Russell Wilson isn’t some sort of seer, but he doesn’t believe that any of this is happening by mistake, either. And so his approaching Greg Olsen, just before Seattle took the ball at its own 25 with 3:59 left, down 31-30? That was more than just a quarterback giving his teammate a pat on the rear-end as his offense headed into crunch time.
It was real faith.
“The craziest thing was the drive before that I told him, Listen, it’s going to come down to you making a great big-time play,” Wilson said, over the phone from the Seahawks locker room late Sunday afternoon. “You’re going to make the play.”
Sure enough, it wasn’t more than a few minutes later that the Seahawks faced fourth-and-3. Seattle was at the Dallas 47, 2:37 left, and one bad play away from Loss No. 1 of the season.
That bad play never came for Wilson and his unit. Not when Wilson threw with anticipation as Olsen bent his route inside, and dropped the ball low and back outside to shield the big tight end from oncoming Dallas safety Xavier Woods to pick up 11 yards and move the sticks. And not when third-and-3 arose three plays later, and Wilson looked to another of his playmakers, one who needed to atone for an earlier misstep.
Three quarters before this, D.K. Metcalf seemed to have an easy 63-yard touchdown, hauling in a majestic bomb from Wilson and jogging to the end zone when, 62 yards in, Cowboys rookie Trevon Diggs came screaming in to knock the ball loose and through the end zone for a touchback to preserve what was, at the time, a 9-9 tie.
“He said, basically, let’s get it back,” Wilson said. “He’s such a great friend. He’s one of my best friends on the team. He’s like a little brother to me. But he’s also a guy that’s just been so special in everything that he does. It’s a learning lesson. You can’t take a play for granted. He knows now. And I’m expecting that for the next 10 years of his career.”
Message received. On that third-and-3, split left, Metcalf ran his route through the teeth of the Dallas defense and came free down the right side, where Wilson had bought time to find him just as he blew past safety Darian Thompson for a 29-yard touchdown and the game-winning points.
Add a two-point conversion throw to Olsen, and it was 38-31, and that would be the final.
But above and beyond the simple outcome, Wilson knew Metcalf would come up big for him, the same way he knew Olsen would, the same way we all seem to know now that the 31-year-old Seahawks quarterback is going to make every play he needs to in these spots. He won in Atlanta. He beat Cam Newton and the Patriots. He outdueled Dak.
In doing so, as we’ve all readied to watch the last two MVPs duel tonight in what may be the most anticipated game of the regular season, Wilson was busy serving notice on Sunday—he’s playing as well as he ever has, too, and is more in command than he’s ever been.
The result? Through three weeks, when it comes to this year’s MVP, the two guys playing tonight, and everyone else, are chasing him.
What a bonkers Week 3 we had. A lot to get to with all of you, including …
• An inside look at the Bears’ decision to switch QBs.
• How Bills fought off the Rams’ furious rally.
• The Lions pump life into their season.
And much, much more. But we’re starting with Wilson and his Seahawks.
I did ask Wilson if hearing so much about tonight’s combatants—Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes—lit fire underneath him at all. And he countered with the four things that motivate him more than anything else.
The first is his faith, he said, “because God’s given me this opportunity.” The second is his family, he continued, because “I want my kids one day to see that Dad was able to do everything he could to leave it on the line for the family.” And then, the third and fourth things are the ones that are easier for the rest of us to see.
“The third thing is, for me, when I think about who I want to be, I want to be the best to ever play this game, ultimately. That’s the thought process,” he said. “I’ve got a long way to go, I’ve just got to keep my head down and keep working. The fourth thing is I love winning. I love winning. That’s the only option. Winning is the only option. I love winning.”
On Sunday, we saw where those things—his own greatness, and the potential of the team around him—came together and beat back a battle-tested opponent that wouldn’t go away.
The Seahawks went up 9-3, the Cowboys tied it at 9. The Seahawks went up 16-9, the Cowboys closed that to 16-15. Then Seattle watched a 30-15 lead melt away into a 31-30 deficit. The team’s once-vaunted run game was up-and-down, lead back Chris Carson went down, and the defense struggled, again.
So it was going to be on Wilson as it has been for the first month of the season, and that meant Wilson was going to lean back on the work he and the guys around him already did.
Those relationships with Olsen (again, he’s new) and Metcalf (he’s in just his second NFL season), didn’t come together overnight, and they weren’t easy to forge in a very unusual offseason. But the guys involved were committed to advancing them, as were guys like Tyler Lockett who’d been around longer, and so a series of a virtual players-only meetings were how Wilson made up the difference.
“Those guys have been so great,” Wilson said. “Every day, in terms of their approach in the offseason, we spent an hour on Zoom calls with the rookies before our scheduled meetings, And then we spent an hour after. We spent two hours a day for four days a week, so eight extra hours every week, just spending time. Sometimes even more. And it’s a testament to that and the work ethic. Really, the reality is nothing happens by accident, you know?”
