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MMQB: Aaron Rodgers Returns, but the Packers Learn They Can Rely on Their Other Stars

It's been a turbulent year in Green Bay, but 10 days without a certain MVP quarterback have taught this team a lot. Plus, the Patriots keep rolling, the champs lose again, an Andrew Whitworth Q&A and more from Week 10.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur was unwinding, finally at home around 10 p.m. local time, with a glass of wine in one hand and his phone in the other. He rattled through the names of players whose leadership was so important over the last two weeks, and really the last six months, in making his team what it’s become.

“It absolutely starts with Aaron [Rodgers],” LaFleur said, “and then it goes to Davante [Adams] and Marcedes [Lewis], guys like Randall Cobb, the experience he brings, guys like Allen Lazard. Bobby [Tonyan] was so integral, and it’s a shame he’s not going to be with us till the end of it. Aaron Jones. We just have so many dudes.”

LaFleur mentioned that Elgton Jenkins is there too, as is all-world left tackle David Bakhtiari, who’s still working his way back from a torn ACL. He brought up defensive captains Adrian Amos and Kenny Clark, newcomer De’Vondre Campbell, emerging star Rashan Gary, and injured defensive cornerstones Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander.

Which is why, at one point, I stopped LaFleur and told him it sounded like he was just reading off the starting lineup.

“I know, that’s my point,” LaFleur said. “It’s hard to pinpoint who, exactly, because it’s so many guys that just bring so much. It’s Darnell Savage. Kevin King.”

And on he went.

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The story over the last two weeks in Green Bay, understandably, has been Rodgers, his positive COVID-19 test, his resulting absence from the team and the subsequent airing of his thoughts on the vaccine on The Pat McAfee Show.

But there’s been another story unfolding along with it. That’s one of a team that, because it’s capable of handling that noise, might wind up being a roundabout beneficiary of it.

Bottom line, the Packers’ 17–0 win over the Seahawks on Sunday said plenty about a lot of people who work at Lambeau Field that don’t wear No. 12. Rodgers played fine (23-of-37, 292 yards and an interception), to be sure, and especially for someone who didn’t take a single snap in practice all week. He also needed plenty of help to get there and push an offense out of an early rut.

And in what should be a great sign not just of where the Packers are, but of where they’re going, that help was there for Rodgers in abundance against Seattle. Which is just another reason why LaFleur wasn’t about to narrow down his list.

In fact, if anything, it’s growing every week.


Week 10 has not the most exciting weekend of the NFL season—nine of 13 games thus far have been determined by double digits. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t bringing the goods inside this week’s MMQB. In the column, you’ll get …

• A look inside the Patriots’ resurgence.

• A Titans defense that keeps growing.

• Details on the biggest upset of the day.

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• Some nuggets on new Ram Odell Beckham Jr.

And, of course, all the stuff you’re used to getting every week here. For now, though, we’re going back to Green Bay.


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No one at Lambeau was asking for, or would ask for, the events of the last two weeks.

But now that the Packers are through it, there are a number of things they can glean.

And the very first thing might be that the 2021 team has a chance to be as complete a group as any Rodgers has played with over 17 seasons in Green Bay. That much is clear, because the Packers, since Rodgers tested positive two Wednesdays ago, haven’t had their starting quarterback at a single practice and lost him for a game, too.

No, the results haven’t been perfect. They have been revealing, though, in a few positive ways. First, in a spot where some teams might’ve no-showed at least one game, that didn’t happen with the Packers. Second, they got Jordan Love experience and got themselves a shot to gather more information on where he stands in Year 2. Third, the parts of the team outside of the passing offense had to carry the team through.

In the long run, the hope is that last piece will loom large. Last week in Kansas City, it was the defense’s choking out Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense in the second half, to at least give the Love-led Packers life in the waning moments of what would become a 13–7 loss. On this Sunday, at home against the Seahawks, it was pretty much every element of the roster’s coming alive to buy Rodgers and his receivers time to get on track.

And in both cases, it was leaning on areas of the team that aren’t normally leaned on to win games, because the safety net that Rodgers has so often provided everyone was gone.

“I think it’s so important to be able to win in different ways in this league,” LaFleur said. “Each and every week, the competitive balance in this league is unlike any other league, in my opinion. And you see it; there’s examples every week of teams that probably should win that for whatever reason don’t. And that’s why you could be on your game, and on point, every freakin’ week, otherwise you’re gonna get beat.

“But yeah, I think certainly there’s a natural, just ...”

LaFleur then paused looking the right word.

“I don’t know what the right word is, but something happens naturally where you just understand what you have to do,” he said. “I don’t want to say up your game. But I think a lot of guys just inherently understand the circumstances of each and every game and what they have to do in order for this team to win. And whether it’s guys’ stepping up or whatever it may be, I think that just kind of happens inherently.”

It happened against the Chiefs, even if the score didn’t indicate it. The Packers rushed for 122 yards in K.C., at a clip of 4.9 yards per carry, to keep Love going as he acclimated to real regular-season game action. And the defense shut the Chiefs out and held Mahomes’s prolific group to 108 yards in the second half. And even with Rodgers back in the lineup, something similar was going to have to happen to a degree on Sunday against Seattle.

The circumstances that the COVID-19 protocols presented made it that way.


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Rodgers, for sure, was as equipped as any player could be to go into a week during which he wouldn’t get a single actual practice to prep for an opponent.

That said, there was absolutely an adjustment to be made, and LaFleur didn’t waste any time getting on top of it after the loss in Kansas City. Normally, the head coach and a couple of assistants meet with Rodgers prior to the players’ first install meeting for the week on Wednesday. That meeting went on as scheduled last week, only with Rodgers attending via Zoom.

