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MMQB: Lamar Jackson Is Proving He Can Come From Behind; Colt McCoy Steps In

On a day of upsets, the Ravens and Cardinals found notable ways to win. Plus, Josh Allen gets the best of Josh Allen, the Aaron Rodgers investigation and much more.

Lamar Jackson and I were finishing up our conversation, maybe a half hour after his Ravens’ latest rabbit-out-of-a-hat win, and we’d just gone back to a talk we had in August about his game, and where it was going. And I reminded the 24-year-old quarterback of the narrative that was being discussed then—that the NFL had figured its 2019 MVP out.

So, I asked, I guess that really didn’t happen after all?

Jackson laughed, in a sort of endearing way.

He knew the truth then, and he knows it now. At this point, everyone else should, too.

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The Ravens are 6–2, and they’re 6–2, having survived a rash of injuries in a lot of key places, largely because of the strides that Jackson’s made, and because he’s not the same player he was when he lit the league on fire two years ago. He’s unequivocally a better passer than he was in 2019. He has better command of Baltimore’s offense. He’s more capable of performing in the two-minute offense.

And all that’s been most apparent on Sundays like this one. The Ravens were down 17–3 in the waning moments of the first half against the Vikings, and down 24–10 after Minnesota rookie Kene Nwangwu took the opening kickoff of the second half back 98 yards. They needed to make the most of every possession in the second half, after fumbling around in the first half. They needed to overcome an overtime turnover of Jackson’s own.

They needed to do all of it without Ronnie Stanley, J.K. Dobbins or Gus Edwards, all of whom are out for the year. Or Sammy Watkins or Latavius Murray, both out this week.

Jackson never blinked at any of that, and in the process has beaten another rap against him. Sunday’s 34–31 win over Minnesota was his third comeback from a double-digit deficit this year, with this one joining similarly dramatic wins over the Chiefs and Colts, to make him the only quarterback in the league to have that many to this point. Which, of course, knocks down the idea that a Jackson-led offense can’t come from behind—he had been 0–6 as a starter in games where he trailed by 10 or more points before this run.

When I brought that up, Jackson simply said, “Well, we’re trying to change the narrative.”

The result of that effort?

Baltimore might be the best team in the AFC. And Jackson might be the league MVP again, just in a different way than he was before.


After a few blah Sundays, the NFL got its drama back in Week 9, and we’re here to cover it for you in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• The Cardinals’ surviving the loss of their own MVP candidate at QB.

• How the Titans and Browns asserted themselves.

• The Falcons’ reemergence: “We’re not The Real Housewives of Flowery Branch.”

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• Josh Allen’s triumph over Josh Allen.

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting with the game that lasted through a dramatic close to the early window, which featured a forced fumble to clinch another Giants win (3:55 p.m. ET), a kick to get Atlanta to .500 (4:05 p.m. ET) and the Jags defense’s turning the prolific Bills offense over on downs (4:06 p.m. ET) to lock up a massive upset.


Lamar Jackson, Colt McCoy, Aaron Rodgers

There are tangible reasons why Jackson and the Ravens are more capable of a comeback this year than they have been before. That he’s a better passer isn’t by accident—he focused on details this offseason, working on his feet being more consistent, and opening his hips to his targets better than he has in the past, which has manifested in Jackson’s throwing a tighter spiral and more accurately outside the numbers. That improvement has led to the Ravens’ doing more in the passing game, which naturally helps in playing from behind.

That said, there’s a less tangible piece to this, too, and Jackson believes it really started not in spite of, but because of the team’s having to deal with so much over the summer, with freak practice injuries costing the Ravens their top two tailbacks (Dobbins, Edwards) and a starting corner (Marcus Peters) over the stretch of just a few days.

“I got guys who’ve been with me since 2019, and we really kind of talked about it as soon as we had key guys go down at the beginning of the season,” Jackson said. “Coach [John Harbaugh] talked to us, We’re gonna see what our season is about, We’re gonna face adversity, stuff like that. We went down to Las Vegas, played a tough game with those guys, took that L and we tried to rebuild before the Chiefs. We talked about it, like, Man, you know, we gotta learn how to keep fighting.

“We were down. We had to make something happen. And that’s just been the season. Our guys, we have faith in each other, it’s just staying as one, keeping our heads down, focused on one play at a time. When mistakes happen, we just let it go and focus on the next play, and that’s just pretty much how our team sums it up each and every week.”

Against the two-time defending conference champion Chiefs, the Ravens came back from deficits of 28–17 and 35–24. Three weeks later, they battled back after trailing 25–9 with 10 minutes left in the game. So by the time Sunday rolled around, the idea that the Ravens can’t play from behind with Jackson running the show was in the process of being debunked.

Faced with a Vikings team desperate for a win, Jackson did what he could to throw more dirt on it—and that started right after Minnesota’s kickoff return score to open the third.

“Even in our locker room when we scored before halftime, it was like, We gotta keep scoring. We gotta help our defense out. We can’t put those guys back out there with no points,” Jackson said. “Those guys ran the kick return back right after halftime, and we just looked at each other like, Let’s go. We gotta score, it’s our turn. And that’s just what happened.”

It sure did. Jackson answered the kick return touchdown by piloting a 10-play, 72-yard drive to pull Baltimore to within a touchdown—going 5-for-6 for 41 yards and running the ball another three times for 18 yards on the possession. And the next drive, after the defense was forced a punt, was even more impressive, with the Ravens’ driving 82 yards in 18 plays, and bleeding the third quarter into the fourth. That one included two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion, and tied the game at 24.

From there, the Ravens would take the lead, and the Vikings would tie it at 31 to force overtime, and set Jackson up for another test.

