Who Answered the Call? Week 9 in the NFL

Who Answered the Call? Week 9 in the NFL

The Saints and Patriots stake their conference claims with statement wins as the serious jockeying for postseason position begins, with every team now at least halfway through its slate. Plus, inside the Browns mess, the creativity in the Panthers’ attack, Pittsburgh’s James Conner/Le’Veon Bell quandary, the Vikings’ resurrected defense, what stood out in Patriots-Packers, and all the rest of Week 9 in the NFL 
November 05, 2018

I’ll be honest. Before about 8:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday night, I had no clue what a swap meet store was. Saints receiver Michael Thomas explained over the phone late Sunday that it’s sort of like a flea market. The kind of place you might wander into inadvertently and leave with something you might never use. Only, in this case, Thomas wasn’t aimlessly browsing. He needed a flip phone.

That was earlier in October, and the third-year Saints star did have a plan.

“It was inspired by Joe Horn, of course,” Thomas said, referring to his wide receiver predecessor in New Orleans. “I didn’t talk to him about it. I just watched it on YouTube a couple times and came up with the plan.”

It was pretty simple, and pretty much stolen: Hide the flip phone underneath the goal post padding at the Superdome, to be pulled out on the player in question’s next touchdown. In December 2003, Horn came up with the idea, tucking that model of phone, which was current back then, underneath the padding at the Superdome.

When Horn scored against the Giants that Sunday in ’03, teammate Michael Lewis dug the phone out and handed it to him for a faux call. Coach Jim Haslett reprimanded Horn that day for the stunt. An AP column published the next morning admonished the celebration as “classless and disheartening” and a “sheer example of selfish football.”

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Thomas loved it.

Even better, Thomas got to bust out his homage at the most opportune time. Sunday’s showdown at the Superdome could well determine where the NFC title game will be played. The Rams stormed back from 35-14 deficit to tie the game with 9:48 left. With 3:52 left, the Saints were clinging to a 38-35 lead, with third-and-7 from their own 28-yard line.

THE MMQB MONDAY MORNING PODCAST: Gary Gramling and Andy Benoit break down all of the action in Week 9. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts

The rest is history—and we’ll explain that part in a minute. But there was no surer sign, following Thomas’ 72-yard touchdown on the next play, of how times have changed since 2003 than how New Orleans coach Sean Payton calmly, and deftly, managed his star receiver’s not-so-impromptu end-zone party.

“He told me just to be smart, don’t hurt this team,” Thomas said. “He said he loves the way I play and compete, but just be smart.”

Thomas promised he wouldn’t do it again, but in this case the 15 yards were worth it, because there was plenty to celebrate.

Drew Brees is still a top-three quarterback in the NFL. Thomas may be the No. 1 receiver. Alvin Kamara is as scary an all-purpose back as the sport has. Payton doesn’t seem to have lost a thing in his 13th year at the helm. The defense has been improving.

And the Saints came out of Sunday looking like the league’s most complete team.


Lots to get to beyond just what happened in the Superdome on Sunday across the NFL, and we’ll get to all of it. Including:

• An autopsy of the Browns’ implosion this week, with a blow-by-blow of how the team has handled its quarterback decisions over the last three years, which is interesting to match up with all the things that departed coach Hue Jackson said at the end of last week.

The Panthers offense has exploded with creativity thanks to the hiring of a 66-year-old coordinator who is just back from a year off from coaching.

The Falcons have come back to life, and at the center of it the revival is embattled offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who explained on his way back from Hartsfield last night how he’s grown in Year 2 as an NFL play-caller.

• The Steelers handled the Ravens on Sunday, James Conner came up huge for Pittsburgh again, and Le’Veon Bell has eight days to report if he wants to play in 2018. And All-Pro guard David DeCastro tells us that the team is fine now, whether Bell shows up or not.

The Vikings defense looks like what it was supposed to look like at the start of the season, and All-Pro safety Harrison Smith says the difference is all in players not trying to be heroes.

We’ll do all our weekly installments, including more takeaways from Saturday in college and Sunday in the NFL. But we’re starting with the biggest game of the week, which lived up to everyone’s expectations.