Through that meeting, LaFleur outlined where he thought the Packers had to be careful in putting together their game plan for the Seahawks.

“It was, Hey guys, I don’t know how many just game-plan type plays that we can put in when you’re going into a situation where your quarterback is not getting any reps,” LaFleur said. “Like we have gotta put in stuff that we’ve done before, that he has time on task with. And not to say that there wasn’t game-plan plays, because there certainly was. But I just think that we were overly mindful of that situation.”

The good news, as LaFleur saw it, was that the Packers were already very familiar with the Seahawks’ defense, which made it easier just to boil the game down to the basics for the players.

“This is a really good tackling team; they don’t miss a ton of tackles,” the coach continued. “So you need guys to make plays for you. I don’t think it was overly complex, they play three deep. And they played their two-safety looks a bunch during this game, and we figured that’d be the case, that seems to be the case quite many times when we play anybody, teams want to play us in two-high and make us either check it down or run the football.”

And eventually, the Packers would get the plays they needed. They just wouldn’t come until after the hosts got out of a disjointed first half for both teams, during which Green Bay piled up yards, but punted twice, made one field goal try, missed another and turned the ball over on downs just before the half.

That meant first-year coordinator Joe Barry’s defense had to answer the bell. And the defense did, in a way that would’ve been unthinkable a couple of months ago.

Remember, this is a group that prompted the change from Mike Pettine to Barry last year (with Barry, a LaFleur staffmate in L.A., being a controversial choice), and started the season with a clunker against the Saints, then a bad first half against the Lions in Week 2. That was enough to have people calling for Barry’s head. But as that was happening, Barry was working to gain investment from his players and coaches, but making it their defense.

“He does a great job of just including everybody in the process,” LaFleur said. “The culture on that side of the ball is really strong. I think Joe Barry’s done a hell of a job, [secondary coach] Jerry Gray, all of the assistants. I think Joe really does a hell of a job including those guys in the process and allowing them to contribute. And when you allow people to be a part of it, I think people are more invested, and they’ve done a hell of a job.”

It’s also softened the blow when guys like Alexander and Smith go down and set up afternoons like Sunday. The Packers forced four consecutive punts from Seattle to open the game, and got a fifth stop just before the half, effectively buying time for the offense to find its stride.

That happened, as LaFleur figured it would with his scaled back game-plan and the teams’ knowledge of each other, through individual players’ making it happen. And for the Packers, that individual was A.J. Dillon, who took on the role of bell cow when Jones went down.

The second-year bulldozer got the ball on five of the final eight snaps of an 11-play, 62-yard drive that ended in the game’s first touchdown, scored by Dillon himself with 10:42 left. And then he took a checkdown into the flat on the Packers’ next possession 50 yards, through a host of sure-tackling Seahawk defenders and to the Seattle 26 to set up the dagger—the second of his touchdowns, scored eight plays later with two minutes left.

Best part is, along the way, just about every cylinder fired. The pass rush got to Russell Wilson even without Za’Darius Smith (Preston Smith, Gary and Whitney Mercilus had sacks). The secondary covered like it needed to, even without Alexander. And the offense ran the ball when it needed to, with Rodgers’s making enough throws to keep the chains moving.


One reason why the Packers have handled all of this as smoothly as they have?

This isn’t their first rodeo.

Rodgers’s trade request in the spring, and all the drama that followed through OTAs, had unintentional benefits too. After going through that, first not knowing who their quarterback would be, then handling all that went with Rodgers’s decision to show up in July, there wasn’t much that could fall in the category of distractions that was going to faze them.

“You want a calloused football team, because the reality is when you get to the end of it, every game is such a grind,” said LaFleur. “And we know, even now, that most of these games come down to a couple plays either going your way or not. So the more adversity you can battle through, the more calloused you can become as a team, I think in the end, can be a great benefit to you.”

And in the end, the benefit in Green Bay’s been clear.

They’ve long known there that they can count on Rodgers when they need him. What the last couple of weeks has only confirmed is that he’s hardly the only one that fits into that category.


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PATRIOTS POUND BROWNS

This was maybe a few minutes into our conversation, and a little less than an hour after the Patriots absolutely destroyed the Browns by a count of 45–7, scoring 45 unanswered points after Cleveland hit paydirt on its first possession, and Hunter Henry surprised me with the kind of declarative statement you don’t hear much out of Foxboro.

“The Patriot Way is real,” Henry told me. “It definitely is. It’s guys’ coming together to do one job and that’s to win a football game, whatever that takes. There’s not an individual that’s above anybody else, and so it’s just a team atmosphere that comes together. It’s a fun locker room to be in. It’s a lot of good guys, a blend of young guys, new guys, old guys that have been here, that kinda know the way about things.

“It’s a good blend, and a lot of fun to be a part of.”

So what was it that caught me off-guard here? It was that Henry actually used the term Patriot Way, one that outsiders have run into the ground over the last 20 years, but that you’ll rarely hear from people inside the building and in particular from the people in football ops.

Then again, Henry was an outsider just a few months ago, as were a lot of his teammates.

And therein lies the best explanation for the metamorphosis we’ve seen from Bill Belichick’s crew over the last two months—a period over which they’ve gone from 2–4, with questions lingering over whether the last 20 years were more just Tom Brady than anyone realized, to being 6–4 and regarded as one of the league’s most dangerous teams, while breathing down the necks of the new kings of the AFC East in Buffalo.

“There was a lot of new guys coming together [early in the season],” said Henry, again, one of those new guys, having come over from the Chargers. “Mac [Jones] being young, other guys being new to the Patriots; there was a mix of a lot of guys trying to come together, and I think in these past few weeks, we’ve kinda bought in and started figuring a little bit about each other. That chemistry’s coming, so it’s been good and fun to be a part of.”