On the sixth snap of overtime, Jackson came off play-action and tried to pop the ball over Vikings Pro Bowler Anthony Barr’s head to fullback Pat Ricard. Barr jumped, got a hand on it, then somehow dove and collected his own deflection for the pick. At that point, the teammates that Jackson’s carried at points this year returned the favor.

“Everyone’s got each other’s back, and everyone knows that,” Jackson said. “They have my back. I made a mistake, overtime came, first drive, driving the ball, 55 made a great play, slapped the ball, intercepted it. The defense coming on the field was like, We got you, we got you, everyone telling me they got me. And my job was to have their back. They gave me that ball back and that’s what it was. We want it for each other.”

Indeed, the defense forced a three-and-out, and the Vikings punted. But because of field position created by the turnover, the Ravens were backed up to their own 10 to start the ensuing drive. And that led the Ravens to take a methodical approach to get themselves out of the shadow of their own goal line.

“We gotta get ourselves out of this situation,” is what Jackson remembers saying, and being said, among the offensive guys. “The whole game, we’d been getting penalties, getting backed up, every time we have a positive play. So we just knew it was one of those days, we’re gonna have it come and hit us anyway at any time. We just had to be dogs to fight off and get out of it, and that’s what we did.”

A 20-yard strike from Jackson to Hollywood Brown sparked what would be the game-winning drive, but, as the quarterback said, it was how the Ravens would ride out the bumps that defined the whole day, right down to the final possession.

A holding call on Eric Tomlinson, followed by an illegal formation flag, turned first-and-5 into first-and-20 from the Vikings’ 49 with 2:05 left. Now, it’d be on Jackson to win the game—and Jackson would deliver. First it was with a throw to Brown for 13 yards, then a keeper for another five yards, then three straight handoffs to Le’Veon Bell (!), good for another 18 yards to set up the Ravens’ all-world kicker, Justin Tucker, for the winner.

Tucker nailed it, of course, and now the Ravens are rolling into Thursday night against the Dolphins with a chance to catch the Titans for the top seed.


I was looking for more reasons why the Ravens have so quickly turned into kings of the comeback, and one that came to mind Sunday night was the amount of experience they’ve brought in, in plugging holes. Alejandro Villanueva, a longtime Steelers fixture, was signed to replace Orlando Brown, and now is in Stanley’s spot instead. Bell, Murray and Devonta Freeman (who scored a touchdown of his own Sunday) aren’t new to the league, either.

But Jackson thinks there’s more to it than that. Rather than it being how long these guys have played, it’s simply how they play—because the quarterback sees it in the young players in-house, too.

“I wouldn’t say it’s experience, I would just say it’s all of us, because [Rashod] Bateman is a rookie—he got in, and he made terrific catches, he made tough catches right away,” Jackson said. “That’s just the dog in him, and EDC [GM Eric DeCosta] and Mr. Ozzie [Newsome], those guys know how to pick them. Those guys pick terrific players, and everyone’s hungry, and that’s why our team has so much success.”

And, Jackson continues, because the guys are that way, no one will let anyone else slip, regardless of who goes down.

That’s why the train’s kept rolling, as he sees it, even as the team got a lot older at tailback and younger at receiver, with new guys’ having to fit in all over the place.

“It’s our locker room. When those guys came in, there was just a feeling,” Jackson said. “It’s a brotherhood here in Baltimore. In our locker room, we don’t shy away from guys who just came, we needed those guys. Matter of fact, I’m glad those guys were on the market for us, because the Lord knows what was going to happen, but we didn’t know what was going to happen with our main guys’ going down. Those guys came in, they stepped up, and each and every week, they’re learning the playbook even more, to make everyone’s job a lot easier.

“And those guys have done a terrific job. Our team, I can’t say enough about my team, those guys are outstanding. They never back down, when things are not going right, we don’t get frustrated. We probably get mad at ourselves, like we could’ve made things happen. Those guys, they make it happen; that’s being a Raven. It’s crazy just being here.”

And because of all that, Jackson finds himself in the MVP discussion again.

It’s different this time, to be sure. The run game isn’t the runaway freight train it was in 2019. Jackson’s having to win in different ways, because the truth is that there are elements of what the Ravens have done that the league has gotten better at defending.

So, as Jackson sees it, that puts it on him to keep improving, the same as it would be for any other quarterback. And as he assesses where he’s at now, that’s really where the focus is.

“I feel like I am playing my best ball, but it can still be better,” he said. “I need to be more consistent with things. Sometimes, I can be good, good, good then something happens. I feel like we need to be more consistent, man. And I can be more consistent, and we can be more consistent. I’ll be at where I need to be. I’ll be where I want to be.”

But where he is now?

It’s pretty good. And it’s better than a lot of people might’ve expected, even if it looks a little different than it has in the past.


COLT KEEPS CARDINALS ROLLING

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The Cardinals are 8–1, and a communication mishap away from being 9–0. They have a win without their head coach and, now, another without their quarterback.

And maybe what was most impressive about Arizona’s breezy 31–17 victory in Santa Clara over the Niners on Sunday was the initial burst out of the gate. The Cardinals’ second drive covered 57 yards in nine plays and ended with a touchdown. Their third drive went 80 yards in eight plays and put another six on the board. Their fourth drive went 85 yards in 14 plays and ended in a field goal. Meanwhile, over that time, the defense forced two fumbles and two punts, and didn’t give up a point.

So without not just Kyler Murray, but also DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, and, after just one carry, Chase Edmonds, Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals systematically took a proud San Francisco team apart, and showed more of what we’ve already seen from them over the season’s first two months.

