P.J. Williams figured the moment he’d waited for the whole game just wasn’t coming.
Having played the Tom Brady version of the Buccaneers more than any other team has—the Saints faced them twice in the regular season, then again in the playoffs last year—showed New Orleans a few things. And in those three games, one was that Tampa Bay had built in the sort of crossing routes that leveraged the legendary quarterback’s accuracy, and the open-field talent of the receivers around him to take the ball on the move and go.
So the Saints had a robber coverage in for points of the game that allowed Williams to float, feign that he was dropping into the deeper part of the field and follow Brady’s eyes to the ball. Problem was, until the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers had adjusted to New Orleans’s desire to take away the middle.
Then came second-and-10, Buccaneers’ ball from their own 25, down 29–27. Brady needed just a field goal to give Tampa full control of the NFC South race heading into the bye.
The quarterback took a deep drop out of shotgun, planted, hitched and decisively let it go right to Chris Godwin—and, unbeknownst to Brady himself, Williams as well.
“Really all day, we’ve been looking for those in-cuts and they didn’t do a lot of that all game,” Williams said over the cell, from the Saints’ postgame locker room. “So we knew definitely in crunch-time situations they was gonna do that, and I was a free player, just reading the quarterback. And then he took me right to the ball, and it was there, man. It was the play that we were waiting for pretty much all game—and a play that I was planning to steal from the jump.”
Williams laughed and said, “When you see that ball coming to you, man, there’s no better feeling than that. It’s a crazy feeling.”
Williams’s eyes got big, his hands went up and he burst past Godwin and teammate Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the ball, and flew right down the right boundary with it. One stutter-step past Leonard Fournette, and one more burst past a slew of Buccaneer linemen, and the NFC South race was on again.
The Saints didn’t win the Super Bowl last year, like the Bucs did. But they did win the division, as they had the three years previous, too. And even with Drew Brees now spending his Sundays in a studio, they weren’t about to let go of their reign over the South so easy.
Williams’s pick, sealing the Saints’ 36–27 win, was just one thing proving that on an afternoon over which the Bucs were served plenty of reminders.
Hard to believe it, but we’re through eight weeks now, and this coming week should be an eventful one. But before we go there, we’re going to take a look back in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A potential Patriots’ rebirth.
• The AFC’s new lead dog scores another impressive win.
• How the Jets punch above their weight class.
• The Steelers’ winning a street fight.
But we’re starting with the world champions, and the team that’s given them more trouble than anyone the last two years.
When Williams and I talked, he’d already heard the news about Jameis Winston—he and Winston were college teammates at Florida State and have remained close since—and by now you know it’s almost certainly not good.
Based on initial testing, the belief is Winston tore his left ACL, after planting his foot and getting bent back in the open field by Tampa star Devin White. That is, obviously, a terrible result for Winston, and one that had coach Sean Payton emotional postgame, as he reflected on how hard Winston drove himself to make sure this second chance he was getting worked at the highest level possible.
The Winston injury happened with 12 minutes and change left in the second quarter and the game tied at seven. A concussion had already sidelined Taysom Hill for this one, so in came journeyman Trevor Siemian, who promptly went three-and-out on his first series.
That might shake some teams, but not these Saints.
Where perception had forever held that Drew Brees was the Saints, reality has shifted over the years. Payton, Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland, specifically, caught fire in the draft through the last five cycles or so, which allowed for a team less reliant on Brees to be built. So, the thinking went, the bottom wouldn’t fall out whenever Brees decided to walk away. And that’s why when Brees did walk away in March, the Saints were ready for it (mostly).
At this point, they’re taking pride in it.
“That’s been our mindset all year,” Williams said. “Just having a new quarterback and getting used to the offense this way; that’s been our mindset all year, that [the defense] was gonna have to step it up for them until they caught fire, and also with a whole lot of players being hurt and coming back and stuff like that. We knew that we had to be a big staple of this team. That’s been our mindset from the jump, I feel like.
“And we know we can be one of those top-five, great defenses.”
But it’s one thing to feel that way and another to know it, and this was one of those weeks when the Saints could find out for themselves where they stood. While New Orleans swept Tampa in the regular season last year, there was a caveat to it—the wins came in Weeks 1 and 9, before the Buccaneers became the Buccaneers. So when they met a third time in the playoffs, Tampa looked like a different team, because it was a different team, and that team ran the Saints off their own field by a score of 30–20.
That put it on the Saints to take it up a notch, and did they ever on Sunday.
The offensive plan was, to be fair, affected by the unexpected quarterback change to Siemian, whom the Saints signed off the Titans’ practice squad last November, and who hadn’t taken a single snap for the team until this weekend. The run/pass split certainly reflected that (32-to-40), as did New Orleans’s seizing command in time of possession (the Saints controlled the ball for over 33 minutes).
On defense, the blueprint didn’t waver: Take away the run, take away the big play and try to bait the Bucs into a turnover or two through looks like the aforementioned robber call that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen drew up.