New England sure had its fun on Sunday, even if it took weathering a shaky start.

The Browns, coming off a blowout win of their own over Cincinnati last week, opened the game with an 11-play, 84-yard drive, during which they rushed for 58 yards on five carries, and only got into third down once, which preceded a pretty two-yard touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to Austin Hooper 4:51 into the game.

The rest of the way, a smothering, rebuilt Patriots defense held the Browns to just 133 yards on 47 plays (2.83 yards per play), and Cleveland wouldn’t cross midfield again until the end of the third quarter. By then, the score was 31–7 New England.

Truth is, it was hard to find much wrong in this one. Rookie Mac Jones’s numbers weren’t off the charts—he was 19-of-23 for 198 yards, three touchdowns and a 142.1 QB rating—but he compiled them despite playing just four snaps into the fourth quarter, and left the game with his team ahead 38–7. The run game churned out 184 yards. Four different players wound up with four catches. And as part of the aforementioned defensive effort, the Patriots sacked Mayfield five times, eventually knocking him out of the game, and scored a crucial pick, notched by second-year safety Kyle Dugger when the score was still tied at seven.

And to a lot of us, how it all just seems to have clicked is pretty eye-opening—there weren’t a ton of signs this was coming back in September. But Henry says now that the guys in the locker room thought it could happen this way all along, because they believed the team that they saw every day had a much higher ceiling than it would initially show.

“One-hundred percent,” Henry said. “Obviously [as a sixth-year vet], I’ve seen a lot. But I think even early on, when we were kinda struggling and we’re losing these close games, and honestly we weren’t playing great offensively, we were playing O.K., but we could tell just by watching everything that we were close. We were really, really close, and I feel like we’ve started to not just be close. We’re playing our kind of ball that we want to play.”

Part of that, Henry continued, was always going to be the team’s figuring out just who it was, and with so many new faces, that was always going to take time. The performance of those new guys against the Browns highlights how that breaking in process has been accelerated. The numbers from Sunday …

Kendrick Bourne. WR, UFA: 4 catches, 98 yards, TD.
Hunter Henry, TE, UFA: 4 catches, 37 yards, 2 TDs.
Matthew Judon, OLB, UFA: 0.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits.
Christian Barmore, DT, second-round pick: 4 tackles.
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, fourth-round pick: 20 carries, 100 yards, 2 TDs.

And then, there’s Jones—who came into the NFL with questions about his ceiling, and how much room he really had to grow, and has answered them by checking every box put in front of him and affirming evaluations that had him pegged as a quarterback thoroughly prepared to play in the NFL as a graduate of Nick Saban’s pro-football boot camp.

On Sunday, that readiness for all that’s come his way was probably most apparent on third down. The Patriots were 7-of-9 as a team in those situations, and Jones was 6-of-7 for 80 yards and a touchdown on those plays, with a spectacular 26-yard go ball to Jakobi Meyers on a second-quarter third-and-9 best encapsulating the effort. Just the same, where Jones is as a player was also apparent after the game, coming across fully in that when his teammates discuss him, it hardly sounds like they’re talking about a rookie.

“He’s dialed in mentally and continues to grow and learn from what he’s doing,” Henry said. “Knows the offense—in fact, he knows the offense inside and out, so that he can put himself in the best position mentally. And then obviously, he has a great arm. Great feel for touch-balls, when to drive it in there, and tremendous accuracy. And he’s only getting better each week.”

The Patriots are, too, and a lot of the old earmarks are there—from a defense able to take an opponent’s strength away and make it play left-handed, to an offense that’s capable of grinding out long drives and exploiting weakness, to a smart-playing team overall that excels situationally.

Now, could New England revert again? Sure. As nicely as so many of the team’s offseason moves have worked out, it’s still not the most talented roster, and it is aging in certain spots. And Jones, just being a rookie quarterback, could endure more bumps.

That said, the three-game stretch the Patriots just completed against teams comparable to them—the Chargers, Panthers and Browns—is done, and New England finished it 3–0. Which means after Thursday night’s game in Atlanta, the Patriots have set themselves up for an awfully big month, one in which they’ll play four games against AFC playoff teams from a year ago, including one against the current top seed from Tennessee and two against the defending AFC East champ.

And along the way, a group of guys that don’t yet even know that their coach purposefully avoids the term Patriot Way will get a chance to further define it for themselves.

“I think it’s do your job, and I think it’s put the team first,” said Henry, when I asked what the term means to him. “I think it’s a team mindset that no matter what’s going on, it’s all about the team and doing your job every single play, and executing that every single game. And continuing to stack those efforts on top of each other.”

Undeniably, these Patriots have started doing that.


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TEN TAKEAWAYS

The Chiefs are confident, and they have reason to be. We’ve all diagnosed the Chiefs’ issues over the last couple of months. The line is new. The run game is a mess with Clyde Edwards-Helaire out. Patrick Mahomes isn’t taking easy completions. They’re turning the ball over. All of that had merit. And all of it was correctable. “We’ve done it before,” Mahomes said postgame. “We’ve done it these last few seasons. We were doing it at the beginning of this season. We were moving the ball and making a lot of stuff happen. We were just turning the ball over. Then we kind of went through a little spell where we weren’t making these drives and we were still finding ways to win. I knew that we were going to click back into it.” And click back into it they did, against a Raiders team that trailed in the AFC West coming in. The final was 41–14, and what was most encouraging was how every touchdown came off a possession that required consistency from the offense. Here are the Chiefs’ five drives that wound up in the end zone:

• 11 plays, 89 yards, 5:45
• 10 plays, 54 yards, 4:19
• 13 plays, 62 yards, 4:59
• 7 plays, 56 yards, 1:59
• 7 plays, 75 yards, 4:09

And on those five drives, there were just four plays of 20-plus yards, which is to say keeping them going required patience from the Chiefs all the way around, from Andy Reid as the play-caller to Mahomes as the quarterback. Add to that the defense’s third straight game holding an opponent under 20 points, and it’s fair to say Kansas City’s working its way back into the mix, and probably isn’t a team anyone will be excited to see over the back half of the schedule.

