1a. I’m not sure what the future holds for Baker Mayfield. Probably more Progressive commercials—he’s very good in them. I could see him as part of an Arli$$ reboot, that seems like the kind of not-very-good show that’s due for a comeback on one of the streaming services. Really, any kind of project with Robert Wuhl. It seems like those two would get along.
But as for what’s happening on the field, it might be a little instructive to go back to this time last year. Through Week 11 of the 2020 season, Mayfield was coming off a run of bad performances in bad-weather games, and there were plenty of folks (myself included) who were one-foot-out on him. But then he turned it on down the stretch, posting a 103.4 passer rating, including an 11-to-1 TD/INT ratio, over the last six games of the season (and that includes an outlier against the Jets when half of Cleveland’s roster was unavailable due to COVID-19 protocols).
Unlike 2020, injuries have been an obvious issue for Mayfield this season, as has the defense’s sporadic struggles. He might always be a little more dependent on game-flow, needing the Browns’ full playbook at his disposal, than most quarterbacks (you could—and should—say the same thing about Ryan Tannehill), and there will likely always be remorse in Cleveland about passing on Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. But Mayfield still has time to salvage his season, starting with Sunday night in Baltimore against a Ravens defense that has been prone to coverage gaffes this year.
The Browns might not have seen enough to make a long-term commitment to Mayfield, but he has a chance to save his season and put the Browns back in the playoffs for a second year in a row.
1b. Apologies to any Arli$$ diehards out there. I admit, I watched a couple episodes over the years. It was pretty O.K. sometimes.
2. We stand on the precipice of one of the dumbest sports conversations ever. We went through a season of “Brady or Belichick,” which we’re now revisiting (it was both!). And, at this very moment, we’re hurtling toward “Brady or Mac Jones.”
Not career-wise (though if Mac Jones ultimately only wins, say, five Super Bowls, you’ll have every right to pull his pants down and call him a nerd). But the debate will be: Were the Patriots better off moving on to Jones rather than sticking with Brady age-43 and beyond. We will literally never know the answer because those poindexters in their ivory towers haven’t mastered the interdimensional travel that would enable us to compare and contrast this timeline with the one in which Brady never left the Patriots.* But Sunday’s game against the Titans should provide an interesting piece of evidence.
Mike Vrabel’s defense went up against Brady in each of the GOAT’s final two seasons with New England, and both times the Titans thoroughly smushed Brady and Co. There was a 34–10 win in Nashville in November 2018, and, of course, Vrabel’s Titans walloped Brady in his final game with the Patriots, 20–13, in the 2019–20 wild-card playoffs. Brady completed 52.6% of his passes for 5.94 yards per attempt, no touchdowns and an interception over those two matchups.
This Titans defense isn’t the same—they’re in the middle of a rebuild with the secondary—but Vrabel has indisputably been Josh McDaniels's kryptonite. But not kryptonite, because that's from the planet Krypton, so McDaniels's Vrabelium. Jones has done heavier lifting than he gets credit for during New England’s five-game winning streak, but it will be interesting to see what, if anything, McDaniels can do differently against Vrabel with a rookie quarterback under center this time around.
*—Jenny, Conor, Mitch, Shelby and I did lay it out for you on the podcast.
3. Getting a Vita Vea vs. Quenton Nelson rematch, but with Vea nursing a knee injury and Nelson an ankle injury, brings to mind a screenplay I’ve been working on. It’s Godzilla vs. Gamera, but basically each of them is nursing a lower-body injury. There won’t be nearly as much fighting per se—a fair amount of limping around, quite a few breaks—but I like to think you’ll leave the film with a greater respect for each of the competitors.
4. Sometimes ownerships’ obsession with head-coaching experience, the insistence on an arranged marriage for a first-time head coach, works out. Wade Phillips did some fine work under Sean McVay before McVay decided he needed a piece of that Vic Fangio tree. The Cardinals avoided disaster in Kliff Kingsbury’s first two seasons thanks in large part to Vance Joseph’s work on the defensive side of the ball. But the track record isn’t as good when it’s an offensive coordinator, and the Jason Garrett era with the Giants will go down as an all-time cautionary tale.
It wasn’t assuredly doomed from the start—Garrett did have a hand in developing Dak Prescott in Dallas (though early on Prescott was lifted more by a historically great offensive line than scheme). But it never seemed likely to work, which is why it’s so unforgivable that the Giants put their most important asset in Garrett’s hands. At this point, we know that forcing Daniel Jones to carry out a disjointed offense for a season-and-a-half will result in two lost seasons of development; if that’s all they lost, that’s a best-case scenario. But at worst, Jones, who will soon have to learn his third playbook in four NFL seasons, won’t be able to make up for that lost time and will never develop into the quarterback he’s shown flashes of becoming.
Especially considering the lack of support from the offensive line and the system, Jones has shown more signs of being a future franchise quarterback than not. But right now the Giants don’t know what they have, because they insisted he play in an offense that wouldn’t suit any young quarterback.
5. Rams-Packers will be a very good game, but it’s far from a must-win for either team. Nine wins will probably get you into the tournament in the NFC, and based on, you know, things that have happened over the past two seasons, homefield isn’t what it used to be (the Bucs won three road games en route to Super Bowl LV).
The real impact NFC game on Sunday will be when the 5–5 Vikings going to Santa Clara to take on the 5–5 49ers. Heading into Sunday, those teams own the final two playoff spots in the NFC, and both teams have fairly soft schedules from here on in. The loser could be pushed back out of the playoff picture, but more importantly it’s a conference game that will affect the first tiebreaker for wild-card teams. A loss would drop the 49ers to just 4–5 against the rest of the NFC.
The last time these teams met, in the divisional round two seasons ago, the 49ers won in pretty much the same fashion they’ve won the last two weeks of this season. Their run game picked up four yards at a time—they only had two runs of 10 or more yards—and they controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes. Meanwhile, the defense thoroughly stifled the Vikings; after a 41-yard TD pass from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs, Minnesota accumulated eight yards of offense and one first down over their next seven drives. The end result was a 27–10 49ers win in which Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back only 23 times over 68 offensive snaps.
In that game, the 49ers pass rush was dominant—it’s been good but not great this season—and their cornerbacks were good enough to hold up behind it despite the talent of Diggs and Adam Thielen. But on Sunday, Cousins should have a little more time, and the 49ers do not have cornerbacks who can match up with Justin Jefferson and Thielen, meaning the Vikings have a chance for a much different script this time around.
6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Stink!
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