And just in case the players needed any more reminders, the coaches drove the point home during the week by emphasizing how in this specific rivalry, the turnover battle has meant everything. The Saints won it 3–0 and 3–2 in their regular season wins last year, while the Bucs won it 4–0 in the divisional round of the playoffs. Of course, creating turnovers against Brady is never easy. But having done it before sure did help.
“We played him three times, and we played him good. It’s not like he killed us at any moment,” Williams said. “Our defense played pretty good against him all three times, and we knew pretty much how to beat him and how to be able to go out there and get a win. … We knew we had to step it up for our offense, and we went out there and executed.”
So as what had been a 23–7 lead, buoyed by touchdowns on both sides of halftime, started to melt away with Brady’s piloting 75- and 69-yard drives to cut the lead to two, Williams wondered if his chance would come. Things got worse when a communication mishap between Marshon Lattimore and rookie Paulson Adebo sprung Cyril Grayson, just promoted from the Tampa practice squad, for a 50-yard touchdown with 5:44 left to put the Bucs up 27–26.
Siemian then led a 12-play, 70-yard drive, setting up Brian Johnson for a 23-yard, go-ahead field goal with 1:41 left. It seemed, in the moment, to be way too much time to give Brady. But back there, Williams was lurking, and with Allen’s robber call came a little extra confidence too—Williams’s first two picks of the year had come on the same call.
But even Williams didn’t envision it happening as cleanly as it did, with Brady’s eyes locked on him and guiding the sixth-year player to one of the biggest plays of his career.
“And then running with the ball and having the chance to get into the end zone? That makes it even better, even though my coaches might get a little mad for not downing it,” Williams said. “But hey, we won the game.”
They did. And they proved a point pretty emphatically in the process—that there was always more to the Saints than just the quarterback.
Unfortunately for them, by the looks of it, that’ll be something they’re going to have to keep proving.
Devin McCourty’s now in his 12th year as a Patriot. And he sees being in that position, with that amount of experience, as a responsibility.
So when I asked him over the phone from California on Sunday night whether he takes pride in passing the torch on to a team filled with guys who lack his championship bona fides, like it was once past to him, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I was very fortunate, like you said, to come into this league and be on a team where Kevin Faulk taught me a lot, when Vince Wilfork taught me a lot, Jerod Mayo. Those guys told me stories about Ty Law, about Lawyer Milloy, about Rodney Harrison. Those guys told me stories about all the defenders who came before me. I think everything I’ve learned from those guys, I’ve tried to pass down to these guys and create that culture here.
“As you get older, and if you’re on the same team, that’s what you hope to bring.”
This weekend, it sure looked like McCourty has been bringing it, because New England’s impressive 27–24 win over the Chargers in L.A. had old Patriot markings all over it.
Takeaways at key times? Check.
Offense complementing the defense and vice versa? Check.
Bill Belichick’s getting a young quarterback to chase his tail a little? Check.
The New England quarterback’s making key throws down the stretch? Check.
All in all, this was as identifiable a Patriots’ type of win as we’ve seen in a while, and maybe since going back to before Brady left for Tampa. And nowhere was that more apparent than in the fourth quarter, starting at the 10:20 mark, with the Chargers in third-and-10 from their own 22, up 17–16. At that point, ex-Charger Adrian Phillips already had one pick on the afternoon, right before halftime, to set up a field goal right before the break.
As McCourty saw it, Phillips’s next pick tied back to the that one.
“A lot of talk was if we were able to cover them and if our pass rush could get home,” he said. “And I thought you saw a mix of both of that. I mean, to have a good pass defense, you need rush and you need coverage. And I thought the first interception that A.P. had was [Kyle Van Noy]—KV did a great job. They set up the play to get [Austin] Ekeler one-on-one with him out of the backfield on the angle route, and he played good defense and that allowed the ball to tip in the air. And then the second interception was pressure.
“We got pressure there. [Jared] Cook stops, you think he’s gonna hook up, and [Justin] Herbert throws it trying to probably throw the ball away.”
Cook looked left, Herbert went right, Phillips went to the ball, picked it off and covered the 26 yards left to house it, and give the Patriots (after a two-point conversion) a 24–17 lead.
From there? Because of how the offense played, the defense only needed one more stop, and it got that stop right away, forcing a three-and-out to set up the game-defining drive from the Patriots. With 9:15 left, New England embarked on a 14-play, 54-yard drive, which took 6:56 off the clock and forced the Chargers to burn all three of their timeouts. It ended with a 30-yard field goal to put the Patriots up 27–17 with just 2:19 left.
Mac Jones was 4-for-4 for 43 yards on the drive, and snuck for the possession’s initial first down on a third-and-1. And all along the way, there was a steady stream of runners and receivers churning out yards and staying in bounds to keep the clock rolling, with the idea being that the Chargers wouldn’t have much of a chance once they got the ball back, which is exactly what happened.
