With another victory Sunday, Pittsburgh remains the NFL’s only unbeaten team. But the Steelers weren’t the biggest success story this weekend.
Miami and Arizona were.
Both were last-place finishers in their divisions a year ago. But both are 6-3 today. Better yet, the Cards are tied for first in the NFC West, the Dolphins are a half-game behind Buffalo in the AFC East, and you know something? I expect both to make the playoffs.
You heard me. Both.
In fact, given the choice of Arizona, the Rams or Seattle in the NFC West, I’m taking the Cards. Reason: Quarterback Kyler Murray. He keeps the Cards in every game – running, passing, Hail Murrays, you name it -- and Sunday’s last-second 32-30 stunner over Buffalo is the ideal launching pad to Thursday’s game at Seattle.
Remember when the Seahawks were 5-0? Then they met Arizona … and lost in overtime.
"Our guys like playing when the spotlight is on us," said Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, "and I'm excited about Thursday."
Now look at Miami. The Dolphins caught everyone flat-footed last season when, under the direction of then-first-year coach Brian Flores, they were supposed to Tank For Tua. Except they didn’t. They won five games, including the season finale in Foxboro when New England needed a win to gain a first-round playoff bye.
That was supposed to be a lock for the Patriots. It wasn’t. Miami won, and surprise of surprises: The Dolphins still landed Tua Tagovailoa in the draft.
Now the Dolphins are rolling. They won their last three, all with Tua at quarterback, and are on schedule to reach the playoffs for only the second time since 2008. Go ahead and book it, people: The Dolphins make it to January this season.
First, there’s the defense. It’s one of the best in the league, and there aren’t many top tier teams that can say that. Second, there’s the quarterback. I realize it’s only two starts, but you have to like what you see in Tua. Sound decisions. Quick release. Few bad plays. Third, there’s the head coach. Flores already is high on Coach-of-the-Year ballots. And, last, there’s the schedule. Four of Miami’s next five opponents, are sub .500 opponents.
Only Kansas City is not, and the Dolphins draw them at home.
Every year the NFL celebrates at least one team that makes a Worst-to-First leap. This season it might have to celebrate two.
SUNDAY SCHOOL; FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Russell Wilson is no longer the presumptive MVP. Once Seattle was 5-0. Now it’s 6-3 and floundering. One reason: Defense. The Seahawks don’t play it. Another: Russell Wilson can’t carry this team by himself. That’s never been more evident than the past two weeks, with Wilson committing seven turnovers in losses to Buffalo and the Rams. Wilson had 19 touchdown passes, three interceptions and 100-plus ratings in his first five starts. Since then? Nine TD passes, seven interceptions and one 100-plus rating – including a season-low 57.0 Sunday. Wilson is still an MVP candidate, but he’s part of a pack that now includes Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
2. Tom Brady is who we thought he was. The haters couldn’t wait to bash him after that 35-point loss to New Orleans last weekend, but they forgot something: Brady rebounds better than Andre Drummond. OK, I didn’t know who he was, either, until I looked up the NBA’s leading rebounders last season. Anyway, forget the analogy. Look at Brady. He suffered eight defeats of 20 or more points at New England and was 7-1 in games immediately following them. Now he’s 3-0 following losses with Tampa Bay, with Sunday’s beatdown of Carolina the exclamation point. Brady threw for 341 yards, three TDs and a 124.0 rating. He also ran for a fourth score. In short, he was Tom Terrific. “He played fantastic,” said coach Bruce Arians. Why should anyone be surprised?
3. Baltimore may be in trouble. The Ravens were supposed to bury New England. They didn't. Instead, they dropped their first road game in 11 starts. OK, they're still 6-3. True. But their run defense just got gashed by Damien Harris and a pass-challenged offense. So what happens when they meet Tennessee and Derrick Henry next week? And unbeaten Pittsburgh after that? It's not inconceivable to imagine the Ravens at 6-5 by Thanksgiving night. And with nine AFC clubs at six wins today, they could be fighting for their playoff lives. The good news is their schedule gets soft afterward, with only one of their last five opponents above .500 (Cleveland). But the bad news is multifold. They have injuries galore. They have issues on both sides of the ball. Their quarterback is 0-6 in games where he trails by 10 or more points (including the playoffs). They're three games behind the Steelers in the AFC North. And they're tied with Cleveland ... Cleveland ... with almost no hope of a third straight division title.