The Titans are playing the most consistent football in the league. And I personally think it’s because they have such a clear identity—they know who they are, and how they need to win, and that’s actually withstood the loss of Derrick Henry in the lineup for two weeks now, against quality opponents. Last week, they beat up the Rams. This week, they took out the Saints 23–21, getting the single stop they needed on a two-point conversion at the wire to put the game away. On the play, just after Trevor Siemian hit Marquez Callaway on third-and-13 for a 15-yard touchdown to cut the Saints’ deficit to two, Titans linebacker Jayon Brown picked up Mark Ingram out of the backfield. Siemian liked the matchup. But Brown saw the route coming, and that was enough. “I’d been going against Ingram all day pretty much,” Brown told me. “He got a 36-yard gain from me coming out of the backfield [earlier]. And then on the two-point conversion, it was me and him. It was one-on-one, and off his approach, I knew what the route was. I knew how to slow him down, I got physical with him a little bit on his approach into his route—of the wheel route—and just had good coverage. The ball was short, and it hit my legs for a [pass breakup], and we got off the field.” The win pushed the Titans to 8–2, all alone atop the AFC, and kept them one of just five two-loss teams left in the league. And as Brown sees it, a big part of how they got there is winning games like this, in ways like this, and he’ll tell you that aforementioned identity.

“We’ve been in tough situations before in-season. The Bills game came down to the wire, Colts game came down to the wire, and we got young guys playing in these games and vets who’s been on the team for a while as well. When the going gets tough, I feel like we’re at our strength. There’s not many blowouts in this league; most games are close games within one possession, whether that’s three points or seven points or eight. So that’s just how the NFL is, and everybody has talent. But when the going gets tough, we’re at our best and we displayed that today.” And from here, things set up nicely for the Titans’ pursuit of the AFC’s top seed. Among the seven games they have left: games against the Jaguars and Dolphins, and two against the Texans.

Maybe we shouldn’t be shocked by Washington’s upsetting Tampa Bay? The records, of course, say we should be. The Bucs came in at 6–2, WFT at 2–6. But the Football Team pushed the Bucs in the wild-card round last January. And in a situation where Washington is clearly fighting to keep any semblance of hope for the postseason alive, having had that experience was relevant. “We have a lot of guys back from last year, and they’re a really good defense,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke told me postgame. “So we kinda knew what we were getting into. And the more experience you have against those guys, those good teams, the better you are. So it definitely helped us this year. We watched a lot of film from last year’s game.”

The final wound up being Washington 29, Tampa 19, with the roles reversed from last year—this time it was Washington that built an early lead and had to keep thwarting rallies from the Bucs. And the game’s defining play came as part of such an effort, with 3:05 left, and Washington 23–19 and in third-and-5. The call that went in, from OC Scott Turner to Heinicke, was a simple one call “Sticky,” a play designed to generate a one-on-one for star receiver Terry McLaurin, running a slant. Heinicke got the matchup he wanted, put the ball in there and McLaurin did the rest. “I felt like they were gonna run cover-0 there; they needed to have it there, they needed to make a big play,” Heinicke said. “So it was just a one-on-one deal with him, and whenever you get Terry one-on-one, it’s a good thing. So he came up huge, won on the route.”

But just as McLaurin beat corner Jamel Dean, safety Jordan Whitehead closed and lowered the boom on McLaurin. McLaurin held to the ball, to convert the third down, then popped up. “I thought he was a little woozy there and he gets up, starts banging his chest and the whole crowd was buzzing too,” Heinicke said. “He’s a beloved player here. Everyone loves him, and rightfully so.” Antonio Gibson scored four plays later to salt away the win, snap Washington’s four-game losing streak and keep the team’s fading hopes at getting back to the postseason alive. “We thought we played a good game against Green Bay,” Heinicke said. “There was a couple things here and there that kinda didn’t go our way, and we felt like we played a good game up there. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win. And then same thing with Denver. In between those two weeks, we had great practices, people really getting after it. We had the bye week, people get healthy. And again, so we had another great week of practice this week, and to go out and beat a team like that, it gives the team confidence and it’s definitely something to build on.”

Cam Newton’s going back to Carolina is a great story. At the end of the Panthers’ stunning 34–10 rout of the Cardinals, who came in with the NFL’s best record, the 32-year-old was 3-for-4 for eight yards passing and had 14 rushing yards on three carries. I don’t care. The fact that he’s back there, with that team, made the game a blast to watch on Sunday—as did the two touchdowns he put on the board on his first two snaps (the first a run off the right side to the pylon, the second a little swing pass to Robby Anderson off play-action). What does it mean? Well, it means that Newton’s still got a little juice, and it means Matt Rhule’s got something to think about for next week. P.J. Walker, who played for Rhule at Temple and has been perfectly competent as a spot player in Carolina, played 66 snaps Sunday to Newton’s nine, and afterward Rhule didn’t tip his hand as to where that snap distribution will go next week, after Newton gets a full week with the team under his belt. “Obviously, Cam is a weapon,” Rhule said at his postgame presser. “We're going to use him in a lot of different ways. As we move forward, I hope you guys can understand I'm not going to answer very many schematic questions. I only have a couple of advantages and that's one of them. We have two guys that played excellent at that position today, so we'll mix and match or play as we see fit. I'm not going to say anything about it right now. I'm going to enjoy this win. I'm not saying anyone is starting/not starting. I'm going to get on the bus and enjoy this win.” The Panthers, by the way, are still very much alive, at 5–5.

