Option 1, Week 7’s Burning Question: Are the Raiders for real?
Las Vegas broke onto the scene with wins over the Saints in their Allegiant Stadium debut and the Chiefs on the road in Kansas City. A game against the Bucs, flexed out of the primetime slot at the last second, offered another chance for the league to see if the Raiders could hold water against the league’s best in a Super Bowl XXXVII rematch (a.k.a. The Gruden Bowl).
The Raiders’ first half effort wasn’t as ugly as their stinker against New England, but it was clear that the Buccaneers are just a better team. Tom Brady enjoyed a vintage performance with a couple of touchdown passes (with one especially beautiful dime to Scotty Miller) and another on a sneak, lifting the Bucs to a double-digit halftime lead. But Tampa Bay’s defense was the story — just 24 yards allowed on the ground in the first half, including limiting feature back Josh Jacobs to just 10 yards on seven carries.
Once the Raider defense stiffened in the second half, Carr restarted the offense and pulled Vegas within striking distance. Nelson Agholor caught a Carr deep ball to set up a touchdown by Darren Waller, and then a brilliant sequence of Carr passing helped the Raiders kick a field goal to make it a 24-20 game.
Then, Tompa Bay took off. Brady took over the game, finding five different receivers on an 11-play drive and topping it off with a bootleg touchdown pass to Chris Godwin. Carr threw a pick on the Raiders’ next offensive play, which set up another Brady touchdown pass to Godwin. A blink of an eye, and a 24-20 game is 38-20 and virtually over. That’s the Tampa Bay gear.
Oh, and did you hear that a guy named Antonio Brown is joining the squad?
Option 2, Week 7’s Huge Performance: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Most football fans expected Aaron Rodgers to defeat the 1-5 Houston Texans, even if he’d been clobbered by the Buccaneers the previous week and was on the road against a talented quarterback in Deshaun Watson. And the result? A dominant four-touchdown performance that keeps the Packers squarely in the race for the top seed for the coveted NFC bye.
The past couple years have been rough in Green Bay, and even last year’s 13-3 surprise season under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur was unfulfilling — the Pack outperformed their win expectancy and proved no match for the Niners in the playoffs. With running back Aaron Jones taking over as the offensive dynamo, Rodgers fell out of many analysts’ top fives (I was one such fool, putting him at 6 behind Drew Brees) and his regression and lack of chemistry with LaFleur seemed a valid reason to count Green Bay out of the Super Bowl race.
Well, Rodgers is back in MVP mode. One thing that MVP talents do is bounce back from failure, and after throwing a couple of brutal interceptions last week on America’s Game of the Week, Rodgers cut down on his mistakes and dialed up his production. He had four touchdowns on the day with no picks, registering a 132.4 passer rating and 87.2 QBR, both best since, well, two weeks ago against Atlanta. The ease of Rodgers’ deep ball is incredible, though having a route-running ace like Davante Adams crossing up defenders. Last year, this was Aaron Jones’ team. Now, it’s shifted back to the other Aaron in the backfield.
Rodgers’ resurgence trumps a couple question marks that seemed fated to doom the Packers, like the lack of perimeter weapons and the curious drafting of quarterback Jordan Love in last spring’s first round. I’d slot the Packers in the NFC’s top tier, along with the Buccaneers and Seahawks, while ahead of the second tier of Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Arizona. Most encouragingly, Rodgers looks like he’s having fun and bought into LaFleur’s philosophy in this crucial Year 2.
Option 3, Week 7’s Crucial Decision: Miami kicks off the Tua Tagovailoa Era
It’s Tua Time in Miami.
The Tua hype train picked up remarkable steam at University of Alabama as Tagovailoa destroyed opposing college defenses and emerged as the most-hyped draft prospect at the quarterback position since Andrew Luck. Not even injury concerns derailed the Miami Dolphins from selecting the lefty thrower with the no. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Within weeks, Tua’s no. 1 jersey was no. 1 on the NFL sales charts.
But while Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert have been lighting it up in their respective locales, Tagovailoa has assumed a spot on the bench while journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick led the lowly Fins to a 3-3 record and the number two spot in the AFC. Week 6 saw the Dolphins crush the Jets 24-0 for the season’s first shutout.
