Option 1, Week 5’s Burning Question: Will the Cowboys break their slump?
The good: the Cowboys did, in fact, break their two-game skid and now hold the NFC East lead at a paltry 2-3. Andy Dalton led a four-play, 52-second final drive to set kicker Greg Zuerlein up for the game-winning 34-yard field goal. The drive included two Michael Gallup catches that were so impressive that both had to be confirmed by video replay. A division win in the NFC East is huge.
The bad: the reason Dalton entered the game was one of the most grotesque injuries in recent memory, a compound fracture and dislocation of starter Dak Prescott’s right ankle. Prescott left the field in a stretcher and will miss significant time, sidelining the first quarterback in NFL history to top 400 passing yards in three straight games. I wish a speedy recovery for Prescott (the Cowboys announced he had successful surgery Sunday night) and emotional fortitude during this trying time, because we all know how much he deserves it.
Dalton is as good a backup as you’ll find on an NFL roster, so the Cowboys should at least stay afloat in the NFC East. The former Bengal led consecutive scoring drives to tie and then take the lead at the end of regulation. Dallas is certainly not a Super Bowl contender with the Red Rifle under center, but if the Cowboys can take care of business against Washington, New York, Cincinnati and steal a couple other wins, .500 is not out of the picture. It’s also worth noting that the Cowboys really only have two strengths, quarterback and wide receiver, and now one of those, the most important position on the field, is diminished. A tough day in Dallas.
Option 2, Week 5’s Huge Performance: Jon Gruden, Las Vegas Raiders
In 2014, I needed a great upset pick for pick’em. I went with picking the 0-10 Raiders to top the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs, rationalizing my decision with the typical Thursday night madness and divisional competitiveness. And the Raiders actually won! Everything else I touched that week turned to gold as I finished with a perfect weekly pick’em record for the first time ever.
Sunday’s game between the Chiefs and Raiders appeared to be seemingly lopsided, with Las Vegas coming into Arrowhead Stadium against the Super Bowl champs. 0-10? No, but this one looked as much like a write-in win as you could get, especially after two straight Raider losses. Instead, the Raiders held a 40-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter and held on to hand the Chiefs and Mahomes their first loss of the season. Wow.
I’m giving their coach, Jon Gruden, the game ball for this one. The common perception of Jon Gruden’s second tenure as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders is that it is an experiment. Gruden jettisoned most of the roster that won 12 games in 2016 and held a seemingly tenuous relationship with quarterback Derek Carr. And now, a couple weeks after upsetting the Saints in their Allegiant Stadium debut, Gruden has a signature win under his belt.
Carr excelled in all facets of the game and finished with 347 passing yards and a trio of touchdown passes. But he needed an assist from Las Vegas’s underrated defense. After surrendering 24 first half points to Mahomes, the Raiders held him scoreless in the second half with drives of three, five, four and four plays until a late Mahomes touchdown. They even picked the guy off. Most importantly, the Raiders stayed disciplined and continued to roll when the score tightened against a Super Bowl champion.
Gruden’s handprints are all over this Raiders team and, after a turbulent couple of years, his vision of a playoff contender is coming to fruition.
Option 3, Week 5’s Crucial Decision: Tampa Bay switches it up on fourth down
Playing the Bears on Thursday night football, the Buccaneers had one of the wildest collections of fourth down decisions I’ve ever seen. And I’m not even talking about Tom Brady forgetting that his game-ending incompletion was fourth down.
Tampa Bay found its groove early, and after an early ten-point blitz Tampa regained possession with a chance to incite a blowout early in quarter number two. The drive looked like a three-and-out, but instead of punting from their own 19-yard line (81 yards from their end zone), coach Bruce Arians went aggressive and dialed up a quarterback sneak on fourth down. The gamble paid off, as the Bucs’ continued the drive all the way into the red zone and scored a field goal to take a 13-0 lead. I didn’t have much of a problem with the decision.
4th-and-1 came up later in the game. This time, Tampa was on Chicago’s 7-yard line (7 yards away from their end zone) with the Bears holding a slight 17-16 lead with five minutes to go. The Bucs didn’t go for it, instead sending out Ryan Succop for a 25-yard field goal. The lead was short-lived and Chicago went on to win on a field goal on the next drive.
I don’t understand. Where was that second quarter aggressiveness? Why go for a 4th down after effectively going three-and-out but chicken out after building 10 plays and 66 yards of momentum? Why not put the ball in your team’s hands, and even if you don’t get it in the end zone, at least drain the clock before taking the lead?
Fourth downs are one of the best parts of football, and analytics have rendered it an ever-changing one. True, the Bucs ended up with six points as a result of their fourth down decisions, but also ended up with one tally in the loss column.
Checkdown: Let’s talk about Joe Flacco
Given that Joe Flacco started his first game as a New York Jet (a 30-10 loss to Arizona) and that the name of this section is Flacco’s specialty, I’m going to let loose a Flacco rant, right here, right now.