The Rams and Saints combined for 970 yards from scrimmage on Sunday. One quarterback posted a passer rating of 115.7 and was topped by 21.3 points by his counterpart. The teams combined for three punts in 60 minutes of action, and it seemed like less than that.

But what I was really thinking about in the aftermath was something Thomas said to me about Brees back in September, in the midst of a historic start to his season.

“I have a lot of respect for him as a quarterback,” Thomas said. “I feel like he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I feel like I’ve been brought here to send him out the right way, and that’s what I want to do, getting him to that championship, playing at a high level every week like he does. I’m trying to match him. He has all these records, he doesn’t make many mistakes, and he’s throwing it to me. We should make the play.” 

The crazy thing is that Thomas had 11 catches for 139 yards before the play came around this week. And if you read what Thomas said there about Brees, which he reiterated to me Sunday night (“We have a lot of respect for a guy that deserves all the success that he has, and we love playing with him—he’s the guy that’s going to get us there”) you’ll understand why the relationship between them came into play.

• CELLPHONE CELEBRATION: Conor Orr says if you didn’t like Michael Thomas‘s stunt, you’re a joyless narc

After reaching the end zone on five of six first-half possessions, the Saints hit a rut offensively, opening the door for the Rams’ surge. New Orleans’ two punts to start the second half were each preceded and followed by Los Angeles scores. A nine-play, 40-yard Saints drive and 54-yard field goal in the fourth quarter stopped the bleeding, but Payton’s crew knew, given the opponent, that it wouldn’t be enough.

On the third play of the Saints’ next possession, on that third-and-7, Thomas was lined up in the left slot on Rams corner Marcus Peters. Brees and his receiver recognized straight man-to-man coverage. Nothing needed to be said. When Brees let go of the ball, sending it down the seam, Peters was even with Thomas. By the time Thomas hauled it in, he was a full five yards clear of Peters.

In short, without visual evidence of it, Brees had confidence Thomas would light up a corner with Pro Bowl ability, which is exactly what happened.

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“Enough was enough,” Thomas said. “It was time for us to step up and make our plays and put the game away. We were up 21, we kind of took our foot off the gas. And they were waiting on us to make a play, and when my number was called I just went out there and made one.”

It’s not the first time Thomas has done that this year. On an afternoon of great stories at the Superdome—the birth of Benjamin Watson’s twins, and his related TD celebration was another—Thomas’ emergence as perhaps the NFL’s very best receiver ranks high among them. With a half-season in the books, he’s at 70 catches for 880 yards and five touchdowns, and on pace to break a plethora of team records.

“It’s just a blessing,” Thomas said “Thank God, thank my coaching, just all the things combined to be in this position. It’s a blessing, but my foot’s still on the gas and my head’s still down. I’m just trying to get better week in and week out.”

His team is doing the same.


YEARS OF QB DECISION-MAKING PLAYED INTO THE BROWNS MESS

There’s very little question what the Browns shakeup was about last week—protecting the environment around Baker Mayfield and the rest of a fairly impressive young nucleus in Cleveland.

Where questions do linger concern the circumstances under which Hue Jackson was working over the last three years. And of course, how things came undone between him and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, a fissure many in league circles considered inevitable from the moment the two started working together.

So this week, I went through old notes, and talked to a bunch of people to try to clear up what I could about just where the decision-making came down, especially at quarterback, over the last three offseasons. Here goes:

• If the Browns had had the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, they’d have taken Cal’s Jared Goff. That they didn’t opened the door for the blockbuster deal that basically handed Carson Wentz to Philadelphia. What Jackson has said about Wentz’s football proficiency in the interview room is accurate. He was great there. The team just didn’t feel there was enough tape on Wentz (who missed most of his senior year) to project him as a great passer in the NFL. And most of the football operation, including Jackson, was overjoyed on the day of the trade, with the haul of draft picks coming back. They liked Wentz as a player, and loved him as a person. They loved Goff, period.

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• In 2017, the Browns weren’t taking Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes at 12 (they would have in the second round), regardless of who leapfrogged them up the board. Mitchell Trubisky, on the other hand, would have been a serious consideration at 12 if he’d slid there. And Jackson was involved in all of those decisions—he advocated for seelcting Ohio State safety Malik Hooker at 12. Another element was that the Browns had done their homework on the 2018 quarterback class, which they loved, and they felt comfortable that with the extra first-rounder coming back in Houston’s trade-up for Watson, they’d be positioned to get one of them.