The way Wilson and the offense are playing hasn’t happened by accident at all.
Because they’d worked together, Wilson and Olsen had a better rapport than most guys who’d only played a couple weeks together would. Because they’d spent time together, Wilson knew he could count on Metcalf to bounce back and get his redemption later in the game. And because they’d been over all this before, Wilson’s message for these sorts of situations was already ingrained.
In simple terms, it came down to two words for Wilson: Stay neutral. When we talked, he figured that applied to Olsen, when he had to show up on the biggest play of the drive, and to Metcalf, who had to keep his mind in the right place after his mistake.
“One of the things I talk to the guys about, it’s something I firmly believe, it’s staying neutral—[mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad] and I, that’s the philosophy,” Wilson said. “It’s being neutral, staying neutral in the midst of a moment, amidst the chaos. And that’s what we did on that last drive, that’s what we did throughout the game. We knew it was going to be a battle, and we were able to remain neutral in the midst of it all. It doesn’t mean you don’t play with passion; you can play with great passion.
“You keep your mind calm and on what you’re trying to do, what the task is.”
And as Wilson sees it, this is just the start.
While he wanted to keep the focus on the team, it’s impossible not to see how Seattle is more reliant on him, and more Russell-centric, than ever before. Through three weeks, he’s thrown for 925 yards, 14 touchdowns and a pick, and with a young and banged-up defense on hand, the Seahawks have needed all of that to beat the Falcons, Patriots and Cowboys in succession.
The hope, from everyone, is that the team balances out over time. Seattle should get better with time on defense, and the run game has shown plenty of flashes of breaking out. And if that happens, look out.
“Yeah, there’s a whole other level that we can go to, that we’re going to work for every day, when we approach this game,” he said. “There’s a whole other level that we can get to, a space we can go to. It’s time for us to, no pun intended, level up our game a little bit. That’s what we’re excited about. There’s a whole other space we can go to as a team, as players, as a group. That’s what I’m excited about. We feel like we’re just getting started.”
Even still, clearly, Wilson, Metcalf, Olsen and a host of others have already come a long way.
BEARS AT A QUARTERBACK CROSSROADS
In the jubilant aftermath of a come-from-behind 30-26 win in Atlanta, Bears coach Matt Nagy knew there was business to tend to—and he wasted very little time confronting head-on what was coming for his team. On the two-hour charter back to Chicago, Nagy spent about 10 minutes in the aisle talking with Nick Foles, and another 10 minutes sitting with Mitch Trubisky, and told both how the 24 hours to follow would go.
By now, you know where this thing is. Trubisky won the job in camp and, through some uneven play, led the Bears to a 2-0 start. On Sunday, after falling behind 16-10 in the first half, then going three-and-out on the first series of the second half, as the deficit bulged to 26-10, Nagy and Co. turned to Foles, who promptly led the Bears back to a 30-26 win.
We can all guess where it’s going next—but Nagy swore last night that he wanted to be deliberate about it, and have his infrastructure of QB coaches all do the homework. So the idea is to have those guys (OC Bill Lazor, pass-game coordinator Dave Ragone, QBs coach John DeFilippo) get a good hard look at where things stand, and have each guy watch the tape on his own, with plans to reconvene on a quarterback decision later this morning.
“Then tomorrow we’ll get together and we’ll watch it together as a staff like we always do,” Nagy told me. “And then we’ll go ahead and start moving forward. … What you do is you explain to them exactly how you’re feeling. You don’t lie, you don’t make stuff up. You just say how you’re feeling, and you put it as honest as you can be. … Sometimes part of our job as head coaches is to have tough discussions and tough conversations. That’s our job.
“I played quarterback all my life. So both of these guys, I can relate to what’s going through their minds right now. On Nick’s side and Mitch’s side. I always put myself in their shoes and say ‘How would I think about the position I’m in?’”
My guess would be today Foles feels a little better than Trubisky, for obvious reasons.
And really, as Nagy explains it, he really didn’t see this coming so much either. In fact, he told me the first time the topic was really broached was at halftime, when some of the issues the team had early in the opener against Detroit started to resurface—the Bears, again, were having trouble on third down and in the red zone, and in managing down-and-distance. The offensive coaches discussed it, but didn’t raise it to the quarterback.
At that point, they figured they should wait. Then, the Falcons went 75 yards in seven plays to push the lead to 23-10, Blidi Wreh-Wilson picked Trubisky off on a shallow cross on a third-and-8, and the Falcons tacked on another field goal as a result.
At that point, Nagy looked over and gave Lazor a look, then simply said to DeFilippo over the headset: “We’re going to put Nick in.”
