Option 1, Week 8’s Burning Question: How will Tua Tagovailoa perform against Los Angeles?
A rookie quarterback relegated to the bench the first seven weeks of the season was primed to kick off his career in his debut and launch a Hall of Fame career. No, I’m not talking about Dallas third-stringer Ben DiNucci. It’s Tua Time.
Tagovailoa got the win as the starter as the Dolphins upset the 5-2 Los Angeles Rams in Miami. But Tua had all kinds of help in his debut and did not turn out to be the story of the day. The Dolphins’ defense had a field day, forcing Jared Goff to throw the ball 61 times, lose two fumbles, throw two interceptions, and average a hair over five yards per attempt, while returning one fumble 78 yards for a touchdown. Special teams also kicked in, as Jakeem Grant returned a punt 88 yards for the first punt return touchdown of the season. Over the course of just over seven minutes in the second quarter, Miami hung 21 points on the Rams in a stretch in which Tagovailoa did not account for a single yard.
Tagovailoa’s day was not horrific — one passing touchdown to one turnover. It was quiet, with the lefty passer failing to clear the 100-yard bar on the day, but the Dolphins didn’t ask Tagovailoa to do all that much. The Miami offense fed Tagovailoa plenty of slant routes (one for a touchdown), comeback routes, and checkdowns to the flat and he delivered on each of them, though for modest gains. It’s clear Miami isn’t feeding Tagovailoa to the wolves like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert and really testing his abilities, but with the Dolphins improving to 4-3, why should they right now?
I want to touch on one last thing — the reemergence of lefty quarterbacks in the NFL. Tagovailoa is the first quarterback to throw with his left hand since current Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and, man, it is something to watch. The closest thing I can liken it to is sidearm passing — I feel less confident in the pass’s accuracy, but it’s pretty darn cool to watch. I could say the same thing about the 4-3 Dolphins, who are bringing the joy back to a city deprived of good football.
Option 2, Week 8’s Huge Performance: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
As a firmly retired fantasy football owner, I don’t put much stock in fantasy football stats. But when those points correlate with an upset victory over a division rival? You have my attention.
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook set the Green Bay Packer defense ablaze with four touchdowns, three on the ground and his last a screen-turned-50-yard highlight reel score. Cook may have only done the Lambeau Leap after his first touchdown, but his performance helped the Vikings Lambeau Leap over Green Bay with 28 unanswered points and walk away with a win.
Cook’s totals may seem inflated by having a pair of goal-line carries, which I would imagine would make fantasy football owners pretty pleased. But his yardage totals backed up his dominance. Cook rushed for 163 yards and was the only Viking with over 27 receiving yards, tallying 63. If I’m doing the math correctly, that’s 226 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. Excluding PATs, Cook accounted for every Minnesota score in a victory.
The monster performance is not a breakout for Dalvin Cook, who struggled with injuries in his first two seasons before cracking the 1,000-yard rushing barrier in 2019 with 14 games. But it’s awesome to see a healthy Cook carry this team — and in a Gary Kubiak-run offense that relies on plenty of play action, he does carry the Vikes.
Minnesota sits three games out of the NFC North lead and likely won’t qualify for a Wild Card. I predicted they would regress out of the playoff picture due to a jumbled defense and the erratic play of Kirk Cousins, but I didn’t see their rough start coming. This win keeps them alive and gives plenty of bragging rights in one of the NFL’s best rivalries.
Option 3, Week 8’s Crucial Decision: The Bears keep in Nick Foles.
The Chicago quarterback situation has made Read Option columns multiple times this year, and for good reason. The Bears find themselves squarely in the playoff conversation but could squander it just for mediocre quarterback play.
Mitchell Trubisky won the starting job after an impressive training camp and proved coach Matt Nagy right with a thrilling comeback victory over the Detroit Lions. By Week 3, he was out, benched for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. But Foles hasn’t been all that impressive either. The offense looked unresponsive against Indianapolis and Los Angeles, and the defense was the primary reason that the Bears upset the high-powered Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. The turnovers are up and the production is down. The question is, would the Bears really improve by going back to Trubisky?
The Bears’ matchup against another member of the NFC’s second tier, the New Orleans Saints, promised another shot at the debate. Foles got hot in the second quarter with a 50-yard pass to Darnell Mooney and a 24-yarder to Allen Robinson on the Bears’ touchdown drive, then, after the Bears took a 13-3 lead near the end of the first half, Chicago’s offense went silent for 25 minutes of gametime. The Bears’ second half possessions lasted five plays, two plays (interception), three plays and five plays and accumulated a total of 14 yards.
“Good” Foles got the Bears back on the board in the final minutes, leading an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped off with a three-yard touchdown loft to Mooney in the flat. The Bears made a stop on defense, and Foles connected with Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson on consecutive fourth-down conversions to set up a game-tying field goal and force overtime. After the Saints failed to score, Foles hit a third-and-12 to Robinson, but took an egregious sack a couple plays later to end the drive. That would be Foles’s final play on the night, as the Saints won a thriller 26-23.
