams. First college start, and the true freshman goes 18-of-23 for 295 yards and four touchdowns, and rushes for 66 yards and a score on 9 carries. And he has the same sort of improvisational ability we’ve seen from a lot of the more recent top guys.

2) Also hard not to think about 2023 watching Texas RB Bijan Robinson. At 6-foot and 214 pounds, with room to grow, I think you can see where he could wind up in the Ezekiel Elliott/Saquon Barkley/Todd Gurley class of college prospects.

3) While we’re there, Oklahoma State RB Jaylen Warren had 193 yards on 33 carries in the Cowboys win over the Longhorns on Saturday, pushing him to 659 yards rushing over the last four weeks and into the discussion for NFL scouts. And he joins Wake Forest-turned-Michigan State star Kenneth Walker as another running back playing his cards right in transferring (Warren came from Utah State).

4) Derek Stingley Jr.’s situation will be an interesting one to monitor. The LSU junior had foot surgery earlier this month, and the expectation is that’ll be it for him in Baton Rouge. As a true freshman on the Tigers' national title team in 2019, he was an absolute star and seen as a future Top 10 pick. He’s played in just 10 games since. And now he’ll be entering next year’s draft. Suffice it to say, he’s still wildly talented and will be an interesting evaluation for teams.

5) And obviously there are other things to keep an eye on now at LSU, too, with half a season to play and an outgoing coach there for the players to play for. Also worth repeating this statistic that we gave you last week—With Joe Brady, Ed Orgeron was 15—0 and 8—0 in the SEC; Without him, he’s now 34—17 and 22—14 in the SEC. Would LSU bring the now-Panthers offensive coordinator back as head coach? The idea isn’t unprecedented—in fact, it’s exactly what Auburn did with Gus Malzahn just under a decade ago.

DELLENGER: Inside Ed Orgeron's Stunning Post-Title Fall at LSU

6) A name to keep an eye on coming out of Purdue’s upset of second-ranked Iowa: George Karlaftis. The Boilermaker junior had a sack and two hurries on Saturday, and caused general mayhem for a proud Hawkeye line. It’s been a while since Purdue had its line of pass rushers that included Rosevelt Colvin, Anthony Spencer, Cliff Avril, Rob Ninkovich, Ryan Kerrigan and Shaun Phillips. But it sure feels like Karlaftis will wind up in that category come April (should he declare).


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Some people just have a knack for getting the ball out.

@AlbertBreer might soon be, too.

I’m sure it was a mistake that this happened with the cameras there.

Jerry (and Stephen and personnel exec Will McClay) has assembled impressive rosters now going back 15 years.

I can prove I saw some of it—the turf looked weird.

Dak setting new marks for the franchise of Aikman, Staubach and Romo.

Pretty good.

That really is the NFL—winning on the margins.

Not sure why I thought this was that funny … but I did.

And if you haven’t seen his block, here you go: 

How is this in the rulebook?

If there was ever a year to question how vital a head coach is …

Very cool milestone.

Raiders were KEYED UP on Sunday.

Not all heroes wear capes.

Never move the Bills, NFL. Never ever ever …

The problem No. 1 pick.

Congrats to Chad’s parents. A truly remarkable couple.

Again, it doesn’t take long listening to this guy to pick up on how smart he is.

Week 6 MVP: Bucs PR man Michael Pehanich, for getting Vita Vea’s pads off on camera.


MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Bills/Titans, we’ve got one of the third first signings of the Sean McDermott era in Buffalo, and one of its bedrocks since—ninth-year safety Jordan Poyer.

MMQB: So having a few days to digest it, what did the win at Arrowhead mean for you guys?

Jordan Poyer: It really started with the preparation through the week. There wasn’t really anything different that we did, anything magical that we did. Our mindset going into the game, I think, was right. Everybody was locked into the game plan. We just want to continue to get better and I think we showed that as a defense and as a team on Sunday, and moving forward we want to continue that. Continue to prepare well, continue to get better.

MMQB: Was there anything in the game where you were like, maybe a past Bills team wouldn’t have done this?

JP: Yeah, nobody really blinked. We came in there, understanding the circumstances and the type of game it was, Sunday Night Football, prime time, and nobody blinked. Everybody came and played their best football. We got put in certain situations where we had to deal with some calls that didn’t go our way, and nobody blinked. Nobody panicked. We just kept playing the type of football we know how to play.

MMQB: It feels like the defense has taken a step forward and grown, what’s different about the defense this year?