4. Believe it or Don’t: The Giants are in the playoff picture. That’s because they play in the NFC East where anything goes … or doesn’t. Defending champion Philadelphia looked like the team to beat, but the Eagles can’t get out of their own way. Worse, they can’t get out of the Giants’ way, either, and that’s a news flash. Philadelphia had won its last eight and 12 of 13 vs. the G-Men. But this is 2020 where everyone in the NFC is beatable, especially everyone in the NFC East. The combined record of the division is a league-worst 10-26-1 and 2-18-1 when not playing the NFC East. Nevertheless, deal the Giants in as a playoff possibility. Not only did they prove they can beat the Eagles, but quarterback Daniel Jones proved he can beat someone other than Washington. He’s 4-0 vs. D.C.; now 2-16 vs. everyone else.
5. With Drew Brees’ injury, the NFC could be more unsettled than ever. After last weekend’s dissection of Tampa Bay, it was easy to put the Saints at or near the top of the conference. After all, Brees was 2-0 vs. Brady, and, of their remaining seven opponents, only one (Kansas City, Dec. 20) had a winning record. But let’s see what the MRI on Brees’ ribs reveals. All I know is that if Brees is out and Jameis Winston is in, all bets are off. For now, at least, maybe Green Bay … maybe … is the safest choice in the NFC.
THIRD AND 20
1. I watch that Hail Murray catch by the Cards’ DeAndre Hopkins … in triple coverage, no less … and wonder where the Cards would be without him. I also wonder how many votes former Houston coach Bill O’Brien pulls for Executive of the Year. If he doesn’t make that deal with the Cards, Arizona isn’t a division contender.
2. Just a hunch, but no Bruce Arians’ complaints this week about Mike Evans being “open.” Evans had more targets (11) than any Bucs’ receiver, pulling down six receptions for 77 yards and a TD.
3. Jacksonville’s best defensive weapon isn’t Myles Jack. It’s Logan Cooke. He’s the team’s punter, and he dropped three Sunday at the Green Bay 2, 3 and 9.
4. Yes, having Nick Chubb back does make a difference for Cleveland. You just saw why.
5. Washington needs more than a franchise quarterback. It needs alarm clocks. It’s been outscored 148-72 in the first half, including 17-3 Sunday.
6. At 3-6, the Broncos are right on schedule after nine games. They were 3-6 in 2017 ... 3-6 in 2018 ... and 3-6 in 2019. When the makers of "Groundhog Day" decide on a sequel, someone get John Elway on speed dial.
7. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger should take more time off from practice. That’s as good as he’s looked all year. Moreover, that was a decisive victory for a Steelers’ team that, despite its record, had been teetering lately – forced to overcome 10-point second-half deficits the previous two weeks. But not Sunday. Big Ben threw a season-high four TD passes, and Pittsburgh coasted past a Bengals’ team that had pushed opponents to the finish line. By the way, make Roethlisberger an outside shot for league MVP and the likely second-place finisher to Alex Smith as Comeback Player of the Year. All he’s done is throw for 22 TDs, with only four interceptions, and quarterback the NFL’s only unbeaten team.
8. Just run, baby. In their last three games the Raiders rushed 112 times for 573 yards, while Derek Carr threw just 72 times. Result: Three wins by a combined score of 84-44.
9. The number that Giants’ fans should like most about Daniel Jones’ latest performance? Zero. For the second straight week … and only the third time in 22 career starts … he committed no turnovers.
10. Most stunning stat Sunday comes from the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game. The Bengals were 0-for-13 on third downs. Say it ain’t so, Joe.
11. It’s not often you get to win twice in one day, but welcome to Miami. The Dolphins beat the L.A. Chargers Sunday, while the Houston Texans lost. So what? So Miami owns Houston’s first-and-second-round picks in the 2021 draft. So the more the Texans lose … I think you can figure it out.