“Coming into the season, everyone kept trying to make our team one-dimensional—What is the defense gonna do to help the offense? The defense has to do this and that,” McCourty said. “The whole time, we talked about just playing complementary football. That’s the only way to win football games in this league. The teams are too good to play on one side, and I think you’re seeing our team just develop and learning not only to play on each side of the ball but learning how to play off each other.”
And that’s where, now, McCourty thinks losses can become wins.
These Patriots may not be the old Patriots, but they were a missed field goal away from beating the Bucs and took the Cowboys to overtime. They lost to the Dolphins after losing a fumble at the goal line on what would’ve been a go-ahead touchdown. Simply put, they were losing games that the Patriots haven’t really lost over the years.
So this is where you’d say maybe the Patriots had to learn how to win—only that sounds like a little much given the presence of guys like McCourty, Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower and David Andrews, who’ve won multiple championships in New England. More so, McCourty argues now, getting there this year was about learning to win with the group of guys on hand.
“I think the biggest thing is you gotta learn how to win as a team,” he said. “I think, like you said, obviously [Matthew] Judon knows how to win. I would say even Mac does, being at Bama. We got winners here but you gotta learn how to win as a team. And I think Bill said it earlier this season: It’s about playing well in the critical situations, when offensively they know we need to run the ball and stay in bounds and have good plays. And we do that. …
“I think we’ve learned what our blueprint is. We know what we gotta do each week to go out there and play well. Like, we’re not a team that’s just gonna roll it out there. And my whole time being here, we’ve never had that kind of group. So I definitely think we have confidence, and I said it probably a couple weeks ago, you’re record is what it is. That’s who you are. There’s nothing else to really say. There’s a lot of teams who have confidence. It’s about going out and doing it. I think that’s what we’re doing a good job of now.”
To this point, it’s gotten them from 2–4 to 4–4. And given them life again in a wide-open AFC race, with a lot more out there for them—just like it used to be.
The AFC’s new No. 1 seed has really shown something the last few weeks. The Titans closed out October with wins over last year’s two AFC finalists and, on Sunday, another against their primary (only?) in-division competition, in the Colts. The win itself was pretty wild. The Titans had to weather an early 14–0 deficit, took a fourth-quarter lead on a pick-six thrown out of Carson Wentz’s left hand, and got another pick to set up a game-winning field goal from a safety who drew a 42-yard pass interference flag at the end of regulation to help force overtime. Through it, there were a few things I think we could take on Mike Vrabel’s crew.
• They can definitely win in different ways now. Against the Colts, MVP candidate Derrick Henry went for just 68 yards on 28 carries. Last week, it was 86 yards on 29 carries against the Chiefs. And over those two weeks, the Titans still managed to score 61 points in winning both games. I asked Ryan Tannehill about it postgame, whether they’ve found something there. He respectfully said … not really. “It’s something that we’ve known,” he told me. “Obviously, Derrick’s a huge part of what we do; he’s a heck of a football player and does some amazing things for us. But we’re not all-in on one person or one area. We have other playmakers around the field that can make plays, and they showed up today for us.”
• That includes a defense that’s struggled a bunch the last couple of years. Even now, they’re just 21st in total defense. But of late, the unit’s best players keep coming up with plays to make up for the imperfections. Two weeks ago against the Bills, it was Jeffery Simmons’s goal-line stop. The last two weeks, it’s been turnovers created by Kevin Byard—a forced Patrick Mahomes fumble in Week 7, and the aforementioned interception this week, which came just after the six-minute mark of overtime (and after Byard’s costly fourth-quarter pass-interference call). “They came up big in big spots for us. Especially that interception in overtime,” Tannehill said. “K.B. made an unbelievable play and put us in close range for a field goal there. And we had a penalty offensively, but we were able to overcome it and set up Randy [Bullock] for that field goal.”
• Overcoming that penalty that Tannehill referenced—a 10-yard illegal-block flag on A.J. Brown that pushed the Titans momentarily out of field-goal range—was just one example of the fight the Titans showed all afternoon. And it started right away, with a nightmarish first quarter, highlighted by a Tannehill pick on his first throw, sandwiched by Colts scores that made it 14–0 less than halfway through the first quarter. “We’ve been down a couple times this season and found a way to fight back,” Tannehill said. “We got a resilient group who are able to withstand that. We knew coming in it was gonna be back and forth, and there was still a lot of football left out in front up to that point. So not the way we wanted to start, but there was a ton of belief up and down that sideline and we were gonna get going. All we needed to do was put some points on the board and turn the game around.”
That happened a couple of possessions later, and the rest fell into place, as things have for a few weeks now. And next week, Tennessee will get another test, with a trip to L.A. to face the 7–1 Rams on Sunday Night Football on tap.
