We’re back, people. Your weekly look-around the NFL for the best performances, worst chokes, and most questionable prognostications.
If I didn’t mention your team this week, no worries. Good, bad, or meh, I’ll be getting to everyone in due time.
- Tom Brady still doesn’t like it when his O-line collapses
Go ahead, national media dudes. Take a bow. For the eighth consecutive season, you predicted that Brady would go all noodle arm and show his forty-three years. Last week it was every shade of “Belichick is nothing without Brady”. Now we’re hearing the next verse which is “Belichick knew Brady would fall apart”. Here’s one thing I know. Brady doesn’t like pressure and he needs at least a marginal running game to be successful. Yes, there were some bad choices made in his zero touchdown, three interception performance on Sunday night, but the Buccaneers offensive line absolutely fell apart. Big time. The Buccaneers rushed the ball only five times (including Blaine Gabbert kneeling to end the game) for a TOTAL of 8 rushing yards on the night and the Saints sacked TB12 three times. The pressure was almost constant, and we all know how that ends. Brady gets frustrated and eventually erratic. In fact, the Buccaneers have won only two games in which the opposing team recorded even a single sack, week three against Denver and last week against the woeful Giants, who put up a hell of a fight. In every other Buccaneers win, they’ve kept Brady upright and run the ball. Until Sunday night, Tampa Bay was averaging over 100 yards rushing per contest. Despite the nightmare outing, Brady is still on pace for thirty-five TDs against twelve interceptions, so Tampa Bay can’t be too worried about their investment. Points to the Saints for letting Jameis Winston get in a series during garbage time, BTW. That was brutal.
- The Chiefs have challengers
The Cowboys were a bit of a trap game for the Steelers, but they found a way to make enough plays down the stretch, even with the hobbling of Ben Roethlisberger (more on that in a moment). They are 8-0 with a transcendent new weapon in rookie wideout Chase Claypool. Baltimore may be a step behind in the AFC North, but they are still a monster defense with the fewest points allowed and the second-best point differential in the league. Buffalo has lost two games this year, both to last season’s AFC Championship qualifiers (Titans and Chiefs), not to mention that they are currently 2-0 against the chamber of horrors that is the NFC West. Oh, and did I mention that the Bills don’t have the best point differential in that division, despite a virtual stranglehold on the title? Nope, that would be the Dolphins (+61, 4th best in the AFC), who have won four-straight after going toe to toe with Arizona and coming out on top. The Patriots may be mired in a post-Brady funk, but that doesn’t mean that the AFC East is done for. The Colts have also looked very much improved, especially on defense, in spite of a loss to the Ravens this week. Point being, if I’m Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, I’m feeling good, but I know I’m not out of the woods just yet.
- The Saints might not
After that absolute dismantling of the Buccaneers on Sunday, I think we are starting to see some clarity in the NFC. New Orleans looks to be the class of the NFC field. Yes, they lost to the Raiders in the Las Vegas home opener, and they lost a nail biter to Green Bay, but the Saints were without the reigning offensive player of the year for both contests. New Orleans has now won five straight and that defensive effort against Brady and his super team is worth looking at. In the first half, New Orleans allowed a total of twenty-five offensive plays, resulting in four three-and-outs, two interceptions and a turnover on downs when Brady missed Gronk on a desperate fourth-and-six attempt. The 38-3 loss was the worst of Brady’s career, and while his passer rating, a putrid 40.4 wasn’t the worst of his career, it was bad enough for third worst. That didn’t come in a vacuum. New Orleans did that to him and that absolutely stacked offensive unit. Brees now has Michael Thomas back, and it looks like with their full complement, they might be too much for everyone in the NFC.
- Psst. Everyone, look at Miami…
While the Tua vs. Kyler show was fun to watch, I’m not here to proclaim the beginning of the Tua dynasty in Miami. Yes, he played well on the road against Arizona, completing twenty of twenty-eight passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns, but this whole team feels like something different this season. First off, they’ve won four-straight. Cool, cool. But what if I told you that three of those four wins came against the NFC West? Sure, that fourth win was against the Jets, but Miami is the only team to shut them out this year. Tough defensive units from Indy, Buffalo (twice) and both of last year’s Super Bowl participants haven’t been able to accomplish that. Miami has the best point differential in the AFC East, and the fourth best +/- in the AFC as a whole. Brian Flores has the Fins cooking and their next four games all come against losing teams (Chargers, Broncos, Jets, Bengals) meaning there’s a very solid chance that Miami is 9-3 heading into a week fourteen home clash with Kansas City. Are you paying attention now?
- There’s no O in Chicag-o
Why is Matt Nagy doing this to Chicago fans? You can’t make the argument that Nick Foles is some kind of savior anymore. The offense really isn’t good at anything, so why have they turned the page so definitively on Trubisky? Chicago ranks in the bottom ten in points scored (6th worst) and are sporting a negative point differential despite the winning record. Chicago has scored sixty-five fewer points than the 3-6 Falcons. Even 1-7 Jacksonville is outscoring them. The Bears have the third-fewest rushing yards in the league (741) and they average a fourth-worst 3.7 yards per carry, not to mention they’ve only scored two rushing TDs all season. Even the Jets have more. In the passing game, the raw numbers look decent (2306 passing yards, 16 TDs, 12 INTs), but the pass attempts are sky-high. Only Dallas’ pass happy offense has more passing attempts and Chicago’s 6.2 yards per pass attempt is the second worst in the league. At this point, I’m not sure what the solution for the Bears is, but it’s become clear over the past three weeks that they can’t lean quite so heavily on that defense.