Earlier today I was reading a section from the 2007 NFL Preview from SI Kids about Rex Grossman, a mediocre quarterback on a great Bears team with an elite defense that was firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. The section referred to him as “good Rex” and “bad Rex”, and it seems like history has repeated itself 15 years later. Good Foles led two scoring drives in the last four minutes. Bad Foles put the Bears in the situation where that was needed to tie the game. With Foles, Chicago is tied for the NFC North lead. But when Bad Foles shows up, the Bears have pretty much no shot.
In Week 2, I made the case for Mitch Trubisky to stay the starter. I’ll argue the same here but for Foles — consistency matters. Reverting back to Trubisky after a close loss to an NFC contender would be an overreaction because 1) nothing from Trubisky will be that much better over Foles 2) Foles has experience and 3) the Bears are having a best case scenario 2020 anyway, so a shakeup seems to invite more chaos. Chicago is stuck with Foles’ contract for a couple more years too, so getting some production out of him, and pretty much the worst case scenario is going back to Trubisky, Trubisky showing flashes, and then the Bears re-upping Trubisky while still paying Foles (I would not rule this out). I guess this is the tradeoff of Bears playoff contention.
Checkdown: Rivalry Games
Last week I said “thank the Lord for Ravens games.” Well, maybe I said it too soon. A game with four Lamar Jackson turnovers ended in heartbreak as Baltimore lost on their home turf. Worst of all, it was at the hands of Baltimore’s archrival, the still undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.
There is NFL football, and then there is NFL rivalry football. Something about rivalries, whether it’s the increased frequency of matchups, geographical proximity, bragging rights or aggressive nature of the sport tends to make even regular season matchups instant classics with seemingly everything on the line. College sports is really good at cultivating these rivalries, but in the world of professional sports with less fan loyalties, the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is the best across all sports.
Here’s why Ravens-Steelers is special. Geographical proximity? Yep. Being in the boiling pot of the AFC North division? Yep. Multiple playoff games, including an AFC Championship in 2008? Yep. And most importantly, both teams are usually really good and either the class of their division or close to it. Think about this stat — according to CBS, at one point during the Ravens-Steelers game, the teams had scored the same amount of points over the history of the rivalry, one that spans nearly 25 years! Coming into Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers ranked at the top of the NFL standings, with one loss between the two of them.
If you were an impartial NFL fan, this game more than lived up to the hype of two good teams. Played in the usual wet, inhospitable conditions AFC North fans have come to expect, the rivalry featured five lead changes and went down to the final play, ending in a nail-biting 28-24 Steeler victory.
If you were a Raven or Steeler fan, the ugliness was par for the course. Reigning MVP Lamar Jackson turned the ball over four times and another interception was ruled incomplete after review. Those turnovers were the primary reason why a Raven team that doubled the Steeler offensive output in yardage found themselves on the losing side of the scoreboard. But even after those four turnovers put Baltimore at a disadvantage, they were still in the game because this is a grind-it-out, never-say-die rivalry in which wins rarely come pretty.
It’s hard to explain why Ravens-Steelers means so much and why this one stings. For every time you see T.J. Watt hit Lamar Jackson, you see a flashback to Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs taking down Ben Roethlisberger ten years earlier. In the fourth quarter, you remember Antonio Brown’s goalline winner on Christmas that spoiled your holiday cheer. After so many years of both being good, there’s mutual respect, but every ounce of you is rooting, needing to beat the other team. And when there’s literal playoff implications on the line, the intensity is overwhelming and awesome.
Ravens-Steelers was far from the only rivalry from Week 8. Packers-Vikings started out with a 14-0 Green Bay lead, then flipped into a 28-14 advantage for their neighbors to the west. Seahawks-Niners has been one of the best rivalries of the last decade, though this iteration didn’t show it. And I couldn’t forget Cowboys-Eagles, which may look like a horrible matchup on paper but means so much when you can visualize the fan on the other side of the rivalry cheering for every Dallas mistake and agonizing over every Philly blunder (okay, I’m referring specifically to you, Daniel). These rivalries are one of the best parts of football, delivering year after year whether your team takes the field 5-1 or 2-5.