The Jets are all over the map—and that’s O.K. At one point in the summer, Robert Saleh told the media that there would be days when it looked like his guys could compete for a championship, and others when it looked like they’d all just started playing the sport. Such, he continued, was the nature of having as young a team as he did. Sure enough, we’re approaching midseason now, and it’s right there for everyone. One week, the Jets are losing 54–13 (last week, to the Patriots), the next they’re knocking off the conference’s top team (this week, they beat the Bengals 34–31).
“Part of being a young football team is seeing some inconsistencies as they try to figure out this game and they try to learn,” Saleh told me, on his ride home Sunday night. “When they piece it all together in a game, it can be pretty explosive. And so we’re playing all these young guys, and they’re gaining all this experience, and the idea is they’re gonna get consistent, and faster, while they’re still able to access all their explosive ability.”
And the key to getting that sort of progress, something that showed up on Sunday for the Jets, is getting guys involved quickly. Mike White, in for Zach Wilson at quarterback, completed his first 11 throws. He got the ball to rookies Michael Carter and Elijah Moore in the first quarter. And the confidence White instilled there—“From there it was like, ‘Shoot, let’s just go play,’ “ Saleh said—carried through in the Jets’ coming back from 17–7 and 31–20 deficits. Later, a more veteran defensive line took over. Shaq Lawson went first, showing discipline in getting his hands up after ID’ing an RPO (he’d done it all afternoon) to pop a Joe Burrow throw up in the air, and pick it off inside the Bengals’ 20. Then, on what wound up being Cincinnati’s final possession, Sheldon Rankins chased down Burrow on third-and-11, forcing one last punt with a hustle play of his own. Even after that, there were rookie mistakes as the Jets tried to run out the clock. Moore ran out of bounds on the ensuing first-and-10. Carter fell shy of the sticks later, trying to get out of bounds. And when those guys still found a way to get a couple of first downs to end the game? Saleh went bananas for them (and the cameras caught it too).
“This youthful group is trying to figure out how to win, and there’s so many other moments where it’s like, ‘Man, these rookies are gonna kill me,’ “ Saleh said, laughing. “But, it’s a young group, and when there’s good things to cheer about, I’m gonna cheer.” And beating the Bengals and the Titans in the same month, this early in the building process, is plenty for Saleh to cheer about. “We’ve beaten two of the better teams in the AFC. And what’s exciting is that this youthful group is able to compete with some of the heavyweights in our conference,” he said. “As we develop consistency and confidence, the explosiveness of this team as it gains experience, it gains NFL man-strength, all that stuff. It’s a good confidence builder because we know we’ve got the right guys in the building—we know we’ve got a heck of a draft class, a heck of a free agency class, and we’ve got the right people here. It’s just a matter of going together and building this thing the right way.” So yeah, they’ve got a long way to go. But steps like Sunday’s are pretty good ones to take. And with the next one being Thursday, Saleh affirmed to me, even after the acquisition of Joe Flacco, that the Jets are going to ride with White for now: “He’s starting Thursday night.”
The Steelers showed the Browns who’s boss. And in an old-school game, they did it in an old-school way—by controlling the trenches. “We knew going into the game they were gonna have to run the ball and protect Baker [Mayfield],” veteran Cam Heyward told me, before the short drive back to Pittsburgh. “It was gonna be one of those type of games. Whoever won the line of scrimmage was gonna probably win the game, and that happens with guys staying in our gaps, getting off blocks. We needed every stop we got, and we had to keep battling.” Heyward, as you can tell, wasn’t beating around the bush on this, and the implication was obvious. Mayfield came in hobbled, with a bad left shoulder, so the Steelers bet that the Browns’ plan would be to take the heat off their quarterback. They also bet that it would pay off if they could shut down the vaunted Cleveland run game and force Baker to throw it. Check and check.
The Browns rushed for less than 100 yards for just the fifth time in Kevin Stefanski’s 24 games as head coach, and Pittsburgh sacked Mayfield four times. “They’re not gonna make him susceptible to being hit a lot, so they’re gonna try and run the ball early, there’s gonna be a lot of rhythm passes early on,” Heyward continued. “When we were able to stop him on first down, I think it really opened up our chances to get a couple of sacks on him.” And as the Steelers got the Browns out of that comfort zone by generating long-yardage situations for the Browns’ offense, it started to wear on Cleveland. Indeed, in the fourth quarter, the Browns ran for just 21 of their 96 yards, forced to put the game in Mayfield’s hands. And so died their last two possessions, after the Steelers took the lead for good, with about 11 minutes left—the first on a fumble forced by Joe Schobert and picked up by T.J. Watt, and the second on a turnover on downs deep in Steeler territory. All this, by the way, is what brought Pittsburgh real satisfaction. They know the Browns well. They knew this fight would be waged in an old-school way.
They drilled fundamentals during their bye week to be ready for it. And then, on Sunday, they carried out what they needed to in a style they’re pretty familiar with. “We know the AFC North is the toughest division in football,” Heyward said, “but we like it that way.”