“I think this is a special group,” said Colt McCoy, who stepped in for Murray on Sunday, over the phone postgame. “I love playing with these guys. The offensive line is such a strong unit. We lost a couple of those guys today, so hopefully we can get them back, see where they are. Our defense is playing at a really high level. And I wanted to come in here and not turn the ball over. … Guys rallied around me.

“We kinda all knew it was gonna be a possibility as the week went on, and I just tried to come in here and play with confidence and execute what we do. I’ve had a front-row seat to it for the last eight weeks, so I felt pretty good about it. And we found a way.”

McCoy did more than find a way—he was deadly efficient in completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards and piloting an offense that might not have been as dangerous as it would’ve been had Murray played, but gave Arizona all it needed to get the job done.

And really, this is just the continuation of how the last decade or so of McCoy’s career has gone. It’s why Jay Gruden valued him at the level he did in Washington for six years. It’s also why Jason Garrett, who’d been in the division with McCoy as the Cowboys’ coach, wanted him to back up Daniel Jones last year in New York.

This time around, Kingsbury was the beneficiary of McCoy’s approach and readiness to pick up the bat when it’s time to pinch-hit.

“I work really hard; I really care about it and I want to be ready in a pinch—whether you give me a week’s practice or if I gotta come off the bench late to win the game,” he said. “And I try to instill confidence in everyone around me, even the quarterback, just to know that like if something happens, I’ll be ready to go. And I just assume that responsibility. Obviously, a lot of things have to happen right. Like we hit on some big plays today that really drove us to victory.

“But, again, I spend a lot of time studying the game, studying our offense and our system and what we do. Being a second set of eyes for Kyler, I think he and I’s relationship has been really, really good this year. We all want him to get back, so I’m thankful. I pride myself on being ready to play and to be able to come out here and do that today, it was big.”

And in a way, what Cardinals GM Steve Keim saw in Kingsbury when making the controversial choice to hire the fired Texas Tech coach in 2019 came home to roost, too.

One of the things that pulled Keim in with Kingsbury in the first place was how he got quarterbacks of different shapes, sizes and skill sets to play at a high level for him, whether it was Case Keenum at Houston, Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, or Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb or Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech.

Along those lines, McCoy told me that there really wasn’t a whole lot of adjustment in the offense needed for him to play in Murray’s place.

“It was more of a preference of like what I like on third downs, what do I like in the red zone,” McCoy said. “As far as the normal flow of the game, I try to do the zone-read enough to keep them honest. Maybe not as much as K1, but I would say it was just more of a feel thing—Kliff was getting a feel for what I liked.”

And, McCoy continued, that held even as the Niners tried to throw curveballs to jam up the Cardinals’ having to adjust to so many personnel changes in one fell swoop.

“They usually play a lot of man, and they didn’t hardly play a snap of man today, they were playing zone,” he said. “I was having to work my eyes and stay in the pocket. I just thought overall the offensive line played great. James [Conner] just is a baller. He runs hard. We hit on a couple screens when they pressured us that were big plays. And I’ve been in the league for a long time—it’s really hard to go on the road in your division against a really, really good football team and find a way to win. And we did.”

In the end, McCoy posted a 119.4 passer rating in Murray’s place, and Conner churned out 96 yards on 21 carries, and another 77 yards on five catches (including a 45-yard touchdown) with Edmonds down. Christian Kirk had six catches for 91 yards, and Rondale Moore had five catches for 25 yards with Hopkins and Green out.

And Arizona, down all these guys again, kept rolling.

“It’s a very good team,” McCoy said. “I think there are some very good veteran guys on this team who have played a lot of football, and I think they recognize how good our team could be. And so it means a lot to a lot of people, and I think when you have that combination of some good young players, some good veterans who played a lot of big games, I think there’s an urgency, and I thought today was a huge step for our football team.

“To lose a heartbreaker at home on Thursday night, you got three extra days to think about it and then kinda put it to bed. And come on the road in the division to get a win, I’ve been on teams that wouldn’t have been able to handle that.”

Clearly, these Cardinals can handle a lot.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

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Kevin Byard returns a pick-six off of Matthew Stafford.

The Titans destroyed the Rams with just 194 yards from scrimmage. Their previous low for the season was 258, and that was in the opener. Since then? They’d topped 340 in every game. And yet, with that yardage number, they beat the Rams 28–16, and the game wasn’t even that close. What gives? Well, a Titans defense that’s been problematic for a while happened to come together at just the right time—when the team needed it to come around and help make up for the loss of Derrick Henry. “Those guys played fantastic,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of the defense at his postgame presser. “It was fun to watch them play. ... We really think that group is playing with a lot of confidence right now, that they would be able to come in here and play the way they did and hold them to field goals. And we played great in red zone.” The effort end-to-end was, to steal Vrabel’s word, fantastic. But really, it was two stars who took over early and set the tone throughout. First, it was havoc-wreaking defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons bursting into the backfield early in the second quarter, getting to Matthew Stafford in the end zone and whipping him around to force a ridiculously ill-advised throw right into the breadbasket of linebacker David Long Jr., to set up the Titans’ first touchdown. Then, on Stafford’s next throw, Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard undercut Robert Woods, picked off the quarterback and ran it back for a 24-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 14–3. The Rams never got the deficit back to single digits again. Bottom line, even without Henry, the Titans controlled the game through the line of scrimmage and played true to their identity, even without one of the guys who shaped that identity in the first place. As I see it, that’s a big reason why they’re 7–2. And that these sorts of plays keep coming from established stars like Simmons and Byard makes what the Titans are doing more sustainable. Those, quite obviously, are guys they know they can count on.

