Option 1, Week 6’s Burning Question: Will any undefeated teams crumble?
Week 5 produced some shocking results and handed losses to a couple of undefeated teams, including the loud and proud Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the resurgent Buffalo Bills. By the closing of Week Six, the fraternity of undefeated squads took another hit, leaving just three squads standing.
A couple of teams escaped the grasp of regression to the mean. Pittsburgh had no trouble with division rival Cleveland, as the Steeler defense made Baker Mayfield look like Baker Mayfield (sorry, as a Ravens fan, I had to get that dig in there). Tennessee survived a late scare thanks to heroics from Derrick Henry and whatever the opposite of heroics is from Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel in a thrilling overtime victory. By virtue of their bye week, the Seahawks remained perfect through the week.
The shocker of the weekend came in the late afternoon window (ET) as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers demolished the previously 4-0 Green Bay Packers. The Packers scored on their first two possessions, each drive over 50 yards in length, to take an early double-digit lead over their hosts. The next Green Bay drive saw the excitement continue, but in the opposite direction. Jamel Dean returned a pick back to the end zone to put Tampa on the board. Two Rodgers passes later, the Buccaneers pounced with another takeaway, this one setting up running back Ronald Jones for the go-ahead rushing touchdown. The Bucs seized on the momentum with scores on their next three drives, and by the third quarter, a game the Packers seemed to have in the bag had become an insurmountable 31-10 hole. Aaron Rodgers didn’t even make it to the final buzzer.
You could give reasons to doubt each of the remaining three teams. Tennessee won its first three games by a combined three points and needed overtime against a 1-5 team to keep its perfect record intact. The Steelers’ most impressive opponent so far this season was the Cleveland Browns. And the Seahawks seem to believe that defense is optional (except on goal line stands against Cam Newton). But each of those teams has staked a claim to serious playoff contention, and each boasts the experience, coaching, and offensive talent to make noise in January. Next week’s battle will pit two of these teams, the Steelers and Titans, so barring a tie, we should see another team join the Packers and fall back to Earth.
Option 2, Week 6’s Huge Performance: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
As the trend goes, the game of football is moving away from the star running back. Case in point: the Jets’ release of former All Pro rusher Le’Veon Bell. One NFL contender has built itself around a top-tier running back, a decision ironically enough framed as an experiment. And on Sunday, Derrick Henry proved that he is a singular talent, bucking both Texan defenders and historical trends and lifting Tennessee to a thrilling overtime victory.
This is no secret. Henry demolished former Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman last Tuesday with his trademark stiff arm, and his 2019 season was enough to earn him a mega-contract and a couple of postseason wins. But 212 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns and 52 rushing yards are next level. And those big plays, namely a 94-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter and a 53-yard catch-and-run in overtime, could not have come at better times.
Tennessee is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the AFC South, passing both the record and eye tests. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has proved he was worth the money and coach Mike Vrabel is a top-five head coach. But when you decide to zig when everybody else is zagging, it’s fair to say your success is predicated on that reason. There’s no reason to think that anybody will be able to stop Henry’s blend of strength (247 pounds) and speed (a week-high 21.62 MPH on his 94-yard run).
Take out the dual-threat quarterbacks, and Henry is as fun to watch as any offensive player in the league. Except if you’re a defender.
Option 3, Week 6’s Crucial Decision: Romeo Crennel goes for two!
Washington vs. Dallas. Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore. New England vs. Indianapolis. Old-school coaching vs. ”Computer Guys”. The NFL has some great rivalries, but only one of these eternal wars waged a battle on Sunday. Spoiler alert — it’s the last one.
I’m not entirely sure how the 1-5 Texans compiled a fourth quarter lead on the undefeated Tennessee Titans, but somehow they did (maybe because they have Deshaun Watson?). To add to their riches, the Texans scored again late in regulation, but instead of kicking the extra point to go up eight points (thus requiring the Titans to score a touchdown and convert a two-point conversion to tie), interim coach Romeo Crennel decided to go for two points. If the Texans were successful, they would make the contest a two-possession game. If not, the Titans would only need a touchdown to tie. Either way, Crennel earned the ire of every old-school coach and mind out there.
Deshaun Watson, for all of his heroics on the day, couldn’t get it done as the Texans failed to convert. Tennessee drove down the field, tied the game on a touchdown and extra point kick, then won the overtime coin flip and won on a Derrick Henry rushing touchdown. Watson did not attempt another pass.
Go for one. Go for two. Either way makes sense. The inane take is that Crennel made a flat-out terrible call, or even worse, that he cost Houston the game. A two-point conversion, a very makeable play, essentially ends the game by making it a two-possession lead of nine points. I should also note when a baller like Deshaun Watson is your quarterback (or Derrick Henry your opponent), you should put the ball in his hands whenever possible. Even if you miss, your team just has to prevent the other team from driving THE LENGTH OF THE FIELD to tie and then THE LENGTH OF THE FIELD to win. You make a stop on either drive and you don’t lose. Houston couldn’t do either. Blame the defense, not the lovable and bold Crennel.