“Mitch was on the bench, I walked over to him and put my hand on his shoulder and told him we’re going to go with Nick,” Nagy said. “Then I went over to Nick and told him he’s in. It was as simple as that. There wasn’t a long discussion, talking through it was as easy as that. And I went onto the play sheet and started figuring out what we wanted to call next.”
One thing Nagy emphasized: One reason he felt OK doing it was because he knew both guys could handle it. Trubisky proved that by facing the music with the press after the game, and Foles proved it first in how he dealt with losing the summer competition, and then with how he played when he got in on Sunday.
And based on statistics alone, he was an upgrade. More than just that, there were nuances to it. First, there was the fact that Foles has had to pinch-hit in the past, and that experience showed in his 16-of-29, 188-yard, three-touchdown second half. But there was also his knowledge and background, which coaches felt would make everyone better.
“He did a good job of getting us into a good position offensively based off what the defense was showing us,” Foles said. “We gave him flexibility to just kind of be himself out there, and if there’s something that he sees, go ahead and make an adjustment at the line of scrimmage.”
Such a case came up when it mattered most—third-and-8 from the Falcons 28 with two minutes left. Before the two-minute warning, Nagy sent Foles and the offense out, and forced the Falcons defense to line up and give them a look. Once he got that look, Foles made an adjustment to Anthony Miller’s route, and the told the guys, If they do that again, we’re going to do this.
Sure enough, after the two-minute warning, Atlanta gave the Bears the same look. Miller adjusted his route, and Foles hit him for the seam for the game winning touchdown.
“Right after that ball was snapped, we all knew what he had gotten to in that play, based off what they gave us on defense,” Nagy said. “We practice that over and over and over in training camp and in meetings and in film review. ‘Hey, if they give you this, let’s have an attacking mindset.’ And that’s what they did, they gave it to us, now you’ve got to execute it. And those are why, it’s like when you play golf.”
Nagy explained the analogy by saying that, in golf, you practice and practice and practice, and then there comes a day when everything lines up and you nailed that hole in one—that was Miller’s game-winning touchdown for Atlanta, and as a result the Bears completed an improbable comeback, and now the team is walking into a quarterback controversy.
Only, Nagy doesn’t think it’ll be a controversy at all. With the team 3-0, his belief is the coaches will make a decision this morning, and the character of the team, and quarterbacks themselves, will carry everyone through into preparation for the Colts next week.
As he sees it, if there was going to be a problem it’d have manifested yesterday. It didn’t, and Nagy sees that as a testament to his guys.
“It is what it is right now. We’re 3-0,” he said. “We’ll talk through this next decision we’ve got to make and where we’re at, and then whatever it is we do, we’ll do and we won’t look back. I know that our guys trust our coaches, our coaches trust our players. We have each others’ backs. I go back to the culture. Some teams might not handle this well. I don’t know. I just have a lot of belief in our team as players and I like where we’re at.”
BILLS DON’T FOLD
On one hand, the Bills blew a 28-3 lead at home.
On the other, they fought back and put together a pretty gutsy drive to win.
Processing all of that might be tough for some coaches, and, for Sean McDermott, maybe it would’ve been a year or two ago. But this time around, with a 32-28 win in his back pocket, organizing it mentally wasn’t nearly as difficult as it might’ve been before—because really, he was just trying to keep a promise to himself.
“You know me, I’ll be honest with you—I’ve tried to enjoy these a little more,” McDermott said, from his office postgame. “Because they’re hard to get, man. And you work so hard. I’ve been in this league a long time. … You just got to learn to try to enjoy them a little more. Then, you’ve got to buckle down. And I’ll take this home tonight, and when the kids go to bed, I’ll watch the tape.”
Simple. Easy. And as if the Bills expected to be here, at 3-0.
The last step to getting there, though, was pretty circuitous. For two-and-a-half quarters, the Bills looked like the ’85 Bears, and Josh Allen like Ben Roethlisberger in his prime. The lead bulged to 25, and it was, for all intents and purposes, over. Until it wasn’t.
The Rams scored quickly after the Bills took that lead, and then came a controversial John Johnson interception of Allen—it pretty clearly wasn’t a pick, though McDermott didn’t want to comment when I asked him about it—after which the Rams scored their second touchdown in less than two minutes. In the 15 minutes of game action after that, the Rams had more touchdowns (two) than the Bills had first downs (one), and seized a 32-28 lead.
The Bills got the ball back at their own 25, with the biggest single-game collapse in franchise history staring them in the face. No question, the pressure was on, and the challenge was clear.
“Momentum, without fans, is swinging even quicker these days it seems like,” McDermott said. “Especially when you’re at home. And so, to have the mental toughness to reset and refocus in those moments like we had to on that last drive, coming off of what just happened, that’s hard to do. And I don’t take that for granted. Those are, to me, mental opportunities as a football team, and we executed them.”
McDermott doesn’t take it for granted. But he also wasn’t surprised to see it—and he saw it as a reflection of how the Bills prepare.