I think it’s hard not to look at the Browns on Sunday and think there might be some addition by subtraction at play. I talked to one staffer Sunday night, after the Browns shellacked the Bengals 41–16, who said it was apparent what a “good mood” Baker Mayfield had been in Sunday morning before the game—and how the team in general seemed to be in a good place. Add to that the anecdotal evidence that Mayfield and the offense took big steps forward after Odell Beckham Jr. went down last year, and there’s enough there to take a look at the game in Cincinnati and give some thought to the effect that Beckham’s stardom had on the team. Here are the numbers from the Bengals' game …

• The Browns finished with 361 yards on 46 plays—a robust 7.8 yards per play average.

• Mayfield notched a season-high (132.6) in passer rating while throwing for 218 yards.

• Mayfield’s 14 completions found eight receivers, with only one having three catches.

• Nick Chubb rushed for 137 yards on 14 carries.

• The Browns scored on six of their first seven possessions.

Mostly, I think the team’s decision to move on from Beckham took a burden off a lot of people over the last few days. How it affects the team long-term remains to be seen. But in the short term, it seems pretty clear there’s been a benefit. And with Mayfield free to go out and play the position without having to worry about looking over to one side of the field every three or four throws, I bet Cleveland gets a cleaner read on its quarterback, with some awfully big decisions on him on the horizon.

I’ll be interested to see what version of Beckham his next team gets. First, we’ll take you through the logistics of Beckham’s waiver situation.

• He’s expected to officially be cut Monday, which means claims have to be in on him Tuesday, and he’ll be awarded to a team, or clear waivers, at 4 p.m. that afternoon.

• Any team claiming him would assume the $7.25 million he’s due for the rest of the year.

• There was a renegotiation—the contract is now set up so if Beckham clears waivers Tuesday, the Browns will owe him only $4.25 million. But they absolutely did him a solid by not pushing the button to convert his base salary into a signing bonus, which would’ve made it easier for a bad team (or any team) to claim him.

• Also, the last two years of his deal were whacked off the contract. That means he’s set to become a free agent in March, and if someone gets him this week (presumably it’ll be this week) that team will be in position to land a 2023 comp pick for him.

Would I sign/claim him? I’d do it only if I had a strong veteran quarterback and a locker room with stars like him—so he wouldn’t be the constant center of attention. My understanding is his behavior was actually O.K. in Cleveland, and his stunt with his dad and LeBron James on Tuesday caught pretty much everyone off-guard. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. But he is high-maintenance and a little aloof. So you need infrastructure to handle him.

Cordarrelle Patterson is the embodiment of where the Falcons hope to go. And I’m saying that after a conversation with their coach Arthur Smith led me to that conclusion—and not because Patterson’s some franchise-level player (though he’s been really good). More so, it’s about how they got him in the offseason. “We had a vision,” Smith said. “[OC] Dave Ragone and [QB coach] Charles London were with him last year in Chicago, and they really pitched [GM] Terry [Fontenot] and I on the idea of it. And so it was a good team effort. We got a real football staff here, Albert. We don’t have any of the professional politicians that most teams have. We work together—they brought it up and then Terry and his staff did a great job and got him here. And that’s a good team effort. But we had a vision for him, and we started working that when he got here, moving him around, and it’s paid off.”

It paid off in an enormous way Sunday. After letting a 24–6 lead slip away, Atlanta got the ball back at its own 24 with 1:01 left, down 25–24—and Smith dialed up the same play he called on the Falcons’ third offensive snap. In the first quarter, it went for 34 yards down the sideline from Matt Ryan to Patterson. In the fourth quarter, Patterson got loose again, caught it, but this time tight-roped the sideline to nearly double the yardage, going 64 yards on the play to set up Younghoe Koo’s 29-yard game-winner three plays later.

The Falcons beat their archrivals 27–24, to even up their record at 4–4 after a 1–3 start. But, again, as much as anything, this one was an example of how Smith, and the Atlanta staff, are trying to think outside the box with every player. And while Patterson’s only one example, he may be the best one. “We got a lot of chess pieces we can move around,” Smith said, “and C.P. is as good a football player as there is with his versatility.” Those two catches happened with Patterson playing the position he was drafted to play eight years ago—receiver. He also had nine carries, playing out of a traditional tailback position, and, of course, he returned kicks. And it’s worked, as Smith sees it, because the Falcons had a lot of people invested in it.” We’re not The Real Housewives of Flowery Branch here, so we’re not gonna have horses--- drama coming out because a guy sneezed too hard in a meeting and we got anonymous-scout reports on him. That’s what I’m talking about. We have a vision, we don’t have a bunch of egos, we talk it through and we try to make the best of it for the Falcons. So everybody wants credit when things are good, but the truth is, the credit goes to a lot of people. Rags and Charles were with him. … And then Terry and his staff, they evaluate him and we talk about it, and we got him on probably the best contract in the NFL right now, in terms of return on investment.”

And the Falcons, to this point, are getting a pretty good return on the investment they made in their new GM and coach, finding themselves squarely in the mix in Year 1. There’s a long way to go, of course. But any win in the Superdome is a big one, and especially one like that one—won at the end with all the momentum going in the other direction, a spot that Atlanta’s failed in habitually over the last few years. “This football league’s not for soft souls, so you gotta play every down. You’re on the road, it’s not the same old Falcons and so we found a way to finish,” Smith said. “Soft souls, we got them out of here. Our guys believe. We won’t win it every time, but we feel confident, especially when you put the ball in Matt Ryan’s hands with a chance to go win. My money’s going to be on Matt.” And Patterson. And Fontenot. And Ragone and London. And the arrow is pointing up in Atlanta now.

Somehow, the Jaguars had the best Josh Allen in Bills-Jaguars. Yeah, the Twitter jokes did get a little tired (though we’ve got some coming to you in "Best of the NFL Internet" section). But that shouldn’t take away from the effort Allen the pass rusher (not Allen the quarterback) had Sunday in the Jags’ 9–6 stunner over a team many considered the AFC’s best coming into Sunday. Allen (the pass rusher) finished with a sack, an interception and a big fumble recovery toward the end of the game. So when I got him on the phone afterward, I figured I’d have him take us through those plays.