In the aftermath of that impressive victory, the surging Dolphins made a change at the quarterback position and named Tua Tagovailoa the starter. The move certainly excites Dolphin fans, but was also curious given Fitzpatrick and the team’s recent successes. Fitzpatrick made his disappointment clear, telling the media that his “heart hurt all day” and that he was heartbroken over the news.
Still, it’s the right move. Say what you will about Miami’s playoff chances — at 3-3, the Fins could challenge for a while card or make a move for the AFC East — but the Dolphins aren’t making moves on the Chiefs and Ravens in the playoffs. This is about the long term, and starting the Tua era early (given that he is healthy) is a great play. Conventional wisdom about benching rookie quarterbacks for a whole year is simply untenable in today’s NFL, where an elite quarterback on a rookie deal is the best bargain in the sport and the last two MVPs were sophomore quarterbacks. Miami gets to see what Tua can do in Year 1 and start a quarterback with a much higher ceiling than the respected but limited Fitzpatrick.
The Dolphins enjoyed their bye this Week 7, meaning Tua’s first start will come against the Los Angeles Rams. With Dak Prescott out, I chose to add Tua to my quarterback watch list at the end of this column and I’ll certainly tune in to see the Alabama product’s debut. I don’t have super high expectations, but at least it couldn’t possibly be as disastrous as his brother’s nightmare against a certain college team from Evanston, Illinois on Saturday…
Checkdown: The Patriots stink!!!
AFC teams rejoice! The mighty have fallen! After shockingly dropping an egg to the Denver Broncos, New England got shown up at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Admittedly, the Niners are a good, if disoriented, football team, but the Patriots are 2-4, a half-game behind the Dolphins in the AFC East standings.
I did not see the Patriots as a playoff team coming into the season. The loss of Tom Brady is as significant a moral loss as a talent one, a signal that an era of NFL domination was coming to an end. And he had good reason to leave — a depleted offense without the firepower to compete with the big dogs of the AFC in Baltimore and Kansas City. The defense regressed in the second half of the 2019 season and saw key defenders opt out due to coronavirus.
But to actually see the Patriots sliding out of the playoff picture is glorious. Whether due to injury concerns or a regression to the mean, Cam Newton has not looked like the guy who nearly outdueled Russell Wilson on Sunday Night Football. The offensive concerns are real — the Pats put up 10, 12 and 6 points since their fast three-game start. Sure, Bill Belichick’s still on the sideline, but the personnel advantages he has enjoyed in years past have evaporated.
The AFC has four tiers. Tier One you have the Chiefs and Ravens, with the undefeated Steelers on the precipice with a chance to move in next week. Tier Two features real playoff contenders in Tennessee, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Tier Four is the cellar dwellers in Cincinnati, Jacksonville and New York Jets. And in the purgatory between Tiers Two and Four sit the deflated Patriots.
Bill Belichick is a good enough coach that no fan would be surprised if he rallies the troops to eke out one of the three AFC wild card spots. The fact that we’re so conditioned to expect that is a testament to his coaching record. But the fact is that today, the Patriots are 2-4. And for 31 NFL fanbases, that’s cause for celebration.
Game Notes: Congratulations on the city of Tampa Bay for two thrilling wins over the course of 24 hours, though their World Series joy was short-lived. The ending of that Game 5 was like the Cowboys-Falcons onside kick happening twice but if it was also the game-ending play of a playoff game. After Joe Buck made that call in the chaos, I have to say he’s better with the diamond than the gridiron…30 NFL teams evidently didn’t read my column last week. The league let the Ravens trade for another savvy vet who played for the Jaguars, Yannick Ngakoue, immediately after Calais Campbell tallied three sacks against Philly. Of course, this has to be viewed in the context of stopping Patrick Mahomes, and I think this helps. If Ngakoue can prove to be an efficient rusher, the Ravens should be able to pass rush effectively while still being able to drop guys into coverage, though who knows if coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale thinks the same way…We’re not going to talk about the game that took place in Landover, Maryland…D.K. Metcalf had a fantastic defensive play in stopping Budda Baker’s prospective pick-six on Sunday Night Football, and the Cardinals didn’t even score off the turnover. Still, Kyler Murray deserves to be the story of the game… The Falcons do Falcon-type things yet again, but something still doesn’t sit right about Todd Gurley having to take a knee at the one-yard