Option 1, Week 9’s Burning Question: Can the Ravens’ offense get on track?
After a 14-2 campaign and the NFL’s top record in 2019, Baltimore has struggled to find its unstoppable rhythm. Even when the Ravens doubled Pittsburgh’s offensive yardage output and tore the Steelers apart on the ground, Lamar Jackson racked up four turnovers against the NFL’s best defense by the numbers and lost. Against the number two defense in the NFL in a stadium in which the Ravens had never been victorious in franchise history, could the Ravens turn a corner and earn a much-needed momentum boost?
The first half was rock bottom for the 2020 Ravens offense. All five offensive drives ended in punts, the only time that has happened in one half for any team this season. No drive extended beyond 20 yards, and only a 65-yard fumble recovery touchdown by Chuck Clark put the Ravens on the board and behind only 10-7 at halftime. For the Ravens to win, Lamar Jackson would have to lead the first comeback from a halftime deficit in his career.
Jackson turned that figurative corner exactly like he did the literal ones as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points and ran away with the victory. The Ravens’ offense picked up steam and reached the Indianapolis 3 before Gus Edwards lost a fumble, then racked up scores on three of their next four drives. Those first three drives of the second half each lasted at least eight plays, and even the three-and-out was on three Gus Edwards runs.
Jackson was especially on point. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman decided to dial up the tempo and Indy’s defense couldn’t keep up. On the first drive of that half, Jackson connected on all four of his attempts and ran for a couple of red zone scrambles. When a Marcus Peters pick gave Baltimore a chance at redemption, Jackson hit all three of his attempts. The next drive — three more completions mixed in with four runs, then a touchdown scamper on a bootleg on 3rd and 1 to boost the Ravens’ lead to double digits.
The Ravens earned the win because of two factors, an opportunistic and stingy defense that can win games and an offensive rhythm that can be unstoppable when hitting on all cylinders. In the second half, both were in full force. The first half performance was forgettable, but Jackson snagging a comeback victory against a top-two defense is impressive. The remaining schedule is very winnable, with foes Pittsburgh and Tennessee looming as the only serious challengers in the weeks to come. If Jackson and the offense can find this gear down the stretch, watch out.
Option 2, Week 9’s Huge Performance: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Last week’s winner, Dalvin Cook, definitely could have taken this one. But I’m going to give it to a player who put together an absolute MVP performance, an afternoon so clutch it was like watching Dame Lillard in the fourth quarter.
Kyler Murray has had a great season. He’s had a Read Option spotlight since Week 1 and is on his way to the best quarterback rushing season ever as only a sophomore. His cardinals are making good on their promise as an NFC Wild Card, and perhaps even the champion of the best division in football. There’s been uneven points and forgivable mistakes for sure, but the Oklahoma product has taken off.
Sunday’s thriller against the Miami Dolphins was somehow even more impressive than his SNF win over the Seahawks from a couple weeks ago, and that was a top-five performance all season. The Cardinals ended up losing in heartbreaking fashion to a team they probably should have beaten and to a rookie quarterback in his second start, but don’t pin it on the red-hot Murray. Even the final stat line — 21 for 26 with 283 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, plus a career-high 106 rushing yards and another touchdown — doesn’t tell the whole story.
Murray’s arm was on full display in the desert. He placed an early deep ball in the breadbasket of Christian Kirk for a 56-yard touchdown and allowed tight end Darrell Daniels to wrestle away a 50-50 ball for another score. Every time Miami scored, Kyler pulled out an answer. Coach Kliff Kingsbury trusted him so much that he called up designed runs twice on fourth down and Murray delivered both, chewing up 28 yards of field on one attempt and four on another. Murray’s QBR, out of 100 possible points, was 96.7.