• That may still wind up having been the prudent move—the Browns did end up landing their QB in 2018, and that extra pick gave them Denzel Ward, perhaps the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Jackson did really like Mayfield through the process, though on this one GM John Dorsey kept his cards internally very close to the vest, despite having favored the Heisman Trophy winner going all the way back to last fall.

• Jackson very much wanted to wrangle New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo in a trade and, failing that, had eyes for his old Cincinnati backup, AJ McCarron, as well. But I’m not sure there’s much the Browns could have done in either case. Cleveland was willing to go further than the Niners did (it’s widely believed they would have given the Patriots a first-rounder for Garoppolo), and that he went to San Francisco for less was frustrating for everyone. And after that ship sailed, Jackson was infuriated with the McCarron trade crumbling at the deadline. Garoppolo might have been able to change things in Cleveland over the last 12 months. Based on the evidence we have, it seems unlikely McCarron could have.

• Jackson did, indeed, take a bullet for the team in backing the Cody Kessler pick in 2016. On the flip side, he was the driving force behind starting DeShone Kizer last September.

What does all of this tell us? Well, more than anything else, it’s that if you don’t have your organization aligned, there will be finger-pointing. And if you’ve been following the NFL for long enough, you know that finger-pointing is what leads to days like last Monday in Cleveland.

Robert Klemko will have a lot more on this story from the ground in Cleveland coming up on The MMQB, so keep an eye out.


THE PANTHERS REVERSE FIELD, THANKS TO NORV TURNER

Do-it-all sophomore Curtis Samuel’s 33-yard touchdown in the Panthers’ 42-28 win over the Bucs on Sunday seemed to cover about 90 yards of twisting-and-turning ground. And it also covered about two decades of football.

Carolina’s new 66-year-old offensive coordinator Norv Turner actually introduced the double-reverse to his players on Wednesday by showing them tape of how his 2006 49ers ran it with Alex Smith at quarterback. Before that, Turner told me, his Redskins scored a touchdown with the play (receiver Leslie Shepard got the ball) in a win over the Bucs in December 1998.

The point Turner was trying to get across? He’s willing to pull plays from wherever, which is why he, his son/quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, and quarterback Cam Newton have been such a perfect match through half-a-season in Charlotte.

“I stay up on what’s happening in football,” Turner said. “I understand, I watch college football, I watched Carolina a lot [last year]. It’s a system, and you learn what it is and you implement it. Some people make it more complicated than it is. I’ve always been flexible. It’s funny—we got explosive plays on four or five reverses, and we ran every one of those plays in Washington in the ’90s. So football’s football.”

And the football has been good in Carolina so far this year.

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The Panthers are keeping the heat on the Saints in the NFC South, and that’s due in no small part to Newton’s resurgence under the Turners, who’ve tailored the offense to fit his talents, with the option game, and pushed him to take ownership by mastering every play they put in. In essence, it adds up to the quarterback meeting them halfway, which he’s effectively done.

As a result, Newton is on place to have a triple-digit passer rating over a full season for the first time and stay in single digits in picks for the first time, and he’s besting his previous high in completion percentage (he’s currently at 67.3) by more than five points. And that’s only helped the Panthers’ run game, which is ranked second in total yards and first in yards per carry.

• A PANTHERS LOVE STORY: Why Andy Benoit has fallen hard for Carolina’s offense

“Wherever you are, you have to gear what you’re doing to who you have,” Turner said. “In Minnesota [in 2015] we had a rookie quarterback and a Hall of Fame running back, and we played well enough to win 11 games. With this group, Cam’s a great player, the MVP in 2015. So when you go into it, you know you’ve got a guy who can be a successful. Our goal was to get the people around him playing at a high level. And that’s really what we’ve worked hard at doing.”

On Sunday we saw it. Samuel had 78 yards and two touchdowns on three touches. Christian McCaffrey piled up 157 yards from scrimmage. Greg Olsen (six catches, 76 yards) and Devin Funchess (four catches, 44 yards) had nice days. And with all that working, Newton was efficient as can be—19-of-25 for 247 yards and two touchdowns.