12. The Chargers' Anthony Lynn should be concerned. His club is 2-7 this season, 7-18 over the past two and just produced its first stinker of the year -- looking so listless that a friend who once covered the team told me he's not sure the Bolts can win their next home game. Nothing new there except this: Their next home game is vs. the New York Jets.
13. Somebody in Tampa woke up. Where the Bucs ran the ball an NFL-record three times last weekend (plus two kneel downs), they got smart Sunday and evened the playing field vs. Carolina. Go ahead and look it up. They pushed the ball 37 times on the ground, including 23 carries by Ronald Jones, while Brady threw it 39 times. Balance like that should make Brady and the Bucs more effective. In fact, it already has. “We have to continue to make plays,” Brady said, “and run the ball the way we did today.” Bingo.
14. You can’t mention Arizona’s acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins without acknowledging Buffalo GM Brandon Beane’s move to add wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Only one receiver entering Sunday’s game had more catches than Hopkins. It was Diggs. Only one receiver had more yards receiving, too. It was Diggs. And, until the last play of the game, only one receiver would make the last-minute go-ahead touchdown catch. It was Diggs. Until it wasn’t.
15. When people talk about Coach-of-the-Year candidates, how come no one mentions Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski? All he’s done in 10 weeks is win as many games as the Browns did all last season … and six times as many as they won in 2016-17.
16. I’m still trying to figure out why Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson went for the two-point conversion, down 21-17 in the third quarter. “The decision-making was obviously to trust my guys upstairs,” he said. That’s why I don’t get it. The decision-making is Pederson’s job, not theirs. Stop trying to outsmart people, Doug. Just make the kick.
17. Yes, the Eagles are first in the NFC East, but with Cleveland, Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona next on the schedule they won’t be for long.
18. The Rams are Russell Wilson’s kryptonite. He’s lost eight of his last 11 to them.
19. Maybe now the Lions can stop talking about a home-field disadvantage. That was their first victory this season at Ford Field and their first in eight games dating back to 2019.
20. Apparently, DK Metcalf can be contained. He had just two catches for 28 yards Sunday, and, Jalen Ramsey, take a bow. The Rams’ cornerback drew Metcalf frequently in man-to-man coverage.
STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Giants’ quarterback Daniel Jones has three rushes of 30 or more yards this season, or as many as … Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. Honest.
STAT THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the first pair of Cleveland backs to run for 100 yards each in the same game since 1966 when Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green did it.
AND ONE FOR BOTH OF US
Despite the loss, Philadelphia remains in first in the NFC East with a 3-5-1 record. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the fewest wins for a division leader through Week 10 since the 1970 league merger.
GOLD JACKET QUOTES
“It was on three people. They were in position. It was just a better catch by I.” – Arizona WR DeAndre Hopkins on his game-winning catch.
“You’ve got to say enough is enough. Guys are upset. I’d mad we lost this game today.” – Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson on the Eagles’ 27-17 loss.
"Really just felt nice and rested coming into today. I tried to talk coach into seeing if I could take next week off, too." -- Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger.
“Every time you play and lose, for me, I’m not going to talk about anybody else, there’s something in my soul that gets … ripped out.” -- Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone.
"We keep making steady progress. We're definitely headed in the right direction." -- New England coach Bill Belichick.
GOLD JACKET RECIPIENT
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona. There were plenty of candidates Sunday, but only one pulled out a last-second victory with a Hail Mary. Kyle Murray, come on down. Murray is mostly known as a quarterback who can beat you with his legs … and his two rushing TDs Sunday marked the fifth straight week he scored as a running back. But there’s so much more to his game, and he proved it on the Cards’ last-gasp drive – going the length of the field in the final 33 seconds, with Murray dodging a sack on his last snap, scrambling left and heaving a 43-yard prayer that landed in DeAndre Hopkins’ hands with two ticks left. "I knew when I let it go I thought it had a good chance," Murray said. He was right. Final score: Arizona 32, Buffalo 30.