I lived with Joe Flacco as the quarterback of my team, the Baltimore Ravens, for a decade. I remember when he was drafted in the first round out of Delaware, when he surrendered his starting job to successor Lamar Jackson due to injury and performance, and all of the games in between. His windup, his deep chucks, his checkdowns, his awkward baseball slides on scrambles, his interceptions — each is emblazoned in my mind. At best, he was a game manager for a successful ground and pound, defense-first Super Bowl contender. At his worst, he was an inconsistent contractual albatross who drained excitement out of football.
I’ll start with the bad, because I’m so low on Flacco that I wrote a poetry volume for my fifth grade class about how awful it was to have Flacco as my quarterback (“I wouldn’t be crying if we’d drafted Matt Ryan”). My greatest knock might be unfair — he wasn’t an alpha guy. He was never a great regular season quarterback, posting modest passing yardage totals and pedestrian passer rating and completion marks. Flacco’s decision-making could be downright brutal at times, and without an endearing, hype-them-up persona, he was just frustrating. And when the Ravens rewarded him with a mega-contract after his Super Bowl win, the offense relied on him more and proceeded to make the playoffs in just one of the next five seasons. His turnovers went up and touchdown totals went down, playing so poorly that coach John Harbaugh’s job was in jeopardy. My joy of watching Lamar Jackson is in part due to how starkly his athleticism and swagger contrast Flacco’s. My years watching the Ravens always came with a catch — that Joe Flacco had to be the quarterback.
But Flacco’s start with the Jets also triggers a wave of nostalgia. A rookie Flacco won two road playoff games, and in his first four seasons, a Ravens team with a young Joe Flacco was always a Super Bowl contender. In 2012, he showed a gear we’ve rarely seen from any quarterback, throwing 11 touchdowns to no interceptions and beating the three best teams in the NFL en route to a Super Bowl. He is also responsible for my greatest football memory of all-time, the Mile High Miracle pass to Jacoby Jones. That playoff run made me really want to revert to Flacco hype, but after he signed the dotted line, I just couldn’t do it.
Game Notes: Ryan Fitzpatrick wins the imaginary second-place gameball. The Dolphins pulled off a monumental upset of the 49ers. Sure, San Fran has caught the injury bug, but the Fins won by 26 points! The defense was so good that Jimmy Garoppolo got benched for the third string quarterback, but Fitzpatrick was a shining star with 350 yards and a trio of touchdown passes. The calls for Fitzy’s job are a little quieter now and Miami could make a wild card push…The huge performance for moral accomplishment goes to Alex Smith, who recovered from a life-threatening leg injury to miraculously return to football. Against the Rams, starter Kyle Allen went down, prompting Washington to send out the longtime 49er and Chief quarterback to hit the turf once again. Smith wasn’t magical, averaging 2.2 yards per attempt in a 30-10 loss, but his return was the story of the week…The MVP award is Russell Wilson’s to lose. Wilson is never out of a game, as he showed in battling the Seahawks back from a 13-0 deficit in a primetime matchup against the Vikings, then turning a game with a 96 percent chance of Viking victory late into a game-winning drive with multiple fourth down conversions. Even his incompletions are impressive. I’m starting to come around to the Seahawks as title contenders…Philip Rivers looked awful, but his quarterback counterpart is picking up steam in new coach Kevin Stefanski’s new system. Baker Mayfield is killing the bootleg game and is finally getting his tantalizing weapons involved in the passing game. I predicted the Browns to win 11 games (“Browns offense will be nasty!”) and, with four wins in five games, they’re well on their way…Dan Quinn and Bill O’Brien are out as head coaches of their respective playoff contenders. The two had a combined 0-9 start and had plenty of seasons to turn around the ship, and it’s time for the franchises to move on. Both Atlanta and Houston have the offensive pieces to fly next year, but we can safely write them off for serious contention in 2020…Bills-Titans will be a fantastic game in the rare Tuesday night slot, two unbeaten teams with resurgent quarterbacks and brilliant coaching staffs. Thrilled to see what gives…I’ll end on Dak. The closest thing I can compare losing a starting quarterback for a significant period of time to is the disruption of a pandemic. Of course, it’s not life and death, but it truly makes you realize what you took for granted and can make the weeks and months to come brutally empty. I remember well from Tony Romo’s ill-fated 2010 and 2015 seasons, in which quarterbacks as awful as Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, Brad Johnson and Jon Kitna wore the hallowed Cowboy stripes. Andy Dalton is a more than serviceable option, but this loss will hurt the limping Cowboys tremendously. But even more than on-field matters, I hope Dak Prescott knows the appreciation that the fans and players of the NFL feel for him. He is a Hall of Fame man and the worthy leader of America’s team, in sickness and in health.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 19-37, 180 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 71.9 passer rating, 27-3 win over Cincinnati
The Skinny: It went down to the last play, but Sunday’s game against the Bengals officially became an RG3 game when Robert Griffin came in for Lamar Jackson to take the final kneel. He could have come in a lot earlier in a game the Ravens dominated.