“It really goes back to the DNA of our guys and the way we practice,” McDermott said. “We practice situations like that. Our guys have been in situations like that, whether it be offensively, defensively, in practice, critical moments in the game, where you can win the game. And we execute at a high level. I think that’s the right mindset.”
That showed up most on two particular plays. The first was a third-and-22 from the Bills 31 and 3:20 remaining. In that situation, Allen knew if he could get Buffalo close, the Bills would go for it on fourth down. So Allen took the snap, hung in the pocket, and then shot a missile at Cole Beasley over the middle of the field, essentially splitting two defenders. The throw got there so fast, and was so on target, that Beasley had the time to turn and dive upfield, to cover the 4-or-so yards left.
“Just great awareness for the situation and what we needed in that case,” McDermott said. “What Cole needed. And well-dialed-up by [offensive coordinator] Brian [Daboll], well-executed by the front to give us time. You’re going against Aaron Donald, it’s tough to capitalize on third-and-22, just a rough time to get down the field. So I thought our offensive line did a good job. And then just the awareness, I thought we managed the game well right there. We knew we were going to go for it on fourth down if we didn’t get it right there, so that allows us some flexibility as well.”
And then, after moving into Rams territory, a costly facemask penalty pushed the Bills back and forced a third-and-25 from the Rams 30, creating another game-on-the-line spot.
Allen again threw it short of the sticks, finding Stefon Diggs over the middle, but picked up enough yardage so in case his receiver was dragged down, he’d have a manageable fourth down. In this case, the receiver was taken down, the Bills were then in fourth-and-8, and a questionable PI call against Darious Williams converted that one for Buffalo.
“We got to fourth-down-and-manageable, we had a legitimate chance to get either a first down or throw the ball in the end zone, and I can tell you for the defensive coordinator, that’s a tough call right there,” McDermott said. “Because you don’t know if they’re going to the sticks at fourth-and-5 or if they’re going to try to throw it to the end zone. So it just changes the dynamic of the game and the situation.”
Allen found Tyler Kroft for a three-yard score on the next play, and disaster was averted.
So the Bills are 3-0. Allen played a really clean two-and-a-half quarters, then showed a ton of toughness down the stretch to gut out the win after things went a little haywire. The team showed character in compartmentalizing a bad stretch when it really needed to.
And yes, there’s a not-so-great piece of this too. The Bills took their foot off the gas a little against the Jets two weeks ago, and didn’t really have to pay for it. This week, that happened against a better team, and it was a real problem. Which gives Buffalo something to learn from.
“That’s the reality of the situation,” McDermott said. “So we’ll go back as coaches and look at the film of the second half, and really overall as a team, we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Why?’ I mean, two turnovers that gave them manageable, shorter field position that what would be ideal. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to look at each and every one of us and say, ‘Hey, what part did we play in this?’ And make sure that we get those things tightened up here.”
And they will. But McDermott figured for at least a couple hours that could wait, so he could let himself, like he said, enjoy this one a little.
LIONS LIVE IN THE MOMENT
Matt Patricia was pretty aware of the fact that the old narratives were being fed going into this week—The Lions blew a big lead in the opener against the Bears, then went up 14-3 before being blown off the field in Green Bay, and that meant that the ghosts of Detroit’s NFL past were going to be resurrected ahead of his team’s trip to Arizona.
“In Detroit, that’s something that we deal with, that we battle, that sort of, ‘Here we go again’ mentality,” Patricia said to me, from the team hotel postgame. “We talked about it this week. … What I said is we’ve got to stay in the moment. We can’t make the moment bigger than it is. Because if you do that, then it’s almost like it becomes too much for you to handle. It becomes bigger than what it actually is. And all it actually is, is the next play.
“That’s all it is. We’ve just got to do a great job on that play, we’ve got to stay in the moment and do a great job of doing our job on that play and not tying in everything else to it.”
And in doing so, the Lions may have saved their season—one that was flagging going into the game against the previously unbeaten Cardinals. Five first-half lead changes led into a nip-and-tuck second half. A big stop with five minutes left with the game tied at 23 set up the Lions for a game-winning drive, and a point where Patricia would prove prophetic.
On a second-and-5, under duress, Matthew Stafford uncorked as beautiful a throw as you’ll see at any level, one that landed 52 or 53 yards down field in the waiting arms of Marvin Hall for what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown. One problem: There was a flag down. And the call was holding on Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a tackle who was filling in at guard. That made it second-and-15 and created a very real Here We Go Again moment.
Instead, it just became a new starting point. T.J. Hockenson drew a pass interference call to score a first down on the next play, and then Stafford threw to Kenny Golladay for 11 yards, and Marvin Jones for 20 put the team well within Matt Prater’s range.
Soon thereafter, Prater split the uprights on a 39-yarder to give the Lions their first win.