More than just that, though, he’s energized an old coach, and his team again.

“Let me tell you something—Cam’s one of the funnest guys I’ve ever been around coaching,” Turner said. “He’s got unbelievable energy, he’s got all the characteristics the great quarterbacks I’ve been around have. He understands that we’re very young, and he’s taken it on his shoulders to help these young guys understand what it takes to play in the league. And that’s been a lot of fun.”

And with a Thursday nighter at Pittsburgh this week, he won’t have to wait much longer to aim for more fun. Speaking of that Thursday nighter …


Episodes 1, 2 and 3 available now: An exclusive True Crime podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates. 


ON LE’VEON’S RETURN: ‘IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER’

Pittsburgh officials put their heads down on Sunday night with a little under nine days left until the deadline for Le’Veon Bell to report in time to be eligible to play this year. They did it without know exactly what Bell’s plans are for those days ahead. And they did it with surprisingly little to worry about.

That’s because the Steelers’ run game looks very much to be James Conner’s show.

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The second-year stud out of Pitt went for 107 yards on 24 carries, and caught seven passes, good for another 56 yards and a touchdown in the team’s big win over the Ravens in Baltimore. It’s Conner’s fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing effort, and the fifth time this year he’s had five or more catches. And the season he’s projecting to have compares favorably to you-know-who …

Conner 2018 pace: 302 carries, 1,412 yards, 18 TDs; 76 catches, 758 yards, two TDs.

Bell 2017: 321 carries, 1,291 yards, nine TDs; 85 catches,  655 yards, two TDs.

So you want to know why the Steelers’ locker room isn’t chirping about Bell much anymore? There’s really no reason to.

“At this point, it’s kind of just like, ‘what’s the point?’” All-Pro guard David DeCastro said over his cell driving home from the airport. “Why waste more energy on it? The first week, we were shocked by [the Bell holdout]. At this point, what are you gonna do? Sit here and drive at it and beg him to come back? Obviously that’s not how it works. So we just put our best foot forward and try to do the best for this team.”

• PATRIOTS-PACKERS: New England stakes claim to AFC’s best with statement win

DeCastro, for his part, also pretty much confirmed what I’d heard in September—which was that much of the animus from DeCastro’s linemates toward Bell was over the fact that he told them he would be there Week 1, then cut off communication.

“There’s a little communication thing, which is funny that in this age of technology we can’t all get on the same page,” DeCastro said. “I do think if we thought this was going to be the case we’d all understand it. And so then when he didn’t show up, and we're just kind of like … it was a little bit of shock. But it is what it is at this point.”

And if Bell were to show up tomorrow?

“It just doesn’t matter,” DeCastro. “If he shows up, you’re blocking your guy the same as you would for Conner. It’s not like it’s going to be an issue. As much drama as there was with that, it’s not going to affect how we play football.”

The Steelers have been playing really well lately, of course, which feels like it’s been lost some in the Bell story. A month ago they lost to Baltimore and fell to 1-2-1, well behind the 3-1 Ravens in the AFC North. The Steelers haven’t lost since, and sit at 5-2-1, while Baltimore is reeling at 4-5.

And they’re doing it as a veteran group with a renewed sense urgency, knowing that their window won’t stay open forever.

• GRAMLING’S WEEK 9 TAKEAWAYS: The Rams’ Marcus Peters problem, Big Ben in Baltimore, Darnold’s nightmare

“Especially with the close group we've had on the O-line for a number of years, of playing with Ben [Roethlisbeger] getting toward the end of his career,” DeCastro said, “there’s always that urgency. You recognize how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl, so that’s always in the back of your minds. But at the same time you just enjoy each week and the fun moments.”

There’ve been plenty of those in Pittsburgh of late.



THE FALCONS’ OFFENSE FINDS ITS WINGS

Know who’s one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL right now? That’s right—Atlanta OC Steve Sarkisian, as you all expected during that Thursday night opener.

The Falcons are fifth in the NFL in total offense and just 3.6 yards per game off the torrid pace that the Kyle Shanahan-fueled Atlanta attack of 2016 set. And they’ve gotten there with a similar approach to the one that Sarkisian’s predecessor deployed, which is to attack from every angle and at all times.