I also want to touch on another important two-point conversion attempt, this one at the end of the New York Giants-Washington Football Team football game (if we can even call it that). Washington scores a touchdown to pull within one, but instead of kicking to tie, coach Ron Rivera opts to go for the win and quarterback Kyle Allen is crushed by the New York pass rush. This is obviously a much different scenario and is less controversial, but was equally important and relevant to the two-point conversion trend. Sure, Washington could have gone to overtime, but Rivera had the guts in his team to win and end it right there. At the end of the day, isn’t that just what football is? Scoring when your opponent is trying to stop you?
The conversation around two-point conversions is exciting and dynamic, sparked in part by the analytics movement. Maybe going for two isn’t justified in every circumstance and it doesn’t always work, but blind belief in the traditional ways of coaching and censure of any alternative defies my comprehension. Two-point attempts make football better!
Checkdown: Ravens’ Veteran Stockpile Continues
Calais Campbell had himself a game. The newly minted Raven tallied three sacks, including one on the first play of regulation, as Baltimore’s defense imposed its will on the Philly offense. Though the Eagles battled back and closed the deficit to two points late, Baltimore’s D, and its defensive stud, that was the story of the game.
How did Campbell get here? The Ravens would have needed to give up a boatload to pry the Pro Bowl regular from Jacksonville, right? Well if a fifth-round pick is your idea of a boatload, then yes, but to any smart football fan would think, it was a total steal, both at the time and after Sunday’s beatdown.
There are a lot of things that the Ravens are not the best at. They don’t have as many Super Bowl rings as the Patriots, they rarely post prolific passing attacks, and they’re not at the top of attendance or market ratings. But when it comes to embedding veterans to their roster, whether via trade or free agent acquisitions, Baltimore is second to one.
Allow me to remind you of some of the faces that have worn the purple and gold the past decade and a half, spread across position groups. Running back: Mark Ingram, Willis McGahee, Justin Forsett. Wide receiver: Steve Smith Sr., Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason. Defense: Calais Campbell, Marcus Peters, Eric Weddle. Each of those guys had a proven track record with other teams, then joined Baltimore in the twilight of their careers and contributed to a contender. Even Justin Tucker, the best kicker in NFL history, signed as a free agent. The Ravens never swing and miss on a big contract, and while all of their additions don’t pan out (Earl Thomas was a regrettable signing; Terrell Owens refused to come to Baltimore), enough do to make the rest of the NFL scratch their heads on a yearly basis.
On the flipside, the Ravens who do choose to leave rarely enjoy the same success outside of Charm City — do you remember Ed Reed in a Texans jersey, Haloti Ngata in the Lions’ threads, Joe Flacco with the Broncos, CJ Mosley’s tenure with the Jets or Terrell Suggs in Arizona? Ozzie Newsome started this roster management brilliance and successor Eric DeCosta has continued it. That is a huge reason why the Ravens have been among the league’s best teams for three decades running and, given the current roster construction, why Baltimore can’t be counted out this year.
Game Notes: Put respect on Lavonte David’s name. The Tampa Bay linebacker didn’t come away with the pick, but just ask Aaron Rodgers if you want to know if David made his presence felt. David finished the day with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks, and if you watch the game tape, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a play where 54 wasn’t close to the ball. David has been an All Pro talent for much of the last decade, but the newfound prominence of Tampa Bay as a playoff contender is giving David a primetime stage and much-deserved recognition…I’m not sold on either the Steelers or the Browns upending the Ravens and stealing the AFC North crown. Still, the Steelers are undefeated and staked the claim to be in the top half of the division with a convincing win over Cleveland. Let’s see how the Steelers perform against the Titans and Ravens in upcoming weeks, but with studs like Chase Claypool and TJ Watt, they’ve caught my attention…Give the Jets the number one overall pick already. Technically Jacksonville, New York (the other one, LOL!), and Washington could slide past them. A shutout loss to the Dolphins? I’d be absolutely shocked if the Jets finish above No. 32…Winless teams are now 2-0 in weeks immediately following firing their coaches (Atlanta and Houston), and if not for a late collapse, the mark would be 3-0. Could this trend continue with Adam Gase? Maybe! And while we’re at it, I’m sure the Lions (Matt Patricia) and Jags (Doug Marrone) could use a shot in the arm. Both guys have had ample opportunity to produce. They might make it to the end of the season, but the franchises