For now, it’s something for the Lions to build off of coming out of a rough couple weeks—and proof that the experience of the spring and summer bonded a group that won’t go in the tank so easy. Detroit, you’ll remember, went through the same stuff every NFL team did, but may have felt it a little more acutely, because COVID-19 hit Michigan fairly hard pretty early on, and the social justice protests locally were fairly intense.
The result was the team working together on a ton of stuff. The Lions, in fact, were the first team to cancel a practice or a game (before even the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks) in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, and before that were among the more aggressive with their community efforts the last few months.
“I think that these guys truly feel that their teammates listen and respect them because of the things that we’ve been through,” Patricia said. “So when now we have to get to this week and we have to start having really tough conversations with each other about things we need to do better, I think they’ll really listen to each other. As opposed to sometimes you have teams that don’t. They just kind of move on. I think these guys respect each other so much that it’s just like, ‘Man, I’ve really got to do this better.’”
In picking Kyler Murray off three times and rallying in the end, the Lions did do better on Sunday. We’ll see where they take it from here.
Aaron Rodgers has plenty of help, it turns out. During the SNF broadcast, NBC flashed a graphic that showed that just one—one!—of the Packers quarterback’s 370 touchdown passes has been thrown to a first-round pick. And the obvious implication there is that Rodgers hasn’t had dudes around him over his career, which, of course, anyone who watched Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb in their primes knows is a lie. And so here we are again, in 2020. Green Bay spent its first-round pick on something other than a weapon for Rodgers (this time, it was actually spend on his presumed successor), and the question lingering is whether management did enough to support its quarterback. While that was being asked? The Packers have rung up 122 points through three weeks, and the latest offensive explosion, in a 37-30 win over the Saints in New Orleans, came without No. 1 receiver Davante Adams in the lineup. With Adams out, Allen Lazard (signed off Jacksonville’s practice squad) showed up again, as did Jace Sternberger (2019 third-round pick) and Robert Tonyan (initially signed to the Packers practice squad in 2018, after Detroit cut him). And Marquez Valdes-Scantling (2018 fifth-rounder) was a little quieter this week after making his presence felt earlier this month. All that seemed to be plenty for Rodgers, who threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing. Just because those guys weren’t taken in the first round doesn’t mean they can’t play. And it doesn’t hurt Rodgers’ prospects for another championship having all those picks invested on the other side of the ball.
The decision-making at the end of overtime was actually logical in the Eagles/Bengals game. And I know playing for a tie seems gutless. But I can 100 percent understand what Philly’s Doug Pederson and Cincy’s Zac Taylor were doing. In Pederson’s case, Matt Pryor jumping before Jake Elliott got to take a crack at a 59-yard game winner pushed that kick to 64 yards, the line to the Bengals 46 with 19 seconds left, and raised this real question—If we miss a very, very long kick, how hard would it be for Cincinnati to get into field goal range if they got the ball at our 46 with 12 or 13 seconds left? And then there’s the doomsday scenario, where a low-trajectory kick gets blocked and all hell breaks loose. So Philly punted, and the Bengals got the ball at their own 11 with 13 seconds left. Here are the facts, as Cincinnati saw them. …
• To be able to get the ball to where a final-play Hail Mary was possible, then rush to the line and spike it so you can run said Hail Mary, you’d need a minimum of 16 seconds. And probably more like 18 seconds.
• Protection was a major issue for the Bengals throughout, and Joe Burrow getting hit in that situation had some potential for disaster (turnover, safety, etc.) And the chances of that happening were increased by the fact that Cincinnati would have to push the ball downfield—meaning Burrow would have to hold the ball longer.
• So really, the ideal situation would then be throwing downfield and getting a DPI around midfield, which would position the ball for a Hail Mary and stop the clock. But then, you’d need, you know, the Hail Mary itself to work. So this was going to be like hoping for lightning to strike twice in the same place.
Add it up, and I can understand why both teams did what they did. Now, you can argue that at 0-2, it was time for each to roll the dice. That’s fair. But that doesn’t make going through with it would be smart.
The Patriots offense keeps getting more interesting. Two things I saw from New England that showed me, even without Tom Brady, The Program in New England is alive and well. Number one, the Patriots have again morphed to the talent on hand—only this time it’s more noticeable because quarterback is the position turning over. The result is a totally different offense built around Cam Newton that, for the second time in three weeks, leaned heavily on the run over the pass (38 run calls vs. 30 pass calls), which shows New England’s trademark malleability. Number two, you saw similar adaptability from the players themselves. Center David Andrews broke his thumb in practice this week and was placed on IR, leading to a lot of speculation that second-year pro Hjalte Froholdt or practice squad center James Ferentz would step in. Instead, it was the team’s best lineman, Joe Thuney, moving over from left guard—and Thuney had zero noticeable issues making the move, despite the obvious new challenges. Thuney has played center, by the way, since the summer before his rookie year. So, again, even with Brady gone, the foundation remains, and that means adapting to new players, and it means players being adaptable, and all of it it is still happening in Foxboro, and the Patriots got a 36-20 win over a rolling Raiders team to show for it.