line. I understand that he could run out the time. I understand that all the Falcons needed was a field goal. But if your defense can’t prevent a touchdown over the course of a minute you deserve to lose. And players should always be conditioned to aim for the end zone, circumstance be darned…Cleveland pulled out a win over Cincinnati. But was it really a win? Hard to imagine a circumstance in which the Browns finish in the top half of their division, and giving up 400 yards to rookie Joe Burrow is brutal. Worse, OBJ is out for the year. At 5-2, the Browns look like a playoff team. Just not a dangerous one…The Steelers and Titans both looked like viable AFC contenders. Pittsburgh is dominant on both sides of the ball, and Ryan Tannehill led a furious rally. I would love to see a January matchup between these two squads…Justin Herbert continues to impress. I’m pulling for him to win Rookie of the Year, and it’s nice to see his efforts translate into a rare win…Okay, I give up. I have to talk about the Cowboys. Who to blame? Dallas is on its third quarterback, a guy who played for James Madison, and has four offensive linemen out. Fumble luck has been extraordinarily bad. Based on those two factors, coach Mike McCarthy shouldn’t be entirely to blame. But a coaching change is supposed to fix a lost locker room, and this looks even worse than last year. The one guy I can fully blame is Mike Nolan, whose defense has looked overmatched in every game with cornerstone guys like Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence regressing. Thank the Lord for Ravens games.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Saints-Panthers, Bucs-Raiders, Niners-Patriots, Packers-Texans, Bengals-Browns
Best Sunday: Arizona Cardinals — The Cards took down the best NFC team and Kyler is a star.
Worst Sunday: Dallas Cowboys — Losing 25-3 to the archrival to the East is rock bottom.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: Bye Week!
The Skinny: See above.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 14-27, 173 yards, 2 touchdowns, 96.7 rating, 29-39 loss to Chargers
The Skinny: Rumors around Duval suggested that Gardner Minshew II was on the hot seat, which is something considering that the Jags’ backup quarterback is Jake Luton. But that’s what happens when you lose five games in a row, including three to winless teams.
Minshew’s performance against the vaunted Los Angeles Chargers’ defense should keep him on the field at least another week. The Jaguars battled back from an early 16-0 hole to nearly tie the game by halftime and actually took a seven-point lead on a brilliant Minshew pass late in the third quarter. Justin Herbert was just better, hitting on deep passes and capitalizing on a Jacksonville return fumble with a five-yard scramble for the go-ahead touchdown. The loss extended the Jags’ losing streak to six.
The afternoon was not a particularly memorable one for Minshew. He completed a hair over 50 percent of his throws and was as boom-or-bust as it gets in the first half — each of his three completions in the game’s first 25 minutes went for over 20 yards. And the reason for the deficit — four straight three-and-outs to open the game.
Unlike his previous outings, Minshew actually had help in this one. The Jaguars blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, while Charger kicker Mike “Money Badger” Badgley missed an extra point and field goal. Rookie rusher James Robinson tallied 119 yards and a score on the ground. Yet the Jags couldn’t answer the late Los Angeles surge.
Gardner Minshew should not be benched. The Jaguars put him in a tough position to begin the year with very limited offensive and defensive help and, by the standings, are in a position in which quarterback play doesn’t really matter. You’re not going to improve on Minshew internally, and even a slight unlikely boost probably won’t factor into the box score. I’d also assume he has more swagger than Jake Luton. Gardner Minshew Watch is officially on watch given the exciting state of quarterback play around the league, but despite his recent skid, I don’t think his starting job in Jacksonville should be.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 33-45, 369 yards, 4 touchdowns, 127.0 rating, rush touchdown, 45-20 win over Raiders
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 34-48, 360 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 104.5 passer rating, 14 rushes, 67 yards 1 rush touchdown, 37-34 win over Seattle
The Skinny: Against the 2020 Seattle Seahawks defense, Matt Ryan threw for 450 yards, Cam Newton ran for two touchdowns and passed for almost 400 yards, Dak Prescott topped 470 and had a trio of touchdown passes, and Kirk Cousins looked serviceable. Throw a quarterback against the Seahawks defense and expect a season-best day. But Arizona’s Kyler Murray one-upped the other Seattle opponents — he enjoyed the statement game of his career and actually beat the previously undefeated Hawks.