The sack (second quarter, 0:28 left, second-and-10 at the Bills’ 32): “Just beating the tackle, [laughs]—beat this grown man in front of me. But for real though, it was really like that. So when I got past him, it was crazy, because he was about to start running, then [Dawuane] Smoot, 91, did a heck of a job on filling that power for him to close that off. And he didn’t even think he could go outside, and I just went there to clean it up. So a great rush play by everybody, so I’d just be able to make a play.”

The interception (third quarter, 2:02 left, third-and-12 at the Bills’ 40): “I had to drop off the back end, not rushing, just following [Allen]. I saw the back get out, I was just there, I’m like, ‘No way, he’s not going to throw. Oh, he’s about to throw it! He’s about to throw it!’ And then he threw it and I could go make a play. I tried to score though; I ain’t even going to lie to you. ... Oh, my guy, as soon as I caught it, I’m like, I’m about to go score this. That was legit the first thing I thought about.” (Note: He didn’t score. … But …)

The fumble recovery (fourth quarter, 5:41 left, third-and-2 at the Jags’ 37): “Man, I saw Smoot hit him. He had him up and then I saw the ball just hitting on top of people, and I think it just hit off somebody’s backside and I just jumped on it. Really not that much to it, just go get this ball. And I was trying to tell Roy [Robertson-Harris], I was like ‘O.K., Roy, we got the ball, now get off me so we can go celebrate.’ That was a great experience, great team win, great defensive performance by not just me, but by Smooth [Smoot], by Taven [Bryan] for having two sacks, oh my God.”

And as for all the best jokes? The Jags’ version of Allen swore to me he hadn’t seen any of it. though he conceded his phone was going crazy when he got to it, and he hadn’t yet looked at what was on there. He was planning to, though, and here’s one thing he would’ve found while he was there—his Jags have now won two of three, in no small part thanks to his effort on Sunday, and are bucking a lot of narratives set during their 0–5 start. “We kind of keep everything in-house,” he said. “We know what type of team we got. We’re not listening to the media, we’re not listening to what people say, we’re not listening to none of that. Because at the end of the day, we gotta go out there every week, put our pads on, the same way somebody else put their pads on, and beat them up on every play. That’s what our mindset’s on. And we know we got a good team, we have a great locker room, we’re connected, we’re tied at the hip, everybody is.”

The Broncos took the idea that they’re waving the white flag personally. And they took it out on a Cowboys team that was expected to handle them relatively easily. The Broncos raced to a 30–0 third-quarter lead at AT&T Stadium, and cruised from there to a 30–16 win to get to 5–4 and pull within a half game of the Raiders, and stay that far from the Chargers, in the AFC West. “We just came out here with a purpose,” veteran tailback Melvin Gordon said over [the] phone, as the team boarded for Denver. “People feel like we’re tanking, we’re just doing this or we’re doing that. We’re the Denver Broncos, and we’re going to fight till the end. And we got bigger goals than what people think of us and what people expect us to have.”

That much showed in a lot of different ways Sunday, to cap a week that started with the team’s sending perhaps the greatest defensive player in franchise history to the Rams for second- and third-round picks—a move that sets first-year GM George Paton up, as he continues to tweak and work through what John Elway left him on the roster but doesn’t do as much for the team right now. These sorts of moves, by GMs or coaches in new places, are almost always digested the same way. And more often than not the perception that shipping off a vet of Miller’s ilk in-season matches reality, with the signal being that a longer build is in store. But there’s an interesting twist to this one: The Bronco players were actually prepared for this, because they met amongst themselves to discuss the direction of the team after their 3–0 start began to unravel—a meeting that included Miller himself. “Nothing’s changed,” Gordon said. “Before Von left, we came together as a team, and we talked about what we needed. We talked about what we need to do differently around the locker room. And just because Von isn’t here, don’t mean we gonna tank it out. Von, him being around, he wouldn’t even want us to even be in that type of mindset. That’s how much he loved the Broncos; he’d still want what’s best for this team and what’s best for us.”

Gordon wouldn’t divulge the details of the meeting, but it sure does sound like they figured out what’s best for them. In the first half, Denver rode a super-efficient Teddy Bridgewater (125.5 first-half passer rating), an edgy run game (96 yards on 17 carries in the first half) and a suffocating, sans-Miller defense (first half shutout) to 16–0 lead at the break. And it only got worse from there for the Cowboys, who had Dak Prescott back. So yeah, this was a statement game for the Broncos. We’ll see if it means anything long-term, but at the very least, it’s a good feather in the cap of Vic Fangio and the player leadership that they could compartmentalize the events of the week, and play like they did—and having a few rookies as part of it (Miller’s replacement, Jonathon Cooper, had two sacks; and Javonte Williams ran for 111 yards on 17 carries) was a nice bonus, too. “It’s not about wanting to play harder cause Von’s not here—Von is one of the bigger reasons that we’re playing this hard. The conversations that he had with us, through texts, in the locker room, it pushed us. And it’s unfortunate that he’s not here, but he’s one of the reasons that guys are fighting hard. He was the leader of this team before he left, and guys are stepping up. We want to win. We don’t like losing, we’d lost three straight. … It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel good.” Safe to say they feel better now.