I love what Matt Rhule’s doing in Carolina. The Panthers gave the Raiders and Buccaneers all they could handle in the first two weeks of the season. And while Carolina finally got a win on Sunday, the way the team played didn’t change much—they hit, and they’re competitive, and they play all the way through. And they’re smart, too. There was a ton of examples Sunday, and a couple on the last possession for the visitors. On the drive’s third play, Teddy Bridgewater hit Mike Davis in the left flat, and Davis broke up the sideline to pick up the first down. Realizing he was straddling the boundary, though, Davis almost voluntarily went down when going head-up with the first defender in his path, Denzel Perryman, in order to keep the clock running. First down. Then, on the next play, Teddy Bridgewater scrambled for yardage before sliding to protect himself and, again, keep the clock rolling. In the process of all this, the Chargers had to burn all their timeouts before the Panthers punted and pinned L.A. at its own 1 with 1:46 left. And yes, Justin Herbert almost got the Chargers the win. But that it would’ve been such a miracle is a testament to a team that was well-prepared and situationally sound. And usually, sooner or later, teams like that wind up being pretty good.
What Kyle Shanahan and his staff pulled off Sunday was pretty damn ridiculous. The Niners were without their starting quarterback, their top two running backs, their top two tight ends, their No. 1 receiver, both their starting corners, and a plethora of defensive ends, including their best player, Nick Bosa. With that as the backdrop, the Niners …
• Outgained the Giants, 420-231.
• Had 29 first downs to the Giants’ 13.
• Held a 2-to-1 edge in time of possession.
• Beat the Giants 36-9.
Oh, and by the way—Nick Mullens was 25-of-36 for 343 yards, a score and 108.9 passer rating. Now, does that mean the Niners are about to defend their NFC West title? It does not. That’s a tough division they’re in, and attrition is attrition. So I do think one of the other three wind up winning the division. But the defending NFC champs sure won’t just go quietly into the night.
I hate what’s happening Atlanta for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, and Matt Ryan too. But I really don’t see how change isn’t coming—especially after the owner rearranged things, while keeping the principles from last year in place (despite widespread belief that he would clean house before a late-season surge saved a lot of people). I think what we’re seeing, too, is the real damage done from a particularly excruciating loss on the grandest stage. Does Atlanta’s blown 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI have anything to do with what’s happening now? That’s hard to tell. What’s obvious, though, is how it gives everyone something to point back to whenever Quinn’s teams blow leads. It happened in 2017, right after that devastating loss to the Patriots. And it’s happening now, with 29-10 and 26-10 leads blown in consecutive weeks. Fact is, unfortunately—and I say unfortunately, because a lot of good guys are in coaching and scouting in Atlanta—it won’t go away until the people who were involved in it do. That could happen tomorrow or in a month or at the end of the season. What I know is this: owner Arthur Blank was irate in the middle of the 2019 season, and it took restraint for him not to move on guys’ employment at the time. Eventually, that restraint looked prudent, with the Falcons finishing 6-2 after a 1-7 start. I don’t know that Blank will be as patient this time around.
The Jets’ situation bears watching too. This would be the other place where change seems inevitable, and the fact that New York plays on Thursday night creates a natural 10-day break from one game to the next where the team could reset after changes. Would that mean assistant coach changes? Could there be a head coaching change? I think one thing that everyone needs to recognize here is how Woody Johnson’s re-entry into the picture could factor in. Johnson’s ambassadorship could end soon after the election—and his looming return from the U.K. makes you wonder how he might be involved in a call like this, so close to then. It’s also worth asking, after the purse-strings were tightened last spring, and with a revenue shortfall coming, where the Johnson family’s appetite for paying a fired coach is right now. Adam Gase, hired by Woody’s brother Christopher, has two years left after his deal after this one. And beyond just the losing, the regression of Sam Darnold (who Gase was hired to bring along, and who threw two pick-sixes in Sunday’s blowout loss in Indy) and the overall sloppy play we’ve seen through three weeks don’t bode well for where this is going for him.