Murray started off slow compared to his elder NFC West quarterback, Russell Wilson. The Cardinals fell behind early by as many as 13, and Seattle held double-digit leads in both the third and fourth quarters. In the second half, Murray picked up. Down 10 in the third quarter, he eluded one defender for what would have been a safety, then bookended the drive with a rushing touchdown to pull the Cards within a possession. His lone mistake of the second half was a regrettable interception that offset a rare Russell Wilson pick and set the Seahawks in position to boost their lead back, but after that, Murray caught fire.
The Cardinals get the ball back with just over six minutes. Murray runs for 18 to push the Cards near midfield, then completes three quick passes to put the Cards in field goal position. A penalty breathes life back into Arizona’s offense, and Murray makes the most of it. With just under three minutes on the clock, Murray connects on two more passes, the latter a touchdown to Christian Kirk, to close the gap to three.
Arizona’s defense makes a miracle stop, giving the Cardinals one more shot with 52 seconds remaining. And Murray proceeds to slice up Seattle on the ground (a 15-yard rush) and the air (two first down completions). Zane Gonzalez hits a field goal, and a 10-point Seattle lead with three minutes to go is gone.
Overtime isn’t pretty. After the Seahawks punt, Murray leads the Cardinals back into field goal range, only for Gonzalez to miss the 41-yard game winner. Wilson looks poised to close out the game… until rookie Isaiah Simmons intercepts an errant pass with 1:04 to go in overtime. Then, two more sure passes to Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins, and Murray gives Gonzalez another shot. The kicker nails the 48-yarder. Arizona 37, Seattle 34.
I projected the Cardinals to make the playoffs as a surprise team based off Murray’s likely sophomore breakout, but I also wondered whether a 5-11 team could really turn it around in a tough division. Well, the Cardinals aren’t even to the halfway point and they have as many wins as they had all of 2019. And with the win over the Seahawks, they’re only a half-game out of first place.
The best of Murray was on display on a national stage. In a matchup of elite quarterbacks, Murray more than held his own — he threw two fewer interceptions than Russell Wilson himself. Murray has also continued what has been the most impressive quarterback rushing season ever (2019 Lamar included), becoming the first player to ever score at least six passing and six rushing touchdowns in his first seven games of a season. Paired with an offensive line that did not allow a sack, a defense that has quietly kept the Cardinals in games, and stellar play at the receiver position, Murray flashed his MVP potential.
Quick note on another Cardinal. Larry Fitzgerald caught his 14,000th reception on Sunday Night, only the second player to do so, behind Jerry Rice. Fitzgerald is my fourth favorite athlete of all time (behind Jon Lester, Lamar Jackson and Ed Reed) and he deserves every accolade and stat that comes his way. I’ll always remember his red-hot 2008 and 2015 postseasons, but even now it’s incredible that he’s a contributor. He’s never had a better receiver opposite him than DeAndre Hopkins and the debate between Kyler Murray and Kurt Warner is fair (that is to say, Larry’s not always had the help he deserves). Right now, the Cardinals are on track to give No. 11 one more shot at postseason glory. I know he’ll make the most of it.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 30-43, 307 yards, 90.0 passer rating, 11 carries, 61 rush yards, 1 fumble, 18-10 win over New York Jets
The Skinny: There were a couple yikes. Such as, Josh Allen didn’t throw a touchdown against the pitiful New York Jets. That Josh Allen didn’t incite a blowout against the worst team in the NFL. That the Bills offense went 0 for 5 in the red zone, worse in Week 7 than, among other teams, the New York Jets. But a win’s a win, and the Bills remain the most impressive team in the AFC East.
Allen accounted for just over 350 of the Bills’ 422 yards and finished as Buffalo’s leading passer and rusher. A 38-yarder to Tyler Kroft should have been a walk-in touchdown if not for the hated MetLife Stadium turf, which would have boosted the Bills’ totals. But you just can’t go 0-5 in the red zone or have more turnovers (1) than touchdowns (0) and expect to win against any team not named the New York Jets.
Let’s look at those five red zone trips. A couple saw the Bills get immediately pushed out of the red zone and into second and long situations, while a two-play sequence saw Allen throw two strikes to the end zone and have both called back. One drive was a kneel to end the game. So the 0-5 stat is not the red flag that it might seem like, though a fumble and more than a couple incompletions against the Jets defense isn’t a great look. Still, Allen did plenty on offense without much help in the ground game and the Bills are the clear favorites in the AFC East.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: Bye Week!
The Skinny: His week was better than Taulia’s, I’ll say that.