The most encouraging thing about where the Patriots are right now is that New England is evolving into a really strong place for a young quarterback. At times early in the year, it seemed like the Patriots might need Mac Jones to play a bigger role to be competitive—and sometimes putting a young quarterback in that spot isn’t the best thing. But given how things have gone the last couple of weeks? I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Jones threw the ball just 18 times Sunday for 139 yards, threw a pick and lost a fumble. And the Patriots won going away, which brings me back to something 12-year vet Devin McCourty said to me on where the team was last week. “I think we’ve learned what our blueprint is,” he told me. “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, your 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—game-planning and coming out and executing throughout the whole game.” And that sure carried over this week. The Patriots nearly doubled up the Panthers in rushing yards (151 to 78) and forced such a bad afternoon out of Sam Darnold that he might get benched over it. All of which put Jones in a position just to worry about his own job, and not about having to win the game on his own. And if you’ve got a first-round quarterback playing, that’s where you want to be.

It’s good that the Dolphins got a win, but how last week went down in Miami figures to reverberate for the next few months there. To be clear, I don’t think making a run at Deshaun Watson was the wrong thing. My understanding is that Chris Grier and Brian Flores saw Watson’s availability as a unique opportunity to get a top-five quarterback at 26 years old with four-plus years left on his contract. Hard to fault them for that. (Of course his legal situation does factor into the equation, too.) But teams like the Bengals and Chargers and Jaguars, or even the Giants, weren’t out there kicking tires on him. Which makes it clear that the Dolphins aren’t sold on Tua Tagovailoa. That doesn’t mean they don’t think he’s a good player. It doesn’t mean they don’t think he can improve. It means that Flores and Grier are not completely comfortable hitching their respective futures to Tagovailoa. That means two things. One, Tua has an awfully big, potentially life-altering stretch of games ahead, once he gets healthy. And two, for now, you should regard Miami as in on any of the big quarterback negotiations that are looming for February and March.

We’ve got our quick hitters for you coming off Week 9 … right now.

1) Darnold looked completely lost against the Patriots, and it’s been more than a month since he’s posted a passer rating more than 70. I’m thinking, even with his fifth-year option for 2022 locked in, that the Panthers are going to be back on the quarterback market in the winter/spring. It’s worth noting that they made a very strong offer (the eighth pick, a fifth-rounder and Teddy Bridgewater) for Matthew Stafford last year.

2) Jordan Love fought his a-- off but still doesn’t look ready, and so I’d expect the Packers’ coaches will do all they can to prepare Aaron Rodgers to play Sunday against the Seahawks. My understanding is they’re confident they can do that without getting him physical reps in practice—remember, the COVID-19 rules dictate he can’t return until at least Saturday.

3) That it was Love, and not Rodgers, in that game made it tough to get much of a read on the Chiefs on Sunday. The defense looked better, sure—and L’Jarius Sneed was excellent—but that has to be graded on a curve. And outside of a vintage Patrick Mahomes throw to Tyreek Hill to clinch the Kansas City win, all the offense’s issues are still there.

4) It’s also hard to take a lot from Raiders-Giants, given the week the Raiders had. I thought Vegas showed good fight, though, and the Giants are looking way more buttoned-up than they did earlier in the year. By the way, New York’s gift for two wins in a row? The Buccaneers on a Monday night after their bye.

5) Trevor Siemian went 20-of-30 for 215 yards and two touchdowns in the second half against the Falcons, leading the Saints back from a 24–6 fourth-quarter deficit to take the lead with 1:01 left. I hope people realize just how good Sean Payton is at this.

6) Wanna know why Josh Allen wound up getting knocked around and playing too much street ball for the Bills? Buffalo ran the ball just 14 times in its 9–6 loss to the Jags, and five of those carries belonged to Allen himself. That’s a problem.

7) I picked Jonathan Taylor to win the rushing title over the summer. And I feel good about that now—to me, he’s one of the top five (or so) backs in the game.

8) The Dolphins need to find a way to get Mike Gesicki under contract, ASAP.

9) The Eagles aren’t world-beaters, but that was a good bounce back from Justin Herbert, who was shaky two games in a row, against the Ravens and Patriots. He finished 32-of-38 for 356 yards and two scores on the road, in what was a back-against-the-wall situation for the Chargers.

10) The Niners have a lot of work to do.

There are a few things you need to know about the Aaron Rodgers investigation. Mostly because I think it’ll affect a few things that are visible to you, the NFL fan.

1) The press conference question has been asked and answered by the league with teams. Several came forward late last week and told the league they’d been allowing players to go to the podium unmasked and asked the league how to proceed. The league responded that the indoor masking rules applied for press conferences. So I’d expect there to be more masks and/or more Zoom interviews going forward.

2) The confusion on the team side, as we mentioned Friday, seemed to arise from a push by unvaccinated players over the summer to allow for unmasked press conferences—they felt like having press availability with masks unfairly outed and stigmatized them. Those players got a half measure: They wouldn’t have to wear masks for outdoor pressers (with fieldhouses and practice bubbles counting as outdoor).

3) The league’s investigation is underway, and should be a relatively quick one, given that this is a straightforward case, with the league, through its management council, set to request video from the team facility as it did last year in such cases, and dig through that.

4) The NFL strongly denied that Rodgers talked to any of its doctors, as he asserted on The Pat McAfee Show. In fact, I’m told the league offered him the opportunity to talk to the NFL/NFLPA joint infectious disease consultant and/or the league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, and he didn’t take the NFL up on the offer. That was after the league found, in the words of one source, that Rodgers’s “homeopathic therapy doesn’t provide any protection that’s supported by science at all.”

5) There won’t be a suspension, and I seriously doubt the Packers will lose a draft pick over this. The Saints were the one team that lost a pick last year (a 2022 sixth-rounder) over COVID-19 violations, but New Orleans, as a repeat offender, was fined first.