The Browns run game is a legitimate reason for optimism. Nick Chubb, who might be the best back in football right now, was stellar again (this time in a 34-20 win over Washington) with 108 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, while Kareem Hunt finished with 46 yards on 16 carries and two catches for 18 yards and a touchdown. And it’s no coincidence, then, that Baker Mayfield (117.3 rating) is suddenly as efficient as he’s ever been as a pro. But while everyone’s focus has been on those guys and a couple Browns receivers that have been known to make some noise, I think people might be missing what I believe might’ve been the best assistant coach hire of the offseason: Bill Callahan. I know the folks in Cleveland feel that way, and there’s a lot of merit to the idea. He’s assimilated new tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin, developed a dominant streak in guard Wyatt Teller, and generally juiced a group that really hadn’t recovered from Joe Thomas’ retirement three years ago. Callahan, as he’s done in a bunch of different places, swiftly changed everything for the Browns line, and everyone’s reaping the benefits. He deserves credit for it—and Kevin Stefanski gets points for luring him to northeast Ohio.
A lot happened on Sunday. So in the interest of covering as much as we can, here are five quick-hitting things to feel good about, and less good about, coming out of Week 3.
You can feel good about …
1) The Steelers pass rush.
2) Darius Leonard. What a monster the Colts linebacker is.
3) Stephen Gostkowski’s nerves.
4) DeAndre Hopkins. Even in a loss, he had 10 catches for 137 yards.
5) The new-look Rams’ offense, and in particular Darrell Henderson.
You should feel less good about …
1) The Vikings secondary.
2) Dwayne Haskins. He had his moments, but this overall was a bad week.
3) Carson Wentz. And the Philly O-line doesn’t get off the hook here either.
4) The Dallas defense.
5) And I guess we have to throw the Giants in here too. The NFC East isn’t good.
The biggest statistic that stood out to me Sunday was how many Buccaneers had multiple catches. If you couldn’t guess the number, here it is—eight. I’ve always felt as if Tom Brady was at his best when he was playing point guard. You may remember how, 10 years ago, he benefited from Randy Moss being traded away and wound up winning the MVP, and I believe that happened because the burden of having to feed the beast was lifted. And he could just throw to the open guy. I think you saw a lot of that on Sunday in Denver. For the record, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, O.J. Howard, Shady McCoy, Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans were the eight. And I thought even if playing a lackluster opponent diminished the significance of that a little, that sort of distribution is what 12 is usually looking for. Good day for Brady. Good day for the Bucs. Chargers are up next, quarterbacked by a guy who was 3 years old when Brady won his first title (FYI, that kind of math makes me feel ancient.)
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Kyle Pitts is for real. When I was putting together my list of potential opt-outs, I named 11 non-quarterbacks (seven of the 11 opted out, then two opted back in), and Pitts was one name that was right there for me—and that I probably should’ve included but didn’t. The Florida tight end wasted no time making me look dumb, ringing up 170 yards and four touchdowns on eight catches in the Gators’ win over Ole Miss. One comp I got for him was Browns TE David Njoku. And while Njoku hasn’t lived up to expectations, he was a first-round pick. Which Pitts likely will be.
2) The exodus from college football never came to pass. In all, according to NFLPA records, just 19 opt-outs signed with agents, and as of late in the week, a few were working to reverse their decisions—Michigan OT Jalen Mayfield and Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman are two. And there are a couple things I take from it. One, the smart play for most (and I’m talking about guys who weren’t assured of going in the top 20) was always to stay in school, regardless of whether they’d actually decide to play or not. Two, most guys who are capable of getting to that level of football really like to, you know, play football.
3) I still wonder why there hasn’t been an NFL team to make a hard run at Mike Leach over the years. Kliff Kingsbury played for Leach. So did Lincoln Riley, who’s been the apple of the NFL’s eye for a couple years. And now we’re seeing QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Gardner Minshew succeed coming from an Air Raid background. So … why not kick the tires on Leach? He’s obviously a godfather of that style of offense (the Godfather is probably Hal Mumme), and we saw Saturday with an upset of LSU in his first game as Mississippi State coach how Leach is able to do more with less. For what it’s worth, I’d ask Leach about the idea of going to the NFL last year. Here was his response: “I wouldn’t rule it out, although I’m in a great situation here (at Washington State). So it’s not like I’m chasing or running.” Then he said, “at the end of the season, I watch NFL film to just sort of stay up to date and make sure I’m not missing anything.”
4) It was hard to watch that bad of a Florida State team on Saturday night. They’re a far cry from what they were when Jimbo Fisher had them rolling seven, eight years ago, and even further away from the ’90s powerhouse I grew up watching. Mike Norvell just got there, and he wasn’t even coaching for Saturday’s debacle in Miami (thanks to a positive COVID-19 test), so he deserves time. But there is a lot of work to do.
5) Seeing where Oklahoma goes from here will be intriguing. Spencer Rattler looked as uneasy as I’ve seen a Riley QB look, and things will get interesting from here. This is the first time Riley’s had a non-veteran QB as head coach. He had Baker Mayfield in Year 5, Kyler Murray in Year 4, and Jalen Hurts in Year 4. Even as coordinator at OU, he had Mayfield in Years 3 and 4, after Mayfield got a lot of playing experience at Texas Tech. So this, really, is his first ground-up operation. And now he’s playing from behind a little bit after Rattler’s three-pick effort. Should be interesting to see how the young kid responds.