Not even Murray was enough for an Arizona win. The Cardinals took the ball out of Murray’s hands on fourth down in their last two drives and paid dearly, with running back Chase Edmonds getting stuffed on 4th and 1 and kicker Zane Gonzalez coming up short on a potential equalizer field goal. A Miami fumble recovery touchdown early on also came back to bite at the end. But at 5-3, the Cardinals are still looking at the playoffs and Murray is reason number one. He’s going to be a must-watch player for years to come.
Option 3, Week 9’s Crucial Decision: Let Josh Cook.
After the Seahawks lost their second game of the season, head coach Pete Carroll expressed his amazement at the Buffalo game plan. Or to be more specific, Buffalo’s total reliance on the passing attack. That meant a lot of action for third year quarterback Josh Allen, and the Wyoming man more than delivered in his first duel against MVP frontrunner Russell Wilson.
Buffalo running backs racked up a total of 19 rushing yards on the day. Allen threw for 415. Sure, the Seahawks defense makes everyone look good, but Allen also didn’t beat himself, throwing three touchdowns to no picks and no fumbles. In a high volume role (38 attempts on the day), he was accurate and efficient to each spot of the field — four of five downfield, 12 of 13 within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and pretty good in between.
The Bills caught the Hawks sleeping on the East Coast with scoring drives on their first four drives to open up a 24-7 lead. 29 plays, two runs. As importantly, Buffalo didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal and allow Russell Wilson a chance to climb back into the game. It was a team effort, but give the game ball to Allen, who endured seven sacks and very little help in terms of the rushing attack in generating 44 points. Carroll said postgame that he had a great strategy to stop the run game, but it was clear that Seattle had no answer for defending No. 17.
Buffalo has had its ups and downs this season, but this team deserves to be in January. They don’t really have an identity as their playcalling ambiguity shows, and they’ve beaten teams in multiple ways. Allen has taken a definitive step forward, whether because of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, immediate chemistry with new receiver Stefon Diggs or not having New England loom over them. They’re the class of the AFC East.
Checkdown: Halfway Point
We’re halfway through the 2020 regular season and the NFL is still standing. Here’s a couple of notable stats, as well as the games you should circle on your calendars for the next couple months
Check out these stats…
-The Chargers are second in the NFL with 417.1 yards per game, yet sit at the bottom of the AFC West.
-The two highest passing yardage teams, the Cowboys and Falcons, have been having nightmare campaigns, while Baltimore sits pretty at 31st.
-Of the 10 lowest scoring teams in the NFL by average, only one is in playoff position. You guessed it, the Chicago Bears.
-Miami has the best scoring defense in the NFL by average. Raise your hand if you expected that.
-On the flipside, contender Seattle has the most yards allowed by over 35 yards per game among NFL teams.
-Only one NFL team has a positive or negative turnover differential in the double digits. It’s the Dallas Cowboys. It’s in the negative.
-The top three players in receiving yardage are all on new teams, especially impressive given the COVID offseason.
-Kyler Murray is fourth in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, 15th in rushing yardage, 12th in passing yardage, and eighth in QBR.
-Of the top 25 point scorers in the NFL, 24 are placekickers. The other goes by the name of Dalvin Cook
-The Dolphins have a point differential of +61. The Bills have a point differential of +9. The Bills lead the division.
-No NFC East team has a positive point differential. Every NFC West team has a positive point differential, of at least +18 or more.
-10 different teams have made quarterback switches, two for ineffectiveness, six for injury, and two for some combination of both. Dallas has the most players having starts at quarterback with four, while Denver and San Francisco have both had three players play for the majority of at least a game. Fitzpatrick-Tagovailoa was the most questionable, Taylor-Herbert had the most absurd excuse, and Trubisky-Foles was the most depressing.
Now, to the games….
Colts at Titans (Week 10, 8:20 ET) — It’s the perennial Thursday Night Football game between AFC South teams, but this one carries extreme divisional implications.
Cardinals at Seahawks (Week 11, 8:20 ET) — Another Thursday Night Game with the division on the line, and given it’s a Seahawks game, it’ll go down to the wire.