Jackson finished the divisional contest with just three rush yards and a relatively slight 180 passing yards, but the result was all about a defense that surrendered three points and forced three turnovers and seven sacks. After a really rough outing against Patrick Mahomes, Baltimore has rebounded nicely against Washington and Cincinnati, and when the defense helps Jackson keep the lead, that is great news for Ravens fans.
It wasn’t an MVP performance by any measure and the lopsided score masks an iffy outing. Two Jackson passes right to defenders dropped harmlessly to the ground, while another hit the chest of a linebacker dropping into coverage for an easy interception. Jackson’s placement was iffy, which won’t fly late in the season against top teams. At the same time, Jackson flashed his trademark elusivity and was money on third down opportunities, with the Ravens converting 7 of 15 attempts. He also completed six passes and one touchdown apiece to favorite targets Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. Jackson didn’t set the NFL world on fire on Sunday, but his monster defense more than carried the load.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 31-49, 301 yards, 2 touchdowns, 94 passer rating, 1 fumble, 30-14 loss to Houston
The Skinny: Gardner Minshew lost to a winless team for the third consecutive week. So despite a 300-yard outing and a pair of touchdowns, this Sunday wasn’t a particularly fruitful one in Duval.
Gardner Minshew is on a really bad team. That shouldn’t be a surprise. And how should he expect to stay competitive against a reigning AFC South champ when his kicker misses a 24-yarder and 49-yarder on consecutive drives, his coach dials up a wildcat running play on a failed fourth down conversion, and his running game averages 3.8 yards per carry?
Minshew’s performance holds up on tape. He’s dead accurate on every pass, throws a couple wild jukes on a pair of runs, and launches his best touchdown pass of the season to Keelan Cole to give the Jags an early lead. 12 consecutive completions, then a couple plays later a twisting Mahomes-type throw to move the Jaguars into the red zone. And then the Jaguars start doing Jaguar things, and a 10-7 Houston lead balloons into a 20-7 one by the final frame. The silver lining of losing to an 0-4 team with a 73-year-old interim head coach is that no loss can detract from the trademark Gardner Minshew swagger.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 25 for 41, 253 yards, 1 touchdown, 86.7 passer rating, 19-17 loss to Chicago
The Skinny: A week after lighting up a talented Charger defense to the tune of five touchdown passes, Tom Brady faced another stingy unit in the Chicago Bears. Whether it was the Bears’ D, injuries to the Tampa receiving corps, Thursday night flukiness, or a combination of all three, Brady couldn’t summon the performance to lift the visiting Bucs to their fourth win of the season.
Tampa raced to a 13-0 lead by the midway mark in the second quarter, seemingly kickstarting a blowout against a Bears’ offense that looked something worse than sluggish the previous week against the Colts. The next seven Tampa drives? Six total points, including two turnovers. Don’t blame it all on Brady — a fumble at the end of the second quarter led directly to a Bear touchdown and the Bucs were called for 11 penalties. But a team that can’t capitalize in the red zone and can’t sustain drives to finish off opponents can allow offenses like the Bears’ to climb back out of an early hole, and that’s exactly what happened. By the last drive and Brady’s infamous fourth down gaffe, the book was all but over.
I wouldn’t pin the one-point loss on Brady, and a lot that was out of his hands could have gone differently (a terrible third-down penalty call on Nick Foles let the Bears keep up their game-winning drive) and changed the narrative. But a letdown from his supporting cast and an iffy finish is not good news for Brady or anyone in Tampa.
Dak Prescott Watch
Stat Line: 14/21, 166 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 70.7 rating, 34-31 win over New York
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 27-37, 380 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 103.4 passer rating, 31 rush yards, 1 rush touchdown, 30-10 win over New York Jets
The Skinny: The Kyler Murray hype train slowed down a bit in upset losses to the Panthers and Lions, but a matchup against the porous Jets defense was just what the doctor ordered. A career-high 380 passing yards later, the Cardinals are heading back in the right direction.
Aside from a couple three-and-outs and a batted interception, Murray was spectacular (as pretty much every quarterback is against New York). Of course, he had a couple “plus” plays on the ground, including his weekly rushing touchdown. But Murray also exploited his surreal connection with new addition DeAndre Hopkins for 131 yards and got everyone involved — nine total Cardinal receivers caught passes. Murray did make some dumb decisions that could be expected from a sophomore passer, but the Jets couldn’t capitalize.
The Cardinals won’t get a chance to breathe with a really challenging upcoming slate. It’s time to see if the Murray who sliced and diced New York can stand up to the big boys from Buffalo, New England and Seattle.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: Will play Tuesday.
The Skinny: See above.