6) Alabama’s still Alabama. And believe it or not, the pair of receivers they’ll have in this year’s draft (Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle) has NFL folks as fired up as last year’s pair (Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs) did. Their combined stat line against Missouri: 16 catches, 223 yards, 2 TDs. As a result, Tua Tagovailoa’s successor, Mac Jones, looked pretty good, too.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Very creative by Denver.
And they only got more dominant.
This is true. And nuts. But if want something even more bananas? Check out Alabama LB Dylan Moses’ eighth grade tape.
I remember when people said that trip was no big deal!
Through three weeks, the NFC East has two wins. One of those two wins is against another NFC East team, which means the Dallas miracle against Atlanta stands alone.
That streak is now BROKEN!
The piped-in booing has been interesting.
Really, really cool, and no one should take something like that for granted.
Brian Daboll’s done a superb job developing Josh Allen.
Insane how close the Charges were to pulling this off—and how that would’ve given Justin Herbert a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive in his second NFL start.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Ravens receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
MMQB: So I talked to some of your coaches who said you’re playing faster. You weren’t exactly slow last year. How did that happen?
MB: Yeah, I feel like I’m faster this year because last year, as a rookie, dealing with injury and just being a rookie, the game is different from college. I was probably thinking a lot last year. This year, I’m more comfortable in the offense. I’m healthier. So I’m able to go out there and just play football.
MMQB: The offense is a little different than a traditional NFL offense, how do you feel like it fits you?
MB: It’s different from what I’ve been through, but I’m learning to love it. It brings my knowledge of football up, and how you can win games in different ways, controlling the game. And the way we run the ball here, I’m happy to be a part of it. Whatever way I can help, that’s my challenge to myself.
MMQB: Through two games, where do you think you’re better as an offense?
MB: Everybody’s more comfortable. I mean, we’ve got young guys—our quarterback’s in his third year. A lot of guys last year were in their first or second year, skill position-wise. So just to be out there, gaining the year, gaining more knowledge of each other, getting more comfortable, it allows all of us to play faster.
MMQB: How about your relationship with Lamar—you spent time with him in the offseason in Florida—how has that helped?
MB: It’s grown a lot. As he grows as a quarterback, just to be there with him every step of the way, it’s fun to see how he’s grown. He did a lot of work in the offseason. And just learning each other, learning what we like, what we see on the field, just getting on the same page is gonna benefit us going forward.
MMQB: Where do you think Lamar’s better, after winning the MVP last year?
MB: Just seeing things. The more you play, the more you’re gonna keep seeing the same defenses, the more he’s gonna recognizing things and able to diagnose things, know what’s gonna happen and get the ball out quick and efficiently.
MMQB: You’ve had a pretty good run of quarterbacks—Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and now Lamar Jackson. Is there anything that ties them together?
MB: They’re all different. They’re all completely different on and off the field. But on the field, they all have that winning mindset. Each of those guys, when you’re playing with them, you don’t wanna let them down. They bring the best out of you. They make you play better. That’s one quality they all have.
MMQB: You feel fortunate to have had those three?
MB: Oh yeah. Very, very blessed.
MMQB: Biggest challenge the Chiefs defense presents for you?
MB: I expect that they’re gonna try and stop our run game, and that’s gonna be a task for them. They’re gonna try and keep their offense on the field as much as possible, so they can try and put up points. But it’s our job to play our game. We can’t play their game. We have to come out and do what we do.
MMQB: Have you noticed teams approaching you differently through two weeks, based on what they know about you now?
MB: It’s been the same since the end of last year. I usually get the top guy from the other team. Week 1, I got Denzel Ward. Week 2, I got Bradley Roby. I take it as a sign of respect, when they put their No. 1 guy on me.
MMQB: This is being seen as the game of the year. Do you guys see it that way, as an opportunity to show what you’ve got? Or is it just another game?
MB: I mean, it’s definitely not just another game. But at the same time, it’s Week 3. So we gotta go out there and focus on this week, and win this week. Because we know, ultimately, if we win this week, on the back end, it could really benefit us.
MMQB: Do you think, deep down, it means a little more for Lamar, playing against Mahomes?
MB: Nah. No, he’s not that type of person—he really don’t care.
MMQB: What’s been the weirdest thing playing without fans?
MB: I think the whole vibe of it. You really gotta bring your own energy for your teammates, because it’s actually really quiet out there. You can hear guys talk. You can hear calls. Everything. So you gotta bring your own energy for your teammates.
MMQB: Will you have anyone at the game Monday, with the Ravens letting you guys bring some people?
MB: Yeah, I’m gonna have some people there. … Just my girlfriend and one of my friends. We’re excited for that.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Game of the Year is tonight. That’s all. Buckle up.