The Lions and Texans really took it on the chin on Sunday. At one point, both games were at 38–0, and about as non-competitive as you could imagine NFL contests being. Texans-Rams tightened up at the very end (the Rams wound up winning 38–22 after a garbage time rally) and Eagles-Lions didn’t (Philly won 44–6), but in the both cases, the losing coaches struck a similar tone, falling on the swords for their players. “I got outcoached today; I didn’t help these guys at all,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “We weren’t ready to play today, and that’s on me.” And from Texans coach David Culley: “I am disappointed and frustrated, but I am not discouraged with this football team. I saw at the end that this is a team that is not going to quit. We have to just play and coach better. We know what that process is, and we know what we have to do. We are just not there yet.” So the best thing we’ve been able to say about these teams thus far really echoes what Culley said—neither have quit. But seeing the way today started did make me wonder about players league-wide. And it’s not whether guys in these spots would quit. It’s whether they’d be distracted. The trade deadline’s two days away. Guys on both teams have heard plenty from people outside the building that anyone could be traded. And I’d imagine it’d be hard not to let that get to you, especially when the team you’re with isn’t going anywhere soon. Then again, the Eagles were in a similar spot (with rumors swirling around their available vets) and managed it pretty well.
While we’re there, I don’t expect too much action Monday and Tuesday. As I wrote on Friday, teams just don’t have the cap space to do it right now, so my guess is most of the moves will look similar to what we’ve seen so far, which hasn’t exactly revved the new cycle—some aging vets, some reclamation projects and some bit pieces might get moved, and that’ll likely be that. With, of course, one exception. And on that one exception? I still think it’s iffy (50-50 at best) that a deal for Deshaun Watson will get done. There’s still too much risk for teams like the Dolphins, given the lack of hard information out there. And Houston doesn’t lose or risk much by waiting—really, the only issue would be if his legal situation gets worse—and would have plenty to gain by kicking the can down the road, starting with just knowing exactly where some of the draft picks coming back will land (remember, whatever picks the Texans get, they can’t use them until April anyway).
I understand Niners fans’ calling for Trey Lance. I also think Kyle Shanahan’s continuing to play Jimmy Garoppolo is about two things. First, it’s what’s best for the team right now. I’ve talked to enough opponents of the Niners to know how Lance’s tape is viewed across the NFL, and it’s clear he has a ways to go. And that dovetails into the second point, which is that it’s what’s good for Lance himself, as a player who barely played at all in 2020; and even in ‘19, because of the strength of his college team, rarely played from behind or out of long-yardage situation. And all that left Garoppolo to play, well, just fine in his return to his hometown of Chicago, coming back off an injury. “I don’t think anything was bothering him as much in the game. Seemed healthier,” Shanahan said. “But I thought he had a hell of a game and thought guys made some plays for him, too. Thought it was a real good day for the offense.” Garoppolo threw for 322 yards, 83 of which, to be fair, came on a screen to Deebo Samuel. And that performance was enough to get the Niners to 3–4 heading into a critical stretch, with the Cardinals this Sunday and the Rams the Monday to follow. After those two, we should have a clearer picture of how the Niners will handle their quarterbacks the rest of the year.
Cooper Rush made himself a lot of money on Sunday night. In the grand scheme of things, Dallas’s 20–16 win on Sunday night was an excellent show of the depth and balance of the team’s talented roster—with the team’s being able to grind out a win without Dak Prescott, and buy their leader’s ailing calf some rest. But for Cooper Rush, this one was worth a whole lot more than that. Here’s Rush’s history in the league …
• Made the Cowboys’ roster in 2017 as a UDFA, then passed Kellen Moore that October to become the team’s primary backup and served in that role through ‘19.
• In the spring of 2020, he was displaced by Andy Dalton. That May, his old friend Jason Garrett brought him to the Giants. He lasted three weeks—signed to the practice squad on Sept. 5 and released from it on Sept. 29.
• Rush rejoined the Cowboys on Halloween of last year, first signing to the practice squad, then going up to the 53 for a week in early November, before then finishing the season out on the practice squad.
Yes, this is the guy who sliced through the Vikings’ defense, leading the Cowboys on an eight-play, 75-yard drive that popped at its end, with Zeke Elliott’s converting a third-and-11 with some violent running after hauling in a swing pass in the flat, and Amari Cooper Mossing Cameron Dantzler for a five-yard touchdown to win it. And yes, this guy will cash in because of it, most likely in a Chase Daniel or Josh McCown kind of way.
The Packers should get more credit than they have for that win on Thursday night. Mostly, because that win showed an exceptionally high level of resilience, especially from a team that we all thought might be careening off the tracks in the aftermath of its 38–3 loss to the Saints on opening day. Since then, the Packers have won seven straight, and the seventh of those—a 24–21 nail-biter over the previously-unbeaten Cardinals in Arizona—said a lot about a group of players that’s had to manage a lot of noise (some of it self-created) over the last three months. Going into the game …
• The Packers were without Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, having to adjust to that on the fly.