Take the end of Sunday’s blowout win over the Redskins and their well-regarded defense.

It’s third-and-2, with 3:55 left, and Atlanta leads 31-14. Sarkisian’s foot wasn’t coming off the pedal.

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“We’ve been preaching attack, attack, attack, and that’s [Dan Quinn’s] messaging too,” Sarkisian said last night. “And we’ve had a couple opportunities, granted, in some other, tighter games, and even last week though against the Giants, where we could have closed the game out on offense, essentially in four-minute offense, and we didn’t get it done. You can go to the Saints game, at the end we have a critical third down that we don’t pick and we go to overtime and lose.

“So we’ve been really stressing over the last couple weeks and practicing what we would call ‘winning-time moments.’ We wanted to make sure we stayed aggressive, because we’ve been preaching it. And as a coach if you don’t practice what you preach then the players view as, is that just talk or is that who we really are?”

So rather than running the ball in that situation, with the game comfortably in hand, Sarkisian called for a screen to Julio Jones. One kickout block from Jake Matthews later and the Falcons’ all-world receiver was on his way to the end zone from 35 yards out.

So capped Atlanta’s sixth 400-yard effort in its last seven games, which is even more impressive considering the pressure of having to make up for the injury problems on defense (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen), and some of the offense’s own injury issues (both starting guards, Devonta Freeman on IR).

• TRADE EFFECTS: How Demaryius Thomas and other deadline-trade players performed for their new teams

Sarkisian will tell you now it’s a result of the mutual comfort level between the offensive coaches and players, and his own ability to run the offense that Shanahan left behind. And yes, he’s heard the criticism, which is getting harder to levy against him by the day.

“I’ve being doing this a long time, and you learn that it comes with the territory,” he said. “You can’t ride the emotional roller-coaster of one good game and you think you’re the greatest and then one bad game and you’re the worst. You need to find that even keel, and the steadiness, the consistency in your preparation and your work.

“For me in Year 2 it’s just an overall comfort level, with our players, our style of play, to put our players in the best position to be successful.”

We’ll see how far it takes the banged up Falcons from here. Thus far, they’ve managed to ride the offense from 1-4 to 4-4, and back into the NFL playoff hunt.


… OF THE WEEK

QUOTE

“I’ve never been somebody that ever worried about keeping a job. It’s always been, for me, dealing with a job. I feel really good about the way this team has been coached for the last 11 years. No regrets.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh on the report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that he’s on the hot seat. That Harbaugh’s fighting for his job in 2018 wouldn’t surprise anyone in the Baltimore building – missing the playoff the last three years running has taken a toll on everyone. And having a fourth straight playoff-less season added to the transition coming at the top of the football operation, with Eric DeCosta set to take over for Ozzie Newsome as GM after the season, would have the team staring a tough decision right in the face. The good news for Harbaugh? Were he fired by the Ravens, his unemployment would probably last, to paraphrase the great philosopher Rob Ryan, five minutes.

TWEET

The Ringer’s Kevin Clark in response to a Terrelle Pryor-created Peterman pick (Pryor, like Peterman, plays for the Bills). At this point, I feel bad for Peterman, because the two interceptions in yesterday’s loss to the Bears really weren’t his fault, but they’ve become part of the punchline.

Also, Clark’s become a regular in this space, so much so that this tweet wound up nosing past another gem of his from earlier in the week.

VIDEO

This is really good by Cam. And made even better since he’s doing it while dressed as Indiana Jones, if Indiana Jones happened to live in SoHo.

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To Michael Thomas, flip phones may be a gag. But to Andrew Luck, they’re a state of mind.

S/O TO …

My old boss, and the founder of this site, Peter King. What he did for SI legend Paul Zimmerman—you know him as Dr. Z—over the last decade was remarkable, and shouldn’t (and won’t) go without mention here in the wake of Dr. Z’s death last week. Peter went above and beyond in helping Paul and his wife, Linda, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Dr. Z’s care after his series of strokes in 2008. He often visited Paul, and he worked hard to preserve Dr. Z’s legacy, with a tribute week at The MMQB in 2016 and the push to get Zimmerman’s memoirs published in 2017. I know that legacy is one that influenced many to get into the business (The Boston Globe’s Will McDonough was that guy for me), so there’s no question it will live on. I’ll always remember Dr. Z for picking the early ’90s Bills teams that I loved to win the Super Bowl every year.