And so this is, again, where we are with COVID-19, with the league bracing for numbers to rise as winter weather arrives for teams in northern climates.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

matt-corral-ole-miss-nfl-prospect

1) Quietly, Ole Miss-Liberty was a big game for NFL types, in that its quarterbacks, Matt Corral and Malik Willis, are among the contenders to be the first ones taken out of a lackluster group in April. So we’ll start with Ole Miss’s Corral, who was the better of the two Saturday (going 20-of-27 for 324 yards and a touchdown). “Corral had the better day,” said one scout in attendance. “Ball came out quick, he was decisive.” Another scout at the game added, “He was extremely tough for even playing. He showed some athleticism and escapability. Very quick release, better in rhythm throwing short passes. His deep ball dies, and those would be underthrows at our level. … I think Corral’s a fringe guy who could start with the right pieces around him, but he’s not ideal. … For a small guy that doesn’t live on the deep ball, I expected Corral to anticipate and process better.”

2) As for Willis, to be fair, he doesn’t have an SEC cast around him like Corral does, and he was going against an SEC defense. Still, his three-interception effort against by far the best team he’ll play did resonate with the NFL types in attendance in Oxford, and not in a good way. “Really good athlete with a live arm, but I didn’t think he played well today,” said one of our scouts in attendance. “His line is poor, so not all his fault, but his pocket feel and willingness to play in a tight pocket wasn’t very good. When he was clean, or they moved the pocket, the arm talent is very good.” And from another: “Willis showed a lot of talent to run and throw on the run. He held the ball too much, but it was hard to see if he had anyone open in a live look—I didn’t see a lot of separation from his receivers.” And these assessments are sort of a microcosm on the NFL’s feelings on this year’s quarterback class. It’s starting to feel like 2013, when only one went in the first round, and that one (EJ Manuel) was an obvious reach, even at the time.

3) Good to see now former TCU coach Gary Patterson rooting for his players on Twitter on Saturday, and the Frogs’ delivering a win. As offensive concepts rooted in the college game have filtered up to the pros, NFL teams have spent a lot of time studying how Patterson’s defenses combatted such schemes in the Big 12. We dived into that with him after Patrick Mahomes’s MVP season of 2018. So it’d hardly be a surprise to see some NFL team bring him in as a consultant at some point, the same way years ago Andy Reid once brought in Nevada’s Chris Ault to learn more about offensive evolution at the college level.

4) Georgia’s at least giving off the impression that it’ll go forward with Stetson Bennett as its quarterback, and that could wind up breaking a streak of five straight national champions’ starting an eventual top-60 pick at the position (Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Mac Jones). Five of the six names there went in the top 15 picks. Which is just another sign of where the game is going—if your team isn’t elite at the position, it’s really hard to win. And that Georgia’s doing this with a former walk-on at quarterback, is a pretty good sign of just how good they are everywhere else.

5) Nebraska is 3–7, and a nine-point loss to fifth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday was the Huskers’ most lopsided loss of the season. I totally understand frustration with Scott Frost in Lincoln. But if I’m Nebraska, given how close so many of the games have been, and how tough the schedule has been, and how there really isn’t an obvious candidate for them out there, I’m not sure I’d pull the plug on Frost quite yet.

6) Sam Howell’s tough as nails, and was Saturday—rushing for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries while throwing for 216 yards and another touchdown. And the North Carolina quarterback’s effort, the kind that’s why he’s drawn the Baker Mayfield comps (though he doesn’t have the arm talent Mayfield does), is a big reason why the Tar Heels were able to upend unbeaten Wake Forest. But man, there was a lot of stuff in that one that probably wouldn’t translate to the pros. Mostly, he won’t be able to take hits like that at the next level.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Credit to my old friend Michael Smith. Looks like he had the Rodgers situation called all the way back in August.

I mean, I get that there’s gonna be some iffy placement on the visiting team’s allotment. But how is the quarterback’s mom in the absolute worst seats in the building?

Pretty much.

Not a great afternoon for Sam Darnold, especially given his history playing against that coach and against that team. Really seemed to … haunt him. (Sorry.)

Josh Norman got benched after this whole ordeal.

Again, McCoy’s better than a lot of people think.

Jamie Collins has made more than $52 million as an NFL player. Based on my math—and some help from Over the Cap—he’s made just $5.08 million of that from the Patriots, playing for New England in parts of six seasons. He was mostly just a guy in Cleveland and Detroit. He’s been consistently good to great for the Patriots.

I take it “about to die” is an exaggeration but still an impressive performance from Jackson.

Pretty impressive.

Lots of Allen jokes …

… on the internet Sunday.

The fourth-round pick, Kene Nwangwu, ran a kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown to start the second half against the Ravens. That was just his second NFL touch. His third came a little later in the third quarter—a nine-yard run on a fake punt to convert fourth-and-2. NWANGU, indeed.

Pretty good setup for the injured Cardinals tight end.

I’ll let you put two and two together there.

This one, too.

Good news, fellas! If he clears waivers, you’ll get your wish Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET.

The Titans aren’t messing around.

A very weird Sunday.

Love this from Patterson.

I’m a sucker for these.

And this is such an awesome sentiment from Emmanuel Sanders. Absolutely love it.


MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

diontae-johnson-steelers-end-zone-dance

Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Steelers-Bears, we caught up with Pittsburgh’s emerging star at receiver, Diontae Johnson.

MMQB: From your perspective, what’s changed for the team, since the 1–3 start?

Diontae Johnson: Everybody’s attitude, just wanting to get better. We started off kind of sluggish. But we know what we’re capable of doing, and everybody’s been trying to play up to that standard that we know we should be playing at. I feel like that’s what we’ve been doing these past few weeks. And it’s showing on film, what we’re capable of. We just have to keep going, keep that momentum going into this game on Monday, just get ready to compete every snap.