JP: I mean, you said it, we’re just growing. A lot of guys have been in the system three, four, five years together, we’ve had a lot of communication on and off the field, we’ve been in almost every sort of situation that you can be in on the defensive side of the football. So when stuff happens in the game, whether it’s good or bad, nobody really blinks—guys weather the storm, good or bad, and defend every blade of grass. And I think the confidence we have as a defense, nobody feels like they’re out there alone, all 11 guys play together, do their job. And at the end of the day, this is the NFL, teams are gonna make some play. But what’s important is when those plays happen, if a big play happens, nobody’s pointing fingers, nobody’s yelling at one another, we move on to the next play, and just keep playing the game of football.

MMQB: I know your coaches have talked a lot about the unselfishness of the group. Where do think that’s showing up on the field?

JP: That’s a credit to the type of guys [GM Brandon] Beane and Sean [McDermott] bring in here to the organization. It’s not only on the defensive side, it’s throughout the organization, unselfish guys who don’t really care who gets the credit so long as the job gets done. That goes all around the board, no one cares who catches the touchdown passes, no one cares who gets the pick or who gets the sack. As long as it’s getting done and we’re playing together as a team, that’s really all we care about. Out of the nine years of my career, this is one that’s really a team.

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) jogs on the field during player introductions prior to the game against the Washington Football Team at Highmark Stadium.

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) jogs on the field during player introductions prior to the game against the Washington Football Team at Highmark Stadium.

MMQB: How much pride do guys like you and Micah Hyde take in it too, in that you were at the ground floor of the rebuild in 2017?

JP: Of course. We’re hungry, we want to be the best versions of ourselves to help this team win football games. Being here since the beginning of this does give you a little bit more hunger, wanting to be that team that goes all the way and wins a championship. To do that, you have to have a one-day-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time mindset, but Micah and I feed off each other.

MMQB: We talked about being unselfish, but you still haven’t been to a Pro Bowl despite having had a really solid career. Do you feel like you’ve been overlooked?

JP: I feel like my game speaks for itself. The people out there who do recognize my game, they’re the ones that matter. I could care less what Stephen A. Smith says or X, Y, Z might say on the broadcast. I know what type of football player I am. People who understand and know my game, that’s all I care about. I couldn’t care less about what anybody else wants to think or say about my game, because I know what I bring to the table.

MMQB: I saw that you did a documentary, and you’ve been really open about your struggles with alcoholism. What brought you to do it?

JP: I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted to let people know that alcohol is a huge issue not just in our country, but in the world. I think we all know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody who’s been affected by alcohol or has the problem themselves. I really wanted people to know that they weren’t alone, and that even athletes like myself go through times of addiction, and that it’s O.K. to ask for help. That was my biggest thing. I needed to ask for help, I needed to stop being such a macho man. I found a way to ask for help. So I really wanted to let people know they’re not alone, and kind of normalize talking about being addicted to drugs and alcohol. That was my message, and I’m hoping more people look at it and say, if Jordan can get through it, I can get through it too.

MMQB: So you’ve tried to make yourself an outlet for the people around you, too?

JP: For sure. The whole reason I came out with this, when Vincent Jackson died, he passed away in February of 2020, and I read up on his story and how alcohol played a part in his life, with some quotes from family members, that was about a month before I hit a year of sobriety. That story really stuck with me for that whole month. I kind of wished he had someone to talk to like myself, just to help him and let him know he’s not by himself in this fight. It was at that moment., I had about 15 days left until my 365 days that I didn’t have any alcohol, and I decided I wanted to be a voice for those people, and open up and let people know they weren’t alone.

MMQB: How different is it going from having to defend Patrick Mahomes, to now having to defend Derrick Henry?

JP: Obviously, one of the best backs in the game, has been doing it for a long time. His ability to run through tackles, to stiff-arm defenders, to see holes and have that open-field speed, it’s a huge task for our defense. Respect that whole offense, respect that team, they’ve got really good players, Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, [Ryan] Tannehill manages the offense really well. We’re gonna have our hands full. It’s a night-and-day difference from the Chiefs, playing the Titans.

MMQB: How would you describe having to tackle Derrick in the open field?

JP: He’s just a big dude, man. You really gotta have a plan when you come in to tackle him, understand what he’s trying to do and how he runs. And then, you gotta have all 11 guys running to the football too.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The NFL will likely hold its first in-person owners meeting in nearly two years next week. It’ll be interesting to see where the Washington Football Team investigation is on the docket.

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