More on Dr. Z, from The MMQB:

• REMEMBERING DR. Z: Tim Rohan talked to prominent NFL figures on how Paul Zimmerman reshaped the game’s coverage

• DR. Z’S ULTIMATE LEGACY: Andy Benoit on the man who reshaped how we see football

• BEST OF DR. Z: Paul Zimmerman’s greatest SI stories

• A LIFE IN JOURNALISM: Paul Zimmerman on his career

• WHEN HE WAS Z: Players and colleagues reflect on Zim

• DR. Z WEEK: THE MMQB’s Tribute to Paul Zimmerman 


SIX FROM SATURDAY

The college football weekend through the lens of the NFL.

1. We have to start with Bama/LSU, right? Give Tua Tagovailoa a thumbs up from scouts in attendance, playing against the toughest defense he’s seen—one filled with guys who’ll play on Sundays soon. The quick release, accuracy and decision-making ability the pros love held up in a hostile environment.

2. Alabama’s been known as a pro-style team. But its offense has been leaning more and more to the spread, and now it’s drawing raves from NFL scouts for innovations in the RPO game, with Tua at the helm. One recent NFL assistant, ex-Raiders QBs coach Jake Peetz, has been part of blending these spread concepts with what the Tide’s always done well.

3. We gave you Tide redshirt sophomore Quinnen Williams as a player to watch last Thursday, and boy did he deliver—10 tackles and 2.5 sacks against LSU. He’s trending way up in the 2019 draft class.

• ANOTHER DOWN YEAR FOR WIDEOUTS: A weak 2019 draft class could explain the NFL trades for receivers

4. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill continues to impress as a safety who’s versatile and athletic enough to play up in the box or back in centerfield. And some teams even believe his best position might be corner in a Seattle-type defense.

5. Michigan’s Don Brown is one impressive defensive coordinator.

6. On the flip side, Louisville’s rapid decline into the college football landfill has been stunning as it has been sudden. And I’d just tell you that I don’t think those who coached for the 2007 Falcons (Mike Zimmer, et al) are too sympathetic to Bobby Petrino’s plight, which included this gem during Saturday’s evisceration at the hands of Clemson.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. I’m not sure if the Vikings’ defense is fixed, but it seems to be trending that way—Minnesota has held each of its last four opponents under 300 total yards, and it kept the Lions out of the end zone entirely on Sunday. When I talked to captain Harrison Smith after the 24-9 win, he at least intimated that earlier in the year, guys might have been trying to do too much. And now that’s calmed down. “We have a lot of really good players,” Smith said. “We all want to make plays all the time. And sometimes that can hurt you. When you just get back to just saying, ‘OK this is what I gotta do, I’m gonna go do it, and I know the guy next to me is gonna do it, the guy in front of me, he’s gonna do it.’ Then everything takes care of itself. You don't have to be Superman out there.” Smith pointed to Danielle Hunter’s 32-yard return of a Matthew Stafford fumble for a touchdown as a prime example. “That’s guys up front getting off the ball and getting pressure, and guys on the back end, linebackers covering,” Smith said. “And then once he starts scrambling, just everyone running like a madman to the ball. That's when opportunities come. It may looks like luck but there’s another play in the game where Xavier [Rhodes] strips the ball, and we got three other guys swarming to the ball. Unfortunately the ball is just out of bounds, instead of us picking it up and scoring. But we get another chance at that later because everyone is running to the ball. Good things happen when the whole team is running like your hair’s on fire.” The Vikings were my Super Bowl champion in August, by the way. Sunday did make me feel a little better about that.