- Big Ben is a tough, tough dude
We know that he can be hard to drag down, 6’5”, 241 lbs. will do that for you. But he’s also proving that his durability isn’t just because of his frame. I’ve prematurely called out his longevity before, but after his return on Sunday, I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. With the Steelers undefeated, playing against a Cowboys unit that was competing hard despite playing its fourth-string quarterback, Roethlisberger injured not one, but BOTH his knees in the first half. It looked like the kind of hit that could have ended Big Ben’s career in a flash, but Big Ben finished the series. Mason Rudolph came in for a series as the medical team checked their starter out and led the Steelers to a field goal (2/3, 3 yards passing) at the end of the first half, but Big Ben trotted out after halftime like nothing happened. Steeler fans can breathe a little easier as he ended the night with 306 yards and three touchdown passes to beat the Cowboys. They might, however, lose some sleep after the revelation that the quarterback has been placed on the reserve/Covid list due to close exposure to an infected teammate. We have not seen a positive test for the veteran QB as yet.
- Seattle’s defense is more suspect than we think
When we think about good Seattle teams, we think Legion of Boom. We think hard-hitting linebackers and smothering secondaries. We think about defenses that can morph to subdue any offensive attack. Not this year. Seattle, despite their 6-2 record, must solve some critical failures in their passing defense if they want to contend for an NFC title this year. First, I’ll start off with the good. Seattle can get after the quarterback when they scheme it up, and that’s what they did on Sunday, sacking Buffalo QB Josh Allen seven times. That’s great. What’s not great? Allen’s passer rating was higher under pressure, and the young signal caller gutted Seattle for over 400 yards passing and three TDs in the win. In eight games, six opposing quarterbacks have thrown for over 300 yards. Seattle has allowed the most passing yards in the league (2897) and a 69.7% completion percentage, good for fifth worst in the league. Teams that have performed worse against the pass: The 0-8 Jets, the 1-7 Jags, the 2-7 Giants and inexplicably, the 6-2 Packers. Listen, Russell Wilson is an MVP candidate, and they still scored thirty-four points against an AFC contending Bills team, but the defense has to help the guy out if they want to stand a chance.
- Baltimore’s offense is more suspect than we think
Sure, the Ravens have lost two games so far this season, but they’re both “good” losses. Kansas City and undefeated Pittsburgh have taken down Lamar Jackson and company, but the Ravens offense is still a terrifyingly electric unit, right? Pump the brakes. The Ravens are relying on their defense this year, as their offense has come back down to earth. The Ravens rank outside of the top ten in points scored, a huge drop from last year, and while they do rank first league wide in rushing yards (1361), they are dead last in passing yards (1537). The big plays have all but disappeared, as Baltimore ranks in the middle of the field in plays of 20+ yards, and they have only had one 40+ yard passing play all season. The Ravens have converted the second fewest passing first downs in the league, only the 0-8 Jets have fewer (and it’s close…76-82). The defense has become one of those scary elite Ravens units again, and they’ve been in the mix, but if they want to catch Pittsburgh to reclaim the AFC North title and avenge that playoff stumble, they need to find offensive balance again. If they can, they should be the toughest challenge to a Kansas City repeat in the AFC.
- Who is Garret Gilbert?
This isn’t a statement. More of a real question. No one had ever heard of Cowboys third string QB Ben DiNucci, and just as we were getting to know the sublime sidearm slinger after week eight, he was benched in favor of this dude. Nice debut, though. Gilbert almost upset the Steelers. Let’s find out some more about him together, shall we?
So, he’s an unheralded, undrafted rookie, right?
How about no?
Gilbert has played for the Rams, Pats, Lions, Raiders, Panthers, Apollos, Browns and now the Cowboys.
Yeah. Gilbert spent 2019 in the Alliance of American Football, where he led that league in passing yards, completions and passer rating. At least until it went under after eight weeks. Now back in the NFL, Gilbert’s performance against one of the league’s top teams bodes well for his chances of keeping the starting job for the rest of the year.
- Covid-19 still has a lot to say about how this season turns out
If it feels like there has been less Covid-19 buzz the past few weeks in the NFL, there are two reasons. First, the league is largely out of options to move games around willy-nilly out of an abundance of caution like they did early on. The bye weeks are running out, and this is the result if the league intends to finish the season on time. We knew that would happen. Second, Covid-19 cases had stabilized in the early part of the season, but as case numbers and hospitalization rates increase nationally, they’ve been rising in NFL facilities as well. In the buildup to week nine, sixteen teams had at least one positive Covid-19 test among players and/or team personnel. That’s not good. The surge is to be expected, but how teams manage this situation will be critical. Close contacts who have spent extended time near individuals with positive tests will also land on the Covid-19 list and be ineligible if they haven’t had five consecutive clean tests before the next game. Here’s just one example of how this is likely to cause chaos. Matthew Stafford has landed on the list, meaning that he won’t be under center for the Lions on Sunday. This gives Washington more than a fighting chance for a rare road win in a game where they were only a four-point underdog against Detroit with Stafford. A win might not sound like a lot, but that one win could easily reshape the entire NFC East race.
At this time of year, we always look at injury reports to figure out who can make a late push (Sorry 49ers), but in 2020, it might be about which teams have the strongest safety protocols in place down the stretch.
For more NFL thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: Associated Press Images