I think the Bills are a little improvement in the run game away from where they want to be. The Jets gave their AFC East rivals a get-right Sunday, and Buffalo took it. Josh Allen was 21-of-28 for 366 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. Stefon Diggs went for 162 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. The NFL’s top defense kept the home team out of the end zone until the fourth quarter, after it was staked to a 38–3 lead. So just about everything the Bills needed to fix after an unsightly loss in Jacksonville got fixed. And the run game, well, there’s been some progress. The Bills didn’t really lean on it until the second half, but getting speedy ex-Niner Matt Breida and injecting some more creativity with the receivers (Isaiah McKenzie and Emmanuel Sanders both got carries) again helped. And it should have Buffalo ready for a crucial post-Thanksgiving stretch, during which the Bills will get the Patriots twice in three weeks.

If seeing Love play last week scared Packers fans, Steelers fans must’ve had similar feelings after a very strange tie with Lions. To be fair, Pittsburgh had injuries on the offensive line and at receiver, and it was raining and the Heinz Field turf was a mess. But this is Mason Rudolph’s fourth year, and you’d like to see something from him. It also can’t be great news that Dwayne Haskins hasn’t been able to beat Rudolph out to become the backup. The stats weren’t a total mess (30-of-50, 242 yards, TD, INT), and coach Mike Tomlin said after the game that Rudolph did what was expected of him. And maybe that’s true. But that’d really only mean expectations are still awfully modest for the former third-round pick. And from a bigger-picture standpoint, I’d imagine it means if Ben Roethlisberger retires after this year, the Steelers are going to be scrambling (and they’re already a little low on draft capital for next year, having dealt away their fourth- and fifth-round picks).

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The Cowboys still have the feel of a Super Bowl team. The Broncos game now looks like a blip—with a 43–3 lambasting of the Falcons serving as a proof of it. It’s rare that a team, at least in the NFL, doubles up an opponent in both yardage (431 to 214) and first downs (22 to 11), but that happened in Dallas on Sunday, and it happened with a .500 Atlanta team that had won three of four as the opponent. “Last week just wasn’t us, and everybody in that locker room knows that,” Dak Prescott said postgame. “It left a bad taste in our mouth. I think it was a taste that we needed, to understand how tough this game is. But tonight just shows that when we focus in, take it one play at a time, our minds are where our feet are, we’re capable of doing some great things.” And nice touch afterward from Mike McCarthy too, in giving the game ball to his defensive coordinator, and former Falcons coach, Dan Quinn. I texted with Quinn afterward, and he was clearly moved by the gesture. “Not sure I can ever fully express how impressed I was by everyone tonight,” Quinn said in a text. “We hoped to recapture our aggressive style of play. It wasn’t really until afterwards that I realized how much it meant to me to be recognized by the team in this game. That meant a helluva a lot.” Quinn’s an easy guy to root for, so I know there are plenty of NFL folks out there feeling good for him Monday morning.

The NFL’s got a sticky situation on its hands with the Jon Gruden lawsuit. Gruden’s made a ton of money. He almost certainly won’t coach in the NFL again. I’ve heard for weeks how upset he was over what he saw as a coordinated attack. His court filing points the finger directly at the league for his emails’ leaking. And so the old saying that there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose may just apply here. I can promise you that the NFL will do all it can to avoid the case’s getting to discovery, which could open the vault on sensitive information stemming from the WFT workplace investigation. The question now is how the league does it. If Gruden’s standing on principle, and doesn’t want to settle, things could get ugly. 

Odell Beckham Jr. could wind up being a crucial signing for the Rams. And really, if you’d asked them about the idea at this point last week, they’d have been first to tell you that they didn’t really see it that way—first communicating to Beckham’s camp that they didn’t have much to spend, and figuring he’d go in a different direction. Instead, Beckham’s camp encouraged the Rams to stay involved, because the 29-year-old liked the idea of going to L.A., and in the interim some veterans on the team (Jalen Ramsey, fellow newcomer Von Miller) took it upon themselves to start recruiting him, and the rest is history. And what convinced the Rams they were doing the right thing? A few things. First, the final two teams involved (Packers, Rams) and a third team he gave hard consideration to were offering less than others voluntarily, narrowing the list to teams that were contending; and second, he wanted to take the temperature of coaches and players with the Rams to make sure they’d want to partner with him, and welcome him in. So L.A. took the leap with Beckham on a one year deal that breaks down like this …

• $750K for the rest of 2021
• $500K signing bonus
• $500K if the Rams win a wild-card round game (must play one snap) or get a bye
• $750K if the Rams win a divisional round game (must play one snap)
• $750K if the Rams win the NFC title game (must play one snap)
• $500K for playing in the Super Bowl or $1 million for winning it (must play one snap)

Beckham also gets $4.25 million from the Browns as part of a settlement agreement the team reached with the receiver, a deal that took Cleveland off the hook for $3 million in base salary for the rest of 2021. And, again, when this went down, it looked like the mercurial eighth-year star would be a sort of insurance policy. But that was before Robert Woods tore his ACL at practice at the end of the week, and now the door is open for Beckham to become a pretty big part of the equation. I’m told Beckham will play Monday night—with the expectation that how much he plays and gets the ball will really be a feel thing for the coaches (there’s no set number of snaps they’re limiting him to or anything like that). So we might get a little peek at where this is going pretty quickly.