should make a move in the future. Especially Detroit…Props to Indy on returning from a three-touchdown deficit to beat Cincinnati. That said, it’s Cincinnati. I don’t buy the Colts as serious Super Bowl contenders because of the guy under center. I’ve always been a huge Philip Rivers guy, but he’s not the solution and the decision-making is hard to stomach…Denver has found life! The Broncos topped the Patriots in Foxborough, and, most importantly, Drew Lock has returned. The AFC West title is out of view, but the Broncos could lurk in the three-team Wild Card chase. And the Patriots? Well, 2-3 is hard to swallow when “Tompa Bay” is 4-2…The Bears are legit because their defense is the best in the NFC. By legit I mean a possible playoff team, and not much more…The Falcons put together a complete game and got a win. By a complete game, I don’t just mean not surrendering a 25-point lead. Atlanta scored 10 points in the first, then 10 in the second, then 10 in the third, then 10 in the fourth… There were interceptions in weird places. One Jet pinned a pick on his butt, while a Falcon clamped the ball secure with his legs…Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay is the best venue for a Sunday afternoon game. The cannons? The pirate ship? The sunset? I really hope to watch a game there someday. Pumped to see the Super Bowl hit Tampa in a couple months, and there’s a good chance the hometown team takes the sideline…It’s not Tua Time yet, but excitement is mounting. The Dolphins are an ascending team. Their problem is that Fitzy is playing too well for Tua to play. Still cool to see the lefty (passer) attempt a few passes in the waning minutes against New York…Watching Tony Romo in commercials makes me smile. I love watching the guy succeed post-football, his fragile body just didn’t do his competitive spirit and gamesmanship justice…I have to touch on Dallas at least once now that I don’t have a Dak Prescott watch. I’m clinging to the positives, and they’re few and far between. On one hand, I thought the Rams, Cardinals, Browns, and Seahawks were all playoff teams, and those are all four of the Cowboys’ losses. The Boys are also in the NFC East. On the other hand, name ONE team that would make the playoffs if they lost their quarterback, their tight end, and four offensive line starters. Doesn’t help when the defense doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The Cowboys are miserable, but I just know I’m gonna be tuning in, week after week.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 16 for 27, 186 yards, 1 touchdown, 92.5 passer rating, 108 rushing yards, 1 rush touchdown, 30-28 win over Philadelphia
The Skinny: I did not lend the loss of perennial All Pro Marshal Yanda the weight it deserves. The Ravens’ offense hasn’t clicked on the level that its 2019 team did, and this team certainly has work to do before entering the AFC playoff gauntlet. But only in Baltimore can a 3-0 streak seem like a three-game slump. Look beyond the meaningless fluff of the “MVP race” and statistical marks — the Ravens are fine and their coaching staff will make them better.
Jackson wasn’t perfect, and there were a couple throws he wishes he could have back. The offense stuttered in the second half, allowing their inferior bird brethren to claw back into the affair.
He also rushed for a season-high 108 yards (after just three vs. Cincinnati), broke 21 MPH for the first time of his career on a blazing rush straight down the middle of the field, and improved to 5-1. Jackson’s a unique thrower, mixing it up with arm launch angles and zipping impossible passes for touchdowns (namely his scramble, double juke, hesitation, then sling to Nick Boyle for the game’s first touchdown). I love this guy. The upcoming bye week is a great opportunity for the Ravens to refocus and game plan for a crucial second half of the season.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 25 for 44, 243 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 70.6 passer rating, fumble, 34-16 loss to Detroit
The Skinny: The air is coming out of the balloon when it comes to Minshew Mania. I’m going to stay on the Minshew hype train until the very end.
Last week, Jacksonville’s special teams and supporting cast failed Minshew in a loss to the previously winless and coachless Texans. This time, a fair share of the blame has to be attributed to the Stache. The guy who completed 19 of 20 in the season opener against Indianapolis completed just 25 of 44 against the inferior Lions and turned the ball over twice. The Jags were never in this one, and Detroit was the one NFC North game the Jaguars could pick out as one where they would have a shot. Instead, it’s five losses in a row, and each week it seemingly gets worse.
I compelled myself to watch the game tape. It wasn’t much prettier than Minshew’s stat line. Minshew finished 20 for 26 with a touchdown in the short zone (<10 yards), but was errant throwing down the field, going 5 for 18 with a pick. According to Next Gen Stats, Minshew’s expected completion rate was 8.1 percentage points above his actual completion rate, fifth-worst of the week.