• They were already managing longer-term absences of star corner Jaire Alexander, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and center Josh Myers.
• Left tackle David Bakhtiari still hasn’t returned to game action, coming back from offseason ACL surgery.
• They lost starting tight end Robert Tonyan in-game.
• They were without defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who was knocked off the sideline by a positive COVID-19 test.
Yet, there they were, answering a 7–0 deficit after one quarter with 17 straight points, before coming up with the biggest play when it mattered most—with Rasul Douglas’s thwarting a would-be, go-ahead, 99-yard touchdown drive from Kyler Murray and the Cardinals by corralling a ricochet off A.J. Green’s helmet in the end zone to salt away the win. And that cemented that this Packers team still knows how to win. Maybe more to the point, Matt LaFleur knows how lead a winner, with a pair of NFC title game appearance in his first two years and, by the looks of it, a chance to go even further this time around. Also worth noting: LaFleur is now off to the best 40-game start of any coach in NFL history, going 33–7, just outpacing Don Shula (31–7–2), Chuck Knox (32–8) and George Seifert (32–8).
When it comes to Washington owner Dan Snyder, the NFL needs to do more. At the end of Tuesday’s press conference with Roger Goodell, I had one more question to ask that I never got the chance to (I don’t think I’m alone there). And that one was straight forward—I wanted to see if the commissioner thinks that Snyder has carried himself the way an NFL owner should. My reason for wanting to know has to do with the investigation into Snyder’s workplace culture the league just spent eight figures on, yes. But just as much, it was about an idea that he’s pushed for years. In fact, if you look at the 2014 suspension letter he wrote to Colts owner Jim Irsay in response to charges of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and four counts of possession of a controlled substance, you’ll see it’s right there. “I have stated on numerous occasions that owners, management personnel and coaches must be held to a higher standard than players,” Goodell wrote. “We discussed this during our meeting and you expressed your support for that view, volunteering that owners should be held to the highest standard.”
It’s impossible for anyone to believe that Goodell has actually adhered to that premise over the last decade, of course, absent maybe for coming down on Irsay with that six-game suspension (and even that one was actually sort of light, considering it’s the equivalent of a steroid suspension). And that’s for reasons I detailed in my column on Wednesday on Goodell. Fact is, plenty of owners have skated over the years, and based on what’s gone on in Washington, a $10 million fine and phony suspension (Snyder hasn’t missed a game, is still involved in the team’s business ops, and has PR people pushing back on the notion that he’s suspended behind the scenes) won’t cover it. Maybe the league can’t force Snyder to sell the team. But there are ways to put pressure on Snyder—and I’ve heard already that the idea of doing that has been discussed in the past among owners. Frankly, I think the wheels should be turning on it now. It’s hard to come up with a single way that Snyder made either his team or the league better over the last 20 years. Once one of the NFL’s flagship franchises, Washington is now in the midst of another ground-up build with hopes of reimagining a brand that’s come to stand for next to nothing. And Snyder’s the constant, and that’s before even getting to what was in that report. The bottom line is, if Goodell’s word means anything, he needs to hold Snyder accountable for that. First by letting the world know what investigator Beth Wilkinson found out. And second by working with other owners to evaluate Snyder’s place in one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sport.
As always, I’ve got 10 quick-hitting thoughts from you coming out of Sunday …
1) There was real, tangible progress from Justin Fields out there on Sunday in the Bears’ 33–22 loss to the 49ers, and you could see it on third and fourth down in particular.
2) Hats off to Boston Scott, who just seems to keep hanging around. The Eagles’ tailback rushed for 60 yards on 12 carries on Sunday. Ton of respect for the guys who’ve done their part to try to make it that way.
3) I don’t think Sam Darnold’s head injury changes the dynamic at all for Carolina, re: Watson. The Panthers checked in with the Texans last week. It was the first time they had in a couple of months. It didn’t go anywhere. Barring something changing in the 36 hours to come, I think this will just become something they revisit in February.
4) The Seahawks are 3–5 heading into their bye, and I’m not sure I can take a whole lot from that win over the Jaguars, who were coming off a win, and their bye, and somehow looked worse than before. Maybe Seattle just made it look that way.
5) Micah Parsons is a freak show. He was recruited by Alabama and Ohio State to be an edge rusher, and wound up at Penn State playing off the ball, and now he’s legitimately both in the NFL. As a rookie.
6) With Jerry Jeudy back, I’m hoping we get to see the Broncos’ skill group at full strength sometime soon. I think it’s going to make Denver an attractive location for veteran quarterbacks with wandering eyes in the spring.
7) Nice work by the Bills, methodically wearing the Dolphins down, and knocking them out in the fourth quarter. The win was no work of art, but these sorts of games during the dog days go a long way toward determining who’s hosting in the playoffs.