As usual, we’ve got some quick-hitters for you coming out of Sunday too. And those start right now.

• Browns DE Myles Garrett told the media after the Patriot rout that, on defense, Cleveland needs to, “See how we can scheme better, see how we can make adjustments on the fly. We never had a chance just because we didn’t make any adjustments on the sideline or when we had time to.” Now, to be fair, Cleveland did hold three straight opponents in the teens before Sunday. But this comment, added to meltdowns against the Cardinals, Chargers and now Patriots, won’t do much to calm the chatter over DC Joe Woods’s job security.

• While we’re there, Baker Mayfield’s bumps and bruises are starting to pile up, with Sunday’s knee contusion adding to the shoulder injury that he’s still wearing a harness to brace. And that sure isn’t helping to clarify the contract question the team is facing on him.

• Hearing Steelers RB Najee Harris say that he didn’t know you could tie in the NFL is another reminder that a lot of players didn’t grow up as locked into the league as a lot of the rest of us. Plus, what the rookie Harris said didn’t rise to the level of Donovan McNabb famously making a similar admission—during his 10th NFL season.

• We’ll have video in Best of the Internet below, but man, Teddy Bridgewater’s gotta make a better effort to stop Darius Slay than that.

• I’m interested to see how Dan Campbell’s foray into play calling goes. The Lions’ coach had never been a play-caller before taking the reins from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn this week. He said he did it to get in the flow of the game better, and that it’s still a group effort. But that’s a significant role change for a first-year head coach. Stay tuned.

• It feels like the Seahawks’ staff is using star safety Jamal Adams way more effectively than it did earlier in the year.

• Tua Tagovailoa’s been through a lot this year, and I think you have to give him credit for the way he bailed the Dolphins out in a tough spot Thursday night. And if therein lies good news for Miami, the better news is that the schedule softens a bunch now.

• The Jaguars honestly aren’t that bad a team. Or as bad as people have made them out to be. Obviously, it’s not like they’re going to be in any sort of playoff race. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they get to five or six wins, and have some momentum going into 2022.

• Jets DT Sheldon Rankins, who was a Saint for the five years previous to this one: “Every man should be embarrassed. Every man should be angry.” New York has five losses of 15-plus points, and three losses of 25-plus points. Rankins, for one, isn’t used to that.

• I love Washington coach Ron Rivera’s decision to kneel on the point-after attempt up 29–19 on the Bucs, which eliminated the chance a blocked kick would be run back for two points to get the game back within a possession. Some of the two-point and fourth-down theory out there can be overbearing. But this is a simple, logical call that you could explain to a 7-year-old, which is the beauty of it.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Saturday’s Kansas-Texas game raised obvious question about where the Longhorns’ program is in Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian. But I think there’s a fun one, from a pro football standpoint, on the other side of the Jayhawks’ upset: Could there be lower-division coaches that NFL teams should look at? Lance Leipold is in his first year at Kansas and has clearly made an impact, just as he did over six years with a Buffalo program he took to the top of the MAC. Before that? He was at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he went a staggering 109–6 over eight seasons and won six Division III national titles. Leipold is 57 years old, so the ship’s probably sailed on his ending up in pro football. But you see guys like Leipold and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly come from sub–Division I programs, where they had wild success, and it’s fun to think about some NFL team taking a swing at making a hire that’d probably land somewhere between Chip Kelly and Ted Lasso.

2) In this week’s GamePlan column, I did a poll of 32 NFL execs, and the winners for Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year were Ja’Marr Chase and Micah Parsons, respectively. Both won by enormous margins. And both, interestingly enough, were 2020 COVID-19 opt-outs. It does make you wonder if that might make some guys think, down the line, about the idea of skipping a full college season to stay healthy for the draft, although the chance to cash in on NIL money as a star at that level may counteract those considerations.

3) Over the last few years, it was pretty clear that Dan Mullen was at least curious about the idea of coaching in the NFL, and maybe even wanted to capitalize on the work he’d done developing quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask at the college level. Obviously, after the debacle of a year he’s had, a head coaching job in the NFL probably isn’t in the cards right now. But if he’s fired at Florida, it’s worth wondering if maybe, just maybe, his next step would be as an NFL coordinator somewhere.

4) I had a smart personnel man tell me that there’s a gap between high-end Big Ten pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan (who profiles as a Ryan Kerrigan type as a prospect) and George Karlaftis of Purdue, and that showed up on Saturday. Faced with Ohio State’s mountainous tackle duo of Nicholas Petit-Frere (a potential first-rounder) and Dawand Jones, Karlaftis largely vanished.

5) I’m going to do some brake-pumping here that might not be popular: I’ve talked to a number of scouts who’ve been through Oregon this fall and have heightened concern now about Kayvon Thibodeaux’s size. Oregon lists him at 6' 5" and 258 pounds, and there’s a lot of doubt from NFL folks that he’s close to that big. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s not a really good prospect. It’s just that if you’re expecting Myles Garrett or Chase Young, Thibodeaux simply isn’t built that way physically.

6) The case of Georgia’s Adam Anderson is a disturbing one—he was charged with rape and turned himself in to police this week. (His lawyer said Anderson denies the charges and “intends to vigorously defend himself in court.”) Before this, he was projected by some scouts as the player on the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense likely to be drafted highest in April.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

There was a lot of good Cam content today.

The personal-foul flag was totally worth it, for this celebration.

I really hope he keeps this up.

Cam’s even getting good content out of his coaches.