Ravens at Steelers (Week 12, Thanksgiving Night Game) — This game could well be for the AFC’s top seed and features the best rivalry in football.
Chiefs at Buccaneers (Week 12, 4:25 ET) — Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes for perhaps the last time, and a matchup of two Super Bowl contenders.
Bengals at Dolphins (Week 13, 1 ET) — The first matchup between the top two quarterbacks from this year’s draft, and both guys have been playing good football as of late.
Chiefs at Dolphins (Week 14, 1 ET) — A really good test to see if Tua and the Fins have what it takes to compete with the top dawgs in the AFC.
Falcons at Chargers (Week 14, 4:25 ET) — The question isn’t who wins or who loses, it’s who will blow their lead at the end of the game. Could both teams choke? Tune in to see.
Eagles at Cardinals (Week 15, 4:25 ET) — Trust me, I didn’t want to put any NFC East teams on this list, but if the Eagles pull out this Battle of the Birds, I think the division is in their bag.
Chiefs at Saints (Week 15, 4:25 ET) — If the Saints can pull this home game out against Patrick Mahomes, they will be on my watch list for January.
Dolphins at Raiders (Week 16, TBD) — Also known as the Battle for the Wild Card, this one could be very high-scoring between these futile franchises.
Titans at Packers (Week 16, TBD) — The Matt LaFleur Bowl will be a fantastic litmus test for these two playoff hopefuls heading into the home stretch of the season.
Packers at Bears (Week 17, TBD) — Good chance this one has playoff implications, even if you have to survive whatever Trubisky/Foles combination Chicago throws out there.
Cardinals at Rams (Week 17, TBD) — Kyler Murray gets one last shot at his MVP campaign in a game that could mean a ton for either NFC contender.
And a bonus awards ballot…
Offensive Player of the Year — Derrick Henry, for running roughshod over NFL defenses while leading his team to the top of the AFC South division.
Defensive Player of the Year — Aaron Donald, for taking over games by himself and ranking first in the NFL in sacks (9.0) and fourth in tackles for a loss (11)
Offensive Rookie of the Year — Justin Herbert, for having four 300+ yard games and four 3+ touchdown games across seven games and reigniting our belief in the deep ball.
Defensive Rookie of the Year — Patrick Queen, for being on my favorite AFC team and filling in the linebacker spot nicely for a top-three scoring defense
Coach of the Year — Brian Flores, for guiding previously hapless Miami through A) a quarterback change B) an 0-2 start and C) the NFC West and beating three of those teams.
Assistant Coach of the Year — Brian Daboll, for taking Josh Allen and Buffalo to the next level and emerging as a top-notch play caller.
Best Team — Kansas City Chiefs, who have the third-best scoring defense to go along with the best offense and best quarterback in football.
MVP — Russell Wilson, for being the only thing (other than DK Metcalf) from the Seahawks being a 1-6 football team right now. He is both outstanding (what the award really is) and valuable (what the award literally says it is).