8) Tua Tagovailoa, who’s a flawed quarterback, is fighting his ass off amid all the trade rumors. The numbers weren’t great on Sunday (58.2 passer rating). But the effort was.
9) The Cardinals are gearing up for Kyler Murray to miss time—his injury, I’m told, is tricky, so setting a timeline is, too. Arizona hopes to know more Monday.
10)Greg Olsen’s doing a really nice job as a rookie broadcaster.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Lots of teams are scrambling now to do work on Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, who’s firmly lodged his name in the Heisman discussion. He’s up to 1,194 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games, and came up biggest when his team needed him most in rushing for 197 yards and five touchdowns against archrival Michigan on Saturday, falling just shy of a third 200-yard effort on the season. Earlier in the year, Walker was seen more as a back that played with good vision and effort, but lacked dynamic skill. Now, teams are going back into the file on him, and the Wake Forest transfer has the look of a guy who might be a Day 2 pick.
2) While we’re on Michigan State, Mel Tucker’s done a heck of a job there, and it’s not off-base to think NFL teams might at least explore his interest in returning to the pros at some point. Tucker spent a decade (2005 to ‘14) in the league, serving as defensive coordinator for three teams over that time (Browns, Jaguars, Bears) and even doing a stint as Jaguars interim coach after Jack Del Rio was fired in ‘11.
3) Even though Michigan couldn’t hold onto a 16-point lead in East Lansing, Wolverine DE Aidan Hutchinson was another star who showed up in a big way. I got two NFL comps for him on Sunday morning: Ryan Kerrigan and Chris Long. “I don’t think he’s a great athlete,” said one AFC exec. “But he’s very strong and plays his ass off. He’s not a top-five guy. Maybe he gets drafted 10 to 15, but he’s not the level of, say, a Bosa.”
4) Speaking of comps, I got one for Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, who threw for another 519 yards in the Panthers’ 38–34 loss to Miami on Saturday: Ex-Florida QB/current Buccaneer Kyle Trask. On the surface, that might not seem like much to be excited about. But Trask went late in the second round last year, and in a year where it looks like teams are going to be scratching for quarterback talent, it’s not hard to see a scenario where Pickett is intriguing enough to get someone to reach.
5) The Georgia defense continues to perform at an off-the-charts level, and junior linebacker Nakobe Dean is one guy who’s been particularly fun to watch—he had a pick-six in Saturday’s bludgeoning of rival Florida. He’s not quite as fast as former Bulldog linebacker Roquan Smith, but is the same sort of playmaker and may be more versatile. He’s playing his way into the first-round conversation, one of four guys in the Georgia front seven with a shot to go that high in April, joining pass rushers Adam Anderson and Travon Walker, and mountainous nose tackle Jordan Davis. What’s interesting about the group is it may lack a truly elite, top-10-pick type of talent (though sophomore 3-tech Jalen Carter might get there), but all seven starters could go inside the first two rounds.
6) Penn State has a redshirt sophomore corner with a familiar name you’ll want to know: Joey Porter Jr. The son of the old Steelers great has had a fantastic third year in State College, and held up well on Saturday night pitted against Ohio State’s all-world receiver group.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Jameis’s crutches dance should immediately be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (I’m gonna go ahead and waive the waiting period.)
Don’t mess with Lisa Turtle!
P.J. Williams on Jameis—“We’re gonna go out and win it for you.” Love it.
Wentz has made a lot of progress the last two months. I’ll go ahead and call this a step back.
New Orleans people are the best
So much we’re gonna miss the next couple months with Jameis down.
Saints receiver showing support for Falcons WR Calvin Ridley, who stepped away from football this weekend to address his mental health.
I’m all for this becoming a staple of halftime entertainment league-wide.
I’ll high road this one and affirm Rich’s feeling that Hutchinson did, in fact, force that fumble in the Michigan/Michigan State game.
I was actually with Mitch on this one. Got a different result, thought.
Amazing work by both guys.
Four days later, still mesmerizing.
This, too, is mesmerizing.
Tweet King stays Tweet King.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Giants-Chiefs, we caught up with New York’s third-year quarterback, Daniel Jones.
MMQB: Have you been watching the Manning Cast at all?
DJ: A little bit. I’ve watched it here and there; they’ve got some good stuff. It’s been fun to watch.
MMQB: Do you and Eli have rules set up for Monday night?
DJ: I haven’t talked to him yet; I’m gonna talk to him later today about it. But yeah, hopefully he keeps the stuff private that should be private.
MMQB: Because he probably knows more about you than most quarterbacks they see.
DJ: Yeah, definitely.
MMQB: What has he meant for your career, getting to play with him as a rookie and being around him since?