Game Notes: The storyline that nobody is paying attention to but should be is the battle between NFC South foes Tom Brady and Drew Brees for the all-time passing touchdown record. The record, arguably the most impressive cumulative record for the most important position in the sport, has been going back and forth. So many considerations factor in — who retires first, what play style they use, etc., and the record will likely stand for a very, very long time…I’m sorry Justin Herbert, but this is the life you’ve been drafted into. The Chargers lost a 17-point lead for the third straight game, this time against the Denver Broncos. Herbert had some money throws and needs to be Rookie of the Year if he stays healthy, but he could have helped the defense put the game out of reach…The Dolphins are the most fun story in football. After an 0-2 start in which every NFL Network analyst picked Jacksonville to beat them, the Fins are in the playoff picture and have an exciting young quarterback at the helm. I’m interested to see how Miami involves Tua in the offense over time…Lots of rivalries this week, from the Trent Richardson Bowl, the Dan Orlovsky Bowl, the Brett Favre Bowl, the Stephon Gilmore Bowl, the DeMarco Murray Bowl, the Mike Wallace Bowl, the Le’Veon Bell Bowl (I like the alliteration of that one), the Melvin Gordon Bowl and the Richard Sherman Bowl…Bengals with a huge win over Tennessee. I don’t rule Tennessee out of the playoff picture immediately — this one is a testament to the Cincy feistiness that just hasn’t resulted in many wins (trust me, I know all about the Bengals winning games they shouldn’t)…NFC East primetime battles this year are wonderfully weird. The Cowboys came in with an imaginative game plan filled with trick plays and Wildcat packages and actually took it to the Eagles. Bumping the checkdown from this week — this game was so much fun, even if it was a sloppy affair between two teams. Every game doesn’t have to be Rams-Chiefs from 2018…The Ravens lost offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley for the season just days after signing him to a megadeal worth nearly $100 million, a blow that is painful but not entirely crippling. Every Super Bowl team overcomes challenges, and this will have to be one of them. The Ravens have some O-line depth and plenty of playcalling creativity, but without the best two offensive linemen from the 2019 team, their playoff outlook looks bleaker.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Chargers-Broncos, Saints-Bears, Ravens-Steelers, Niners-Seahawks, Dolphins-Rams
Best Sunday: Pittsburgh Steelers- Beating the Titans and Ravens puts Steel City in prime position for a bye.
Worst Sunday: Baltimore Ravens- Couldn’t steal a victory and lost offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley for the season.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 13-28, 208 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 68.5 rating, 65 rushing yards, 2 fumbles, 28-24 loss to Pittsburgh
The Skinny: Sunday was rough. Lamar Jackson had four turnovers and admitted post-game that his turnovers were the reason the Ravens didn’t improve to 6-1.
Lamar’s day couldn’t have started off worse than the pick-six to a backup linebacker on his third play. But after that, the Ravens found an offensive gear that they had not shown enough in previous weeks by going to their ground game. Baltimore eclipsed their league-leading gane average for rushing yardage by the end of the first half and had their way with an elite Pittsburgh defense. Rookie J.K. Dobbins had his finest outing as a pro with 113 yards, while Gus Edwards had 87 yards and a score. And Lamar got in on the fun, rushing for 65 yards and having a highlight-reel touchdown scamper called back for a holding penalty. Take away those four turnovers and the Ravens would have won in a blowout.
The defense limited Pittsburgh to 48 rushing yards and consistently put pressure on Big Ben. The running backs got it done. It was the 2019 MVP that needed to step it up. Jackson had some fabulous throws, including a sidearm to lead WIllie Snead to a big gain early and a fourth down conversion on the Ravens’ final drive. Maybe it was bye-week rust or the loss of tackle Ronnie Stanley to injury, but for Baltimore to get it done in January, Jackson needs to stop defeating himself. Opposing NFL defenses know he’s the only one who can.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: Will play Monday Night versus the New York Giants (always a time when these two play).
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: Bye week!
The Skinny: See above.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 11-18, 154 yards, 0 passing touchdowns, 1 interception, 65.5 rating, 1 rushing touchdown, 24-21 win over New England
The Skinny: The fact that the Bills won their first game against New England in years makes this a monumental victory, even if the Patriots are undermanned and on a four-game losing streak. The home win gives Buffalo more space in the AFC East standings and a sizable confidence boost.
While Josh Allen should be pretty ecstatic right now, his performance leaves something to be desired. Allen failed to throw a touchdown for the second straight week and has statistically regressed since his hot start. Against a New England defense that has been decimated by opt-outs, Allen relied on his mates in the backfield, with both Zack Moss and Devin Singletary reaching 80 yards on the ground and Moss tallying a pair of scores.
Still, when the scoreboard turned to the fourth quarter against New England, Allen got it done. The Wyoming product led a nine-play drive that he capped off with a touchdown to put Buffalo ahead by a score just inside the fourth quarter, and when the Pats responded, Allen led another scoring drive, this one a 10-play, 63-yarder, to set up the go-ahead field goal that proved to be the difference. Between those two drives, Allen threw just one incompletion and used both his arms and legs to get the Bills over the hump. You can stick a fork in Josh Allen’s MVP campaign, but certainly not yet in Buffalo’s days as a contender.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 12-22, 93 yards, 1 touchdown, 80.3 rating, 1 fumble, 28-17 win over the Rams
The Skinny: See above.