MMQB: So you said it’s the attitude, and you guys were sluggish, it’s a matter of urgency then?

DJ: It’s just urgency, we knew we had to pick up on a few things. Coach has been harping on us about having some urgency during practice, and we’ve been doing that. And we’re gonna continue to do that the rest of the season, just take it each week at a time.

MMQB: And for you personally, you’ve been pretty consistent. Where are you better this year?

DJ: I’d say mentally. Last year, I was real hard on myself about dropping the ball and stuff like that. Now, if I drop the ball, it’s just like, next play. Can’t think about it, can’t dwell on it, because you’re gonna have more opportunities to catch the ball. I feel like I’ve been doing that, setting the standard for myself, doing what I do. Even with my routine every week, I come to the stadium early, before everybody’s there. I get it in, just to get warmed up, and it’s paying off. My hard work’s paying off, and I’ll continue to do that so each and every game, I can continue to let the world see me perform at a high level.

MMQB: So I guess what you’re saying is you’ve focused on your frame of mind?

DJ: Yeah, for sure. Because if you start to think about the drops, it’s gonna eat you up on the inside, and that’ll end up being all you really think about. You’re not gonna focus on the next play, because that’s going to be in the back of your mind every play. And then once the ball comes your way, you’re going to have so much going through your head. I just learned, when the ball’s in there, it’s just me and the ball, nobody in the stands. Just me and the ball, so I can just take it back to practice. The ball’s in the air and I’m coming down with it. That’s it.

MMQB: Was there a good example where you had a drop and came back from it this year?

DJ: I’d say in the last game [Week 8 at Cleveland], ran a little hitch route, it was kind of low, but I should’ve caught it. And I didn’t think too much of it, because the ball was still gonna come back to me, and I made a big play at the end of the game. It comes down to those moments, those opportunities, you have to be ready. And that’s what I was; I was ready. And I executed.

MMQB: Where are things at with you and Ben Roethlisberger, with another year under your belts.

DJ: That’s my guy. The relationship we’ve got, it’s still growing, daily at practice. Basically, whatever he wants me to do, I’m gonna do—get open for him regardless and make him look good at the end of the day. Bad ball, good ball, wherever he puts the ball, it’s my job to come down with it, to make him look good, to make the offense look good. I’ve been doing that the past couple weeks. Like I said, it’s just steady growing, no matter what route it is, what situation, down and distance, he’ll say, I need you here. So I gotta get open for him, because he’s coming to me in those key moments. That comes over time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it comes with trust too, that I’m gonna be in the right spot.

MMQB: Midway through the season, where do you think you guys have room to grow?

DJ: I’d just say it’s that urgency. You win a couple games, you get comfortable, and I feel like we just can’t let that happen, because we did that last year. We won a bunch of games at the start of the season, then we got comfortable, then somebody hit us in the mouth—and it was unexpected. I just feel like we’ve gotta stay the course every day, try not to do too much, and just worry about our job, not everyone else’s, and we’ll be fine.

MMQB: What was your reaction, as a receiver, seeing Odell Beckham cut, and do you want your front office to put in a claim for him?

DJ: It’s tough seeing someone like that get cut because he’s a great dude, as far as I know him, and just seeing him not on the field like he’s normally supposed to be on the field is sort of crazy. I was like, Wow. I’m sure he was unhappy over there, and it’s a business at the end of the day. And if the Steelers do want to do that, then that’s them. I’ll leave that to Coach [MIke] Tomlin, I can’t say nothing on that. Like I said, it was tough seeing him getting cut, but I’m sure he’ll find somewhere he wants to be at.

MMQB: And I guess it’s kind of one of those it-can-happen-to-anyone things?

DJ: Right, it can happen to anybody. And I’m not saying he’s bigger than the team, but you can’t put yourself above the organization at the end of the day.

MMQB: Did you have any reaction to how strongly Tomlin came out on the USC thing?

DJ: I mean, I didn’t know too much about it, didn’t pay much attention to it, until he told us in the team meeting about it. He’s always going to be on our side, no matter what, always wants to be outside with us at practice, he’s a players’ guy. Everybody likes being around him, likes the energy he brings. He’s just a great coach all around—every time he speaks, it’s a good message. You want to be around a coach like that, because he just wants you to be great at the end of the day, and he does what’s best for you. I love him to death, wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.

MMQB: Yeah, I was gonna ask you, 15 years without a losing season for him …

DJ: Yeah, it’s crazy. Not too many can do that, or have done that—for real, for real. Crazy.

MMQB: What do you see as the keys in playing against the Bears? Obviously that defense has some guys that are very accomplished in Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson …

DJ: We just have to go out there and do our job. They got some good guys over there, guys on that defensive line, some DBs that are technique sound. We know they like to grab a lot on the outside. So we gotta go out there, have a plan at the line, do what we do and we should be fine. We can’t go out there and overthink. Just play our football and come out on top at the end of the day.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

We’re halfway through the season!

For the first time in forever, there’s an even number of weeks in the schedule. So after the Monday night game, we’ll have nine weeks down and nine to go. Maybe that interests only me.

Either way, you know what that means—midseason awards content is coming your way. You’ll find it at the site all week, and if you stick around all the way through, on Friday, you’ll get award winners as voted on by a panel of coaches and execs from across the NFL in my GamePlan column.

Some of those races are pretty wide open. So it should be interesting to see what comes of it.

More NFL Coverage:

Jordan Love’s Starting Debut Was a Lose-Lose Day for the Packers
Week 9 Takeaways: The Real Browns Stand Up
The Problem Is Aaron Rodgers Thinks He Has All the Answers
Aaron Rodgers Could Avoid Vaccine Scrutiny for Only So Long