Sean Payton has every right to be upset—these are game-changing calls, and in a lot of cases it feels to coaches like officials are never going to get pushback from the league on flags meant to protect quarterbacks (which has led to more liberal flag-throwing, and ultimately more mistakes). Which in turn has made it more difficult to coach pass rushers on how to approach the quarterback. It’s a problem.

Probably more comfortable than the traditional paper bag. Especially in-flight.

Other people have said this is a spoon. I’m not so sure.

Dillon’s definitely a mudder.

I’ll admit that I’m surprised just how good Terry McLaurin’s been—I wouldn’t have seen it happening like this when he came out of Ohio State. But the toughness to make this catch? That’s one thing he’s always very obviously had.

What a stud this guy is.

I find myself less confident that this stuff is going to work for Mahomes this year. But in this case, it did.

Tough look for Teddy Bridgewater in a critical spot.

Didn’t have it marked down as Haason Reddick Revenge Sunday. But that’s exactly what it was (apparently).

Excellent point from the Tweet King, when DK Metcalf reported to Russell Wilson’s huddle after being ejected for grabbing the facemasks of Packers defenders Henry Black and then Eric Stokes. Asked why he did it postgame, Metcalf responded that he’s “tired of losing.”


andrew-whitworth-los-angeles-rams

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Rams-Niners, we caught up with the Rams’ 39-year-old left tackle, Andrew Whitworth.

MMQB: On the Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller moves, how much do you really keep up with that stuff? Did you have an idea it was coming?

AW: Some of it, it happens and, especially the Von thing, it’s like I knew something was kind of on the horizon when we traded Kenny Young. It just seemed like, All right, man, obviously we’re making some move. And then, it’s been the history here over the last couple years, you just feel something’s about to happen—we’re never gonna sit still. And obviously insane, right? I’ve played against Von for years, and me and him see each other off the field all the time. And so I think as a team, you’re excited when you add that piece. And then when the Odell thing happens, that was a little more something that those who’ve been around knew. One, he’s close with Von and Jalen [Ramsey], but two, for the last couple years, he’s definitely been someone I’ve seen in the offseason. We’ve talked LSU and had different run-ins. He’s wanted to be out this way. So I knew when that happened, I was like, ‘Man, there’s a chance he would love to come play here.’ So I wouldn’t say I was shocked really by either move, but more just excited.

MMQB: Do you and Odell have a relationship stemming from LSU?

AW: Yeah, and then obviously out in L.A.—he lives in L.A. most of the offseason, so we run into each other from time to time. And then I’ve played with him in a Pro Bowl or two. And then just through different things. When we played the Super Bowl, he was down there, had some run-ins where we’ve had conversations where he’d love to come to L.A. and play.

MMQB: Were you one of the guys making the recruiting calls?

AW: I mean, I ended up talking to him. But no, no. I knew that we’d be in play, and really, I feel like in those situations if he wants to be here, he wants to be here. More of those guys that talked to him are guys who talk to him on kind of a weekly basis anyway. I think for him, that needs to be his decision. If he wants to be here with us, then that’s something that to me will be driven by him wanting to be here. And sure enough, that is how it played out.

MMQB: So having played against Von, what can he bring you guys?

AW: He’s a guy, like when we had Clay Matthews, some of the production he had is just a savvy guy who’s always been somebody who can get to the quarterback, and just in those moments can show up. And with Von, you’ve got a guy who’s really in another echelon, just a really, really special rusher with ability to affect the game regardless of where he is. He wants to be here, he’s in a winning atmosphere and you’ve got that opportunity to affect the game, the ability he has to do that gets maximized when you add other people around him that are really good too. I think that it’s a great situation for him and a great situation for us.

MMQB: Why do you think you guys have been able to absorb all these guys who are almost celebrities in their own right?

AW: Well, I think the main thing is the culture we established when Sean [McVay] and I, and all of us, got here. People talk about culture, but it’s always been about winning, and it’s always been about finding that next way to win and to improve ourselves and, in the same way, understanding that we’re all men, and we’re gonna treat you that way. Like, you’re not gonna come to a place that’s gonna have a ton of rules; you’re not coming to a place that’s stiff and it’s like, ‘Oh man, you have to do this and that.’ We want to play good football, and we’re gonna talk and discuss that, and if you’re all about balling, you’re about winning and preforming, then we’re gonna get along great and nobody’s gonna be bothering you when you’re not in the building. Nobody’s gonna be bothering you about what you do off the field as long as it doesn’t affect what you do on it. … They can come and just be who they are, and we don’t want anything other than that.

MMQB: Where are you at as a player now, versus where you were five, 10 years ago?

AW: Honestly, there’s certain parts of my game that are better and there’s some that maybe aren’t as good. But I don’t know, it’d hard to say because we don’t really do some of the things that we used to do when I was in Cincinnati. So it may be, just being honest, that we don’t do some things much. It’s kinda one of those things, I mean, as a pass protector and really protecting the quarterback, I’ve continued to do that at an extremely high level and one of the best there is. And so you know what? I continue to feel like as long as I can play and perform the way I want, I’ll continue to go. I mean, you look at it, there’s guys that played 20 years, there’s guys that played however many that I’ve kinda already passed and there’s some guys still left. It’s pretty rare to actually play just left tackle and be where I’m at. There’s some of those guys, whether it be Bruce [Matthews] or a couple others, they kinda moved to other positions to extend their career. They weren’t playing on the edges. So I know that it’s rare territory, and it’s still a lot of fun, man.

MMQB: If I’d told you that you’d play five years in L.A. when you signed there … ridiculous?