2. The stop that the Chargers got on the final play of their game in Seattle—the Seahawks had the ball at the L.A. 6, down by eight points—was reminiscent of how they won their game in London two weeks ago. And as Anthony Lynn sees it, these things (in this case, safety Jahleel Addae got a fingernail on the ball) aren’t happening by mistake. Since the beginning of camp, and every Thursday since the season started, Lynn has had his team drilling what they call “Gotta Have It” situations—practice third downs, two-point conversations, two-minute end-of-game and fourth-and-goal end-of-game situations, and even spots where the team needs a punt block. As the coach sees it, that work is showing up now. “A lot of resolve—it’s a very tough group,” Lynn texted me. “They protect every inch of that field. It helps that we practice those situations. They feel like they’ve been there before.” And act like it too. The Chargers, by the way, are a win over Oakland away from sweeping their ballyhooed swing of four straight road games in three different time zones (Pacific, Eastern, Greenwich Mean).

3. A name you should watch now: Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores. He’s the de facto coordinator in Foxboro now, and as such was a huge part of that impressive effort to slow down Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night. He impressed the Cardinals in his interview with them last January, and I’d expect that GM Steve Keim would give him a recommendation if teams wind up reaching out.

4. I don’t sense any real concern on the Jets’ part regarding Sam Darnold right now. Growing pains were going to be part of the deal. And what I would say is that interceptions in particular and turnover problems in general usually have a way of carrying over from the college game to the pros for young quarterback. So is it a great sign for Darnold that he threw four picks (the one at the end of the game was particularly unsightly) against the Dolphins in Miami? No. But it shouldn’t be a shocker either.

5. I did like this from Jets safety Jamal Adams, whom they’re counting on to be a leader there for the next decade or so: “I’m sick of losing. Honestly, I’m sick of losing. Enough is enough. I’m fed up with losing, man. It’s the same, same, same stuff. It’s frustrating. I’m not going to hold my tongue for anything anymore. I’m not a loser. I don’t do this for fantasy points. I do this for the love of the game. I’m passionate about this team, and I believe in this team.”

6. It’s kind of hilarious that Patrick Mahomes can now go 23-of-32 for 375 yards and three touchdowns with a single interception, and it doesn’t even really register on the national radar. He’s normalizing the insane.

7. We mentioned in the Sunday Rundown that Golden Tate had an offer from the Lions (the team and the player’s camp had actually been in talks for two months), and I view that as a very good sign for the Eagles. The age-old question that NFL teams ask about players on the trade market is simple: Why is this guy available in the first place? In Tate’s case it was purely logistical. Detroit wasn’t going to give him the deal he wanted, structured the way he wanted it. And so they get a 3, and don’t have to worry about the comp pick formula quite as much when they’re looking at free agents in March.

8. Don’t look now, but the Texans own the NFL’s second-longest winning streak at six and will hold a 2.5-game lead on the field in the AFC South if the Titans lose in Dallas tonight. Houston still has its problems on the offensive line and at corner, but that’s a tough team with a vicious front seven and a gutsy playmaking quarterback.

9. The Buccaneers’ problems aren’t at quarterback right now. They’re on defense. And that they’ve persisted to this level shows that the problems went beyond what ex-coordinator Mike Smith was doing.

10. Give the Bears credit for this—they’ve taken care of the subpar teams on their schedule, making easy work of the Jets, Bills and Buccaneers and surviving at Arizona. That’s at least a good sign that Matt Nagy is keeping his players locked in and focused, avoiding slips against weaker opponents. And their three losses during this 5-3 start, by the way, have come by a grand total of 11 points.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

All eyes will be on Amari Cooper as the ex-Raiders Pro Bowler makes his Cowboys debut tonight in Dallas. But I’d also be cognizant of how the offensive line plays with the newly promoted Marc Colombo running the show.

Fired line coach Paul Alexander was a tough fit from the start, and everyone knew it—his background was in running gap-scheme plays with massive bodies, while the Cowboys have a much more athletic line with a ton of background in zone scheme concepts. The expectation now is that we’ll see more of what we did with Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack.

Will the change make the O-line an overwhelming strength for the Cowboys once again? It’s possible that eventually happens, even without Travis Frederick in there. And I think we’ll see a difference tonight, which would get Ezekiel Elliott going and maybe even create some room for Cooper to make a few plays.

And before I get you my pick, I should mention, again, that Thursday Night Football is NOT crappy this week. Again, it is NOT crappy.

Prediction: DALLAS 24, TENNESSEE 17.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)