Minshew’s start was impressive, namely a 4-for-5 mark (for 52 yards) on his second drive that put Jacksonville squarely in field goal range and included a sexy, 35-yard deep ball to Keelan Cole and a fadeaway comeback route, also to Cole. But Minshew Magic can only last so long for a team like the Jags, and as it became apparent that Jacksonville was not on Detroit’s level (quite an impressive feat against a Matt Patricia-coached team), Minshew had to play hero ball. Rookie rusher James Robinson has cooled off, leading the team with a paltry 29 yards on the ground, while the defense got pummeled by the duo of Matt Stafford and rookie D’Andre Swift. It’s not going to get much easier for Minshew as the Jags descend to the AFC cellar. But at least they’re not the Jets.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 17 for 27, 166 yards, 2 touchdowns, 104.9 passer rating, 38-10 win over Green Bay
The Skinny: Tom Brady wasn’t reason number one that Tampa Bay beat the Packers. That would be a defense that allowed just 10 points and picked off Aaron Rodgers twice. Tom Brady wasn’t reason number two, either. That honor goes to running back Ronald Jones, who tallied two touchdowns and 113 yards on the ground. But a lot has to go right to win 38-10 against an undefeated squad. I’ve watched every Brady game this season, and he looked fantastic in this one.
The Buccaneers are on a streak of six straight nationally televised games (an amazing stat for Tampa Bay). This one, the most hyped of the streak, may have been the biggest statement game the Bucs could make and now the jokes about Brady’s fourth down gaffe are fading into the background.
Brady was clearly the superior quarterback in the third battle of the No. 12s, completing two touchdowns to no turnovers and finishing the game with a nearly perfect 96.1 ESPN QBR mark (out of 100 possible points). Nearly half of his 166 passing yards landed in the hands of tight end Rob Gronkowski, as well as a marvelous sideline touchdown connection. Chris Godwin also came off the injured list and hit the stat sheet with five receptions for just short of 50 yards. This is the formula for a Tampa Bay win — a strong rushing attack and opportunistic defense matched with crisp Brady passes and discipline. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when the Bucs are on their A game, no NFC team can catch them.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 9-24, 188 yards, 2 touchdowns, 93.7 rating, 74 rushing yards, 1 touchdown, 38-10 win over Dallas
The Skinny: Kyler Murray started his seventh game ever at AT&T Stadium by completing just three of his first 12 pass attempts, many of them errant deep balls, and in the process made the historically inept Dallas defense look like its 70s iteration. But once Zona started rumblin and Zeke started fumblin, the Kyler we saw in the first two weeks of the season returned and led a blowout over a depleted Cowboy squad.
Shield your eyes from the box score — Murray failed to even hit double-digit completions in 24 attempts. Oh yeah, one of those happened to go 80 yards for a touchdown to Christian Kirk. Murray wasn’t the story of the game. That honor would go to an Arizona defense that forced two Ezekiel Elliott fumbles, two Andy Dalton picks, and held the Cowboys to just three points in the game’s first 57 minutes and to Kenyan Drake, who ran for an astounding 164 yards.
But Murray was without major fault in a game that was over by halftime. The former Oklahoma passer tossed a couple of touchdowns, ran for 74 yards and a score, and, most crucially, didn’t turn the ball over. Not pretty, but it’s winning football.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 14-27, 122 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 73.4 rating, 42 rushing yards, 26-17 loss to Kansas City
The Skinny: Since taking a 28-3 lead over Los Angeles in their third game, the Bills have been outscored 120-70 and suffered losses in back-to-back weeks. Buffalo should still be the favorites to win the AFC East after the Broncos knocked off New England, but the recent returns have slowed the supersonic hype train that shot out of the station in the first couple of weeks. Their quarterback, Josh Allen, is no exception.
I started the Josh Allen watch a couple weeks into the season to track the exploits of the most frustrating and exhilarating quarterback in football. Allen posted just 122 yards, which is half of his previous season-low, and dipped considerably in passer rating and completion percentage as well. The decision-making, Allen’s previous Achilles heel, continued its slump with another interception. Granted, it’s hard going against Patrick Mahomes, but when the former MVP is held in check by your secondary and you hold the Chiefs to 26 points, the quarterback has to capitalize.
Maybe the unenviable Buffalo weather had something to do with it, but Allen didn’t look the MVP part from the get-go. He missed receivers three times on the Bills’ opening three plays, then halted a promising drive by airmailing an easy third down conversion (albeit with a strong KC pass rush). Allen’s first real big-time throw was a four-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on a bootleg to put the Bills up. After that? Buffalo couldn’t muster a drive over 21 yards until midway through the final frame, when the Chiefs were already up 13.
The Chiefs defense is sneaky impressive, stifling Josh Allen as soundly as they did his Class of 2018 draft mate Lamar Jackson. He flashed his rushing abilities with a couple of first down scrambles and saw some unfortunate bounces off his receivers’ gloves. Allen has the best possible way to get back on track, a gimme game versus the Jets, before a test of AFC East supremacy as Cam Newton and the Patriots come to town.