DJ: First and foremost, he’s the perfect example of what a successful guy playing for this team, playing in this city, representing this franchise, what it all looks like. How he played on the field, how he carried himself off the field, the leader he was in this organization, who he was in the building to all the people that work here—it’s kind of that example that he set, and what that looks like. So being with him my first year, being able to see that firsthand was really important for me. And then building the relationship with him since then, it’s been having the ability to stay in touch, and talk to him, ask him what he thinks about certain things. He’s not in our meetings so he doesn’t know this system like he did [Pat] Shurmur’s system. But he knows football, he knows being a quarterback, being a leader of the team. Those conversation, it’s been really helpful.
MMQB: Alright, so being the quarterback for that team, in that city, what have you found the key is?
DJ: I think it’s the ability in this day and age, people say to ignore it, and you definitely don’t seek out what’s going on, you’re talking to the media every week, your family sees it, your friends see it, so you gotta know what’s being said and what’s going on. And being able to hear some of that, not seek it out, but understand that and be able to focus on what you’re doing, focus on your work, and not let that affect football, just keeping what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, preparing, studying, practicing well, making sure that’s getting your energy, that’s getting your focus, that’s what’s most important. He always did that well.
MMQB: I talked to Joe Judge after the game last week, and he said a key to the win was going back to basics and drilling fundamentals during the week. What does that look like for a quarterback?
DJ: I think a lot of it has to do with my footwork. Coach [Jason] Garrett talks about being able to turn on the tape, watch your feet, and that’ll tell you whether you played well or not. Are you holding the ball? Are your feet staying in place? Or are you moving up in the pocket, and the ball’s coming out? Are you being consistent? And you can tell by just watching your feet, watching your own movement. The urgency, the consistency in that movement from play to play is a big part of it. That’s been the biggest thing, I think.
MMQB: Did it show up against the Panthers [in Week 7]?
DJ: Yeah, I think so.
MMQB: Then where do you think the difference was in the team last week versus the 1–5 start?
DJ: I think when you look at the start to the season, we’ve done a lot of good things, and played well at times. It hasn’t been consistent enough. The big part about playing these games, playing in this league, playing against good teams, is that they’re gonna make plays, they’re gonna have times where they stop you, they’re gonna make big plays and score. So I thought [last Sunday] we did a better job of handling some of that stuff, handling plays that didn’t go our way. Offensively, we certainly didn’t score enough points in that first half. We got stuffed on the 1-yard line; there were a couple things that didn’t go our way. But obviously the defense stepped up and played huge, and offensively we kept at it, kept pushing, kept doing what we could, and eventually broke for us. I just think it was that persistence and understanding of what the game was.
MMQB: Part of that’s consistency in personnel too—how tough have the injuries around you made it to get there?
DJ: We’ve certainly had our fair share of injuries to key guys. But I think overall guys have done a good job of stepping in and playing well. You look at last week, still a lot of those guys out and we found a way to tailor what we were doing to the guys that were playing, and their skill sets, and those guys stepped up and played big. We’ve got a lot of good players; we’re deep at a lot of positions. That’s understanding who we’ve got and how the game’s gotta be played.
MMQB: You’re going against a defensive coordinator, in Steve Spagnuolo, who a lot of people in your building are familiar with. Is there anything you’ve been able to glean from them?
DJ: I’ve had a lot of those conversations with some of those people, and you look at what he’s doing now versus what he was doing when he was with the Giants, I think some of the calls and some of the specific defenses have probably changed a little bit, from what I’ve gathered. But some of the more philosophical ideas, his approach, you see that stuff show up. Maybe more general ways that he thinks, and how he wants to call a game, rather than the specific calls and what they’re running. It’s helpful to hear some of those ideas.
MMQB: Is there a key going up against that defense then?
DJ: They’ve got good players. They’ve got guys up front who can rush. And then they like to bring pressure. So it’s about handling that, seeing the pressure, being decisive and getting the ball out—seeing where it’s coming from, recognizing it and making good decisions. They’re gonna be geared up and ready to go; they’ve got a lot of guys that can affect the game. We’ll have to be ready for that.
MMQB: In a week like this, do you pay any attention to the QB matchup, with Patrick Mahomes on the other side?
DJ: I wouldn’t call it a measuring stick. Their defense is playing against our offense. Certainly have a lot of respect for him. He’s a great player. He’s done a lot in this league, and I look forward to continuing to watch him play. But I don’t necessarily see it as a matchup like that.
MMQB: You gonna tell Eli to take it easy on you?
DJ: Ha! I’ll probably ask him to do that.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
In light of the Ridley story, I feel like everyone needs to go watch the piece Jay Glazer did with Lane Johnson. So I’m gonna leave it here for you. Have a great week, everyone, and we’ll see you this afternoon for the MAQB.
More NFL Coverage:
• Week 8 Takeaways: Feisty Divisional Games, Blowouts and More
• The Titans Continue to Deserve Our Appreciation
• Trade Deadline Primer: Buyers, Sellers, Dream Deals
• Snyder Won’t Take Responsibility; Goodell Won’t Make Him