Game Notes: After the Cowboys lost on Monday Night Football to Arizona under backup quarterback Andy Dalton, I told myself that I wasn’t going to watch any more Cowboy football until Thanksgiving for self-preservation. That resolution did not last long. I witnessed the massacre at the hands of Washington, the mind bending loss to Philadelphia, and then told myself I wasn’t going to watch the Cowboys against Pittsburgh before settling in during the second quarter. For a team this awful, it’s incredible how great they are at still making every loss feel crushing. I thought the 2-7 Cowboys had no chance against the 8-0 Steelers, yet I was banging my fists against my dresser and screaming by the final minutes…Okay, I’ve got to get a rant in here. Garrett Gilbert played as well as anyone could have expected in his first-ever start and the special teams play was the best all-around of perhaps any game I’ve seen, between the 80-yard kick return, the punt return trickery, the blocked extra point, the missed extra point, the almost blocked field goal, and Greg the Leg. The end of that game was absolutely brutal, even if I didn’t think Dallas’s 10-point lead with 15 minutes to go was infallible. First off, the Gilbert interception in the end zone. The whole drive I wanted the Cowboys to just kick a field goal to go up seven, even on first down — that’s how little I trust the offense not to turn it over. Sure enough, Gilbert let a ball out on third down when there was too much pressure in his face, and it got picked. But the holding on the play which took target Amari Cooper out of the play was blatant — that was the reason it was picked, and it totally shifted the tide of the game. Second, the Tyrone Crawford fumble recovery. Cowboys get the ball back on a rare Steeler turnover, only for the refs to negate it for illegal contact on a tic-tac foul on Jaylon Smith. The refs decide to let the players play like they did on the interception, and the Cowboys would get possession. Third, the unnecessary roughness on Leighton Vander Esch for retaliation. Anthony McFarland hits him across the facemask, then Vander Esch makes a swipe across McFarland’s face and doesn’t even make clear contact. He makes the infamous Rocky IV phantom punch. 15 yards, Pittsburgh to the Dallas 27. Then, the absolute killer with the Steelers down one, a roughing the passer on an incompletion on third down on Jaylon Smith again. This one is a penalty by the slightest of inches and does not affect play at all, but turns a 4th and 10 into a 1st and 10 fifteen yards downfield. Dallas made it interesting after that, tormenting further for the last three minutes of regulation, before Minkah Fitzpatrick knocked down a pass from my team for the second straight week. Okay, I know I always blame it on the referees and never assign responsibility to the Cowboys, but between the missed holding on the interception and the judgment calls that hugely favored the Steelers, there was good reason to be. Were we robbed of victory? I wouldn’t go that far. But you could not write up a more stressful and crushing ending for a two-touchdown underdog.
Game Notes (For Real): Mack Hollins a hero! I saw him outside his house when I was running around my town in the summer, and I’m happy to see him racking up touchdowns without the Philadelphia green and white…Nick Foles’ stat line of 335 yards and two touchdowns might be the most misleading line ever. The Bears’ offense was non-existent for three quarters and Chicago was never a factor against Tennessee, who seemed to be beating themselves in the first half…Minnesota is making up ground in the NFC North behind another Dalvin Cook-fueled divisional win, this time over Detroit. With the defense in turmoil, OC Gary Kubiak is finding the Vikes’ offensive rhythm, and he has plenty to work with…NFC East football is its own brand of football, the rest of the world just doesn’t appreciate it…Jake Luton, another late round Jaguar rookie who broke onto the scene, nearly pulled out the win against Houston and had a fantastic spin move late. He surely made Gardner Minshew proud, even in defeat…Justin Herbert is getting acclimated to the Chargers’ losing ways, but I don’t feel too bad. He’s lighting the league on fire and not getting absolutely battered behind a non-existent offensive line like some of these other guys. Wins will come eventually, even in the AFC West… Great to see Christian McCaffrey back in action and the Panthers in contention with the team I think is the best in the NFL…Seattle’s defense is the reason I can’t buy them making a playoff run. Usually playoff teams with suspect defenses suddenly tighten up during January, but this unit is so awful by such a wide margin that I really can’t see it happening…In my mind, the top tier for the Super Bowl is three teams, each in the AFC: Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, in that order. The NFC has so much work to do to catch up, and making sense of the top team is a weekly debate… 17 and 12 are the most aesthetically pleasing quarterback numbers. 17 is epic and mythical, with both balance and edge (with guys like Ryan Tannehill, Phil Rivers and Josh Allen wearing the number with style), while 12 is golden thanks to Brady, Rodgers, Staubach, etc. 1 is also pretty alpha, and 9 has a place in my heart as a Carson Palmer/Tony Romo gunslinger-type while 15 is like 17 but slightly less intimidating. 6 is undoubtedly the worst, with 16, 11, 13, 3, 19 and 14 also missing the mark.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Saints-Bucs, Steelers-Cowboys, Dolphins-Cardinals, Packers-49ers, Raiders-Chargers
Best Sunday: Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins outlasted the upstart Cards on the road and established themselves as playoff contenders.