AW: Oh, no question. Sean actually tells a pretty funny story: When we signed, we went to dinner, and my wife pulled him to the side and was just like, ‘I just hope you know you’re probably going to get like a year out of him. I just don’t know if his body can hold up any longer.’ She even doubted, not sure I’d be able to keep going. And so to think where we are now, I would’ve thought, me ever playing in SoFi would’ve been like the biggest joke, like there’s no chance I’d ever make it to when they had SoFi finished. And now I’ve played two seasons in there; it’s just wild.

MMQB: So you don’t know how much longer you want to play?

AW: No, what I have to be careful with, I think, sometimes people think of it as like a mentality thing, like, ‘Hey, he’s kind of leaning on whether he should retire or not.’ It’s not really that; it’s more for me, I respect my position and my job enough to say like, as long as I’m ending the year playing better and better and better? I really think with offensive linemen your play should improve as the season goes, and you should be playing your best when the season ends, barring if you have some kind of injury or something. And so to me, as long as I’m continuing to accelerate and be able to play at a really high level at the end of the season, and at the level that I really think I should play at, which I’ve been able to do, and I feel like I’ve had a great year this year, it’s like, as long as I continue to do that, then it’s like Man why wouldn’t I play again? … Wayne Gretzky once told me, playing golf when I first moved out here, he was like, ‘Hey man, best advice I can ever give you, look at your career like you’ll make them rip the jersey off your back.’ He’s like, ‘That’s the thing I wish I would’ve done.’ And I’ve always took that to heart. And so to me, if I feel good, I’m going to make them rip it off; I’m going to keep playing.

MMQB: So you’re up for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award because of your work with the homeless in L.A. and then in helping rebuild after Hurricane Ida in Louisiana—and I looked it up and saw your last year at LSU was when Katrina hit. I was wondering if that’s been part of your inspiration here?

AW: Yes, for sure. My college time ended really in a humbling way, just being your senior year and honestly a lot of things went into that. Nick Saban leaves, I decide to stay. I’ve always thought of Nick Saban as the greatest coach I’ve ever had and just somebody that influenced my life a ton. And so you go through this year with a new coach, and it is what it is. Me and Les [Miles], I wouldn’t say always saw eye-to-eye. Then you go through Katrina, you go through things that just made me realize, ‘Man, you know what? I took a lot of stuff for granted.’ And then just seeing how an area was affected and how things were done in Katrina, it just has always stuck with me. I always want to be there for people and for that opportunity to be that close to something like that, a disaster that big, that had that a big effect.

MMQB: So specifically in Louisiana, helping after Ida was almost like a calling for you?

AW: Yeah. I’ve always done stuff with homelessness here in L.A. But to go back to Louisiana and help, yeah, that was to me very reminiscent of Katrina. I knew what happened down there during all of that. And I knew what it was like for people, and so it’s like, man, I’m not going to ever leave my home state hanging that way. I want to make sure I’m a part of guys who want to do some stuff down there, people who want to make a positive effect and try to help people through a time like that. I just thought it was really important to always remember where you came from in a place that’s always been so special to you.

MMQB: Do all the moves put a sort of good pressure on the team—like ‘Our time is now’?

AW: That’s one of those things I’ve continued to always say. I loved my time in Cincinnati; we had some fun. And we had a very good streak there with our group from ‘11 to ‘15 of going to the playoffs and having good football teams, but never really breaking through and winning that playoff game and making a run in the playoffs. One of the things I’ve always said is like, you can look at that time and ask, did we ever make any kind of trade or any kind of acquisition in free agency to kind of really take us over the hump? And I always said, you can say, ‘Well, you had a good team, but it’s almost like you never really felt ownership jump in or management jump in and say we’re all in. We’re going for it. We’re going to try to be the best we can possibly be.’ And one of the things I’ve loved about being a Ram since I’ve been here is people look at us and they’re like, Man, they’re trading away picks and doing this and that. No, it’s like, if you want to make players feel like they need to be at their best, what better way to do it than to realize like, Hey man, we’ll go get whoever it is that helps us be a better football team, and we’ll worry about next year when it’s time to worry about next year?

MMQB: All these years later, is it still fun playing on Monday night?

AW: If we’re being honest, as an older guy, I’d rather play at 1 every week. I don’t want to sit around and wait for a night game. As an offensive lineman, what’s the only thing that can happen to us? We get called out because we held somebody or gave up a bad play. That’s the only way anybody knows we’re playing in a game. So night games, Monday Night Football, that’s fun for the guys who get to dress up in cool outfits and run around the end zone with a football in their hands. For us, it’s like, Oh great, now if I do mess up, and this happens to be the game I mess up, more people know about it. So there’s nothing exciting about Monday Night Football for linemen, I can assure you.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Gotham Chopra’s The Man in the Arena will be released on ESPN+ on Tuesday, and I’ve gotten through a couple of the screeners. It should be a fun watch for anyone who’s rooted for, or against, Tom Brady’s teams for the last 20 years. And there is some new stuff in there too.

One example was Bradys talking about how he was “scared” going into the 2001 AFC title game against Pittsburgh. By his own admission, in part because of that, he wasn’t playing well when he sprained his ankle and had to leave the action that afternoon, with Drew Bledsoe coming off the bench to relieve him. The prevailing notion has always been the injury knocked him out. But if you listen to Brady’s recollection of the day in the doc, you’ll hear it sounds like he thinks it was, in part, performance-related as well.

So that was in the first of the 10 episodes—there’s one detailing each Super Bowl season he’s been a part of. In the second episode, Brady dives headlong into the effect Lawyer Milloy’s getting cut at the start of his fourth NFL season had on him, with Milloy himself helping to narrate that one. And I’m excited to work through more of these.

Is it the best sports documentary I’ve ever seen? It is not. But there’s plenty to chew on in there, and a lot of color that’s given to some now old memories. 

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