Worst Sunday: Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Their Florida counterparts somehow were outscored by 31 points at home — in the first half alone!
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 19-23, 170 passing yards, 0 passing touchdowns, 97.5 passer rating, 58 rushing yards, 1 touchdown, 24-10 win over Indianapolis
The Skinny: See above.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 22-38, 209 yards, 3 interceptions, 40.4 passer rating, 38-3 loss to New Orleans
The Skinny: Tom Brady had the same number of passing attempts as Josh Allen, and that’s about where the similarities in performance end. Brady completed nine fewer passes. Three fewer touchdown passes. Three more interceptions. His offense scored 38 fewer points.
Call it the Antonio Brown curse or whatever you’d like, but Tom Brady did not have a great showing on Sunday Night Football in his home stadium. Maybe the New Orleans Saints are the kryptonite of this NFC version of Brady — they outclassed him in Week 1 and handed him the worst loss of his storied career when he had a receiving corps that included Brown, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, plus the best rushing defense in football. This was, in every definition of the term, a burn-the-tape game.
Given that it’s a burn-the-tape game, I won’t spend too long on it. But while this hurts Tampa Bay’s chances of winning the division, I’m gonna hit the brakes on the playoff talk. Every NFC contender has weaknesses — look at Seattle’s porous defense, Drew Brees’ age, Green Bay’s poor showing at Tampa Bay, Arizona’s inexperience, and Chicago’s quarterback position. This is a grind, and the Buccaneers have shown enough thus far to make me believe that they will, for the first time in over a decade, be in it with the big boys. Brady and the Bucs have stunk it up enough against New Orleans to make me question their chances of topping the Saints in a playoff matchup, but I’m holding stock for now.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 21-26, 283 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 150.5 passer rating, 106 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 1 fumble, lost 31-34 to Miami
The Skinny: See above.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 31-38, 415 yards, 3 touchdowns, 138.5 passer rating, 44-34 win over Seattle
The Skinny: See above.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 20-28, 248 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 122.3 passer rating, 35 rushing yards, 34-31 win over Arizona
The Skinny: It wasn’t Tua Tagovailoa’s first start. But after Miami’s special teams and defensive units embarrassed the Rams last week and let Tua cruise to his first victory, this was the first real time Tagovailoa was trusted to lead the Miami Dolphins. He delivered, showing flashes of All Pro quarterbacks of years past in leading the Fins to a comeback win over the Cardinals in Glendale.
Tagovailoa’s performance was, well, Mahomes-ian. The comparison was especially apt on the ground, where Tagovailoa showed no hesitation post-injury and racked up 35 yards. Two of those runs were particularly reminiscent of the reigning Super Bowl MVP, with Tagovailoa improvising and juking defenders with creativity that made up for a lack of Kyler Murray-level speed.
Tagovailoa’s arm was mesmerizing, not just because of his lefty throwing motion. The rookie attempted 12 passes beyond 10 yards, completing nine of them, and showed proficiency and accuracy in the pocket and on the run. There were some rookie mistakes, such as a grounding penalty for passing into a lineman’s body and a throwaway that was nearly an interception, but Tagovailoa ended the day with no turnovers. Best of all, Tagovailoa led the Dolphins to 10 unanswered fourth quarter points.
The Kyler Murray-Tua Tagovailoa rivalry made the jump from college to pros, and it’s a shame we’ll only see it every four years. The shootout was one of those games that are so entertaining that you forget that humans are launching themselves like projectiles at each other and have serious injury risk (which can be both good and bad). After watching both quarterbacks duel it out with their arms and legs, there’s no way you could argue that football was more fun a decade or two decades ago than it is now. I bet we’ll be saying the same thing a decade in the future if guys like Tua keep it up.