Week 10 Read Option: Alex Smith lights it up

Option 1, Week 10’s Burning Question: Do the Patriots of old show up in primetime?

Cam Newton’s New England Patriots barely escaped the winless Jets with a victory. Going up against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens? Simply put, the game did not look worthy of a primetime slot, but when the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick are on one of the sidelines, can you ever really count them out?

New England came in with a great game plan and executed brilliantly in monsoon-like conditions. The Patriots relied on their stellar offensive line and their ground game and both delivered. Damien Harris ran for 121 yards on 22 carries and Rex Burkhead added 31 more yards, most in crucial situations, while even more importantly, the Pats took the ball out of Cam Newton’s hands — the 2015 MVP had just 13 completions for 118 yards on the day. Their biggest passing play of the night featured receiver Jacobi Meyers as a passer. 

The defense held the slumping Ravens in check, limiting Baltimore’s running backs to 60 yards on 17 rushes and zero touchdowns. A secondary without Defensive Player of the Year Stefon Gilmore held its own. Baltimore won the time of possession and yardage battles, but had almost 50 more penalty yards and lost the turnover battle. By the Ravens’ last couple possessions, the combination of a swaggering Patriots defense and an ill-timed downpour put the writing on the wall, allowing the Patriots to come away with a 23-17 upset win and pull closer to .500 football. 

The Patriots are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and a slate of upcoming games that includes contests against Buffalo, Miami, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Rams will test if New England is truly a playoff contender. If the Patriots can forge forward with their run-first mentality, they certainly could be. 

Option 2, Week 10’s Huge Performance: Alex Smith, Washington Football Team

Usually the Huge Performance award goes to a player on a winning team — to the victor goes the spoils, after all. But Washington quarterback Alex Smith more than deserves this award in defeat. 

The fact that Smith was on the field was a feat itself. Smith battled back from a career-threatening leg injury a couple seasons ago and made a miraculous recovery. His first game as a starter was a major milestone, but expectations had to be modest. Instead, Smith balled out, racking up a career-high 390 passing yards and leading three straight touchdown drives in the second half, along with a 66-yard drive that allowed WFT to tie the ballgame. Washington wisely opted to attack the short and intermediate areas in their passing playcalls, but Smith challenged Detroit’s secondary downfield with seven completions in 11 attempts beyond 15 yards. A win would have been huge, but coach Ron Rivera has to be thrilled about Smith’s prolific start. 

55 attempts is a lot, but Smith was on the money in the intermediate area.

Smith should have every opportunity to hold his spot as Washington’s starter, with Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen out with injury. And with 390 passing yards, he sure deserves to be playing for a team that doesn’t exactly have a top-tier supporting cast. That said, this was Detroit and the Football Team ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. I’m not gonna go to hyperbole and say the WFT will do something impossible, like win the *very talented* NFC East, but this was an impressive start on multiple levels.

Option 3, Week 10’s Crucial Decision: Jaboo, Part Two

Wonderful, the mind of Sean Payton is (that’s my obligatory Star Wars reference). In the offseason, Payton resigns backup quarterback/gadget player Taysom Hill for the price of Jadeveon Clowney, then adds former No. 1 pick Jameis Winston, all while having a Hall of Famer in Drew Brees as his quarterback. What’s the order? Well, prior to the Saints-49ers game, Payton tells FOX that Hill would be his in-game option if Brees went down, but Winston would be the full-season option. Then Brees actually went down, and Payton inserted Winston as the in-game option. And after the game, Payton says Hill is New Orleans’ quarterback of the future. Confused? So am I. But maybe it makes sense to Sean Payton.

Payton’s decision to install Jameis “Jaboo” Winston as a starter paid off enough for the Saints as they rolled by the undermanned 49ers 27-13 at home. Winston completed 6 of 10 attempts for 63 yards, while not throwing ANY INTERCEPTIONS!!! The game was beyond ugly — after moving the ball to the San Francisco 4-yard line, Winston took two sacks, threw two incompletions and the Saints had to settle for a 23-yard field goal instead of going up by two touchdowns. 

That was all the Saints needed against Nick Mullens and the 49ers’ lackluster offense. The Saints have four winnable games coming up, including two against Atlanta, so if Brees misses a couple weeks with his rib injury, the Saints should stay afloat atop the NFC South. 

But who should be the option going forward? The turnover prone but talented Winston? Hill, the NFL’s greatest gimmick and only special teamer/quarterback in the league? Are either an improvement over an aging Brees, even if Brees returns? Those are questions for Sean Payton to answer, and given Payton’s inconsistent decision making, making a guess is foolish. But I’ll cut the guy a break — he’s catching up on all the quarterback controversy action he missed the last 15 years by virtue of having an otherworldly quarterback in Brees. 

Checkdown: [Your Team Name Here] is Good For Football

I have a couple cliche pet peeves, from “Game 7, the best two words in sports” to “____ team disposed of their opponent.” But the one that gets my goat the most is saying that a certain team is good for the health of the sport. I struggle to comprehend how the health of a sport depends on one of its 32 teams.

If Miami’s success is “good for the health of the sport,” does that make the Chargers’ (theoretical) success hurt it?

Is it a financial boon? The Cowboys have accounted for a third of the NFL’s merchandise sales since Jerry Jones took over as owner, but their lack of 21st century Super Bowl titles doesn’t seem to make the sport any less interesting. A promotion of parity? Maybe, given the rise of Las Vegas and Miami after decades of futility, but nobody’s saying that the Jags or Lions being good is great for football. An appreciation of a rabid fan base? Baltimore arguably has as many rowdy fans as Cleveland, but the perception is an entirely different story. History? Nobody sheds a tear about the Cardinals, who have been around since 1898.

What I think it breaks down to is team branding. The Bears, Packers, Cowboys, Steelers and 49ers have established brands, and when those “premier” names are relevant, one might say that the league as a whole becomes more relevant. Nobody wanted to see a Case Keenum-Blake Bortles Super Bowl in 2018 — Tom Brady was a more compelling villain. I get all of that. But in a league that prides itself on parity and has thousands and thousands of fans pulling for every team (yes, even the Chargers), I think it’s a total myth and shouldn’t be the case that one team being good affects the short- or long-term health of the sport. On the flipside, wouldn’t a different team being relevant have to be bad for the sport?

What is good for the NFL? Many teams having their chance to contend, rewarding each fan base for their loyalty and giving each franchise a glimmer of hope when September rolls around. And having good, compelling games tops it all, whether you’re from Dallas, Denver or Detroit.

Overtime

Game Notes: No team had an absolutely awesome week and no team had a gut-wrenchingly awful week. Basically, no game was like last week’s forgettable SNF blowout. Still, Nick Foles versus Kirk Cousins is on the Monday Night Football schedule, so I don’t want to jinx it…Nick Chubb ran over Houston with 126 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 pretty much touchdown that he ran out of bounds at the last second to give the Browns the win. Ground-and-pound is the formula for success in Cleveland, but I’m still intrigued by Baker Mayfield’s future at the helm in Cleveland. His rookie deal will finish off soon — when was the last time the Browns extended a quarterback? Or any draft pick, for that matter?…It was a little too close in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers staved off rookie Jake Luton in a 24-20 affair. Rodgers put up another MVP statline with 325 passing yards and a couple of touchdowns. But I’m a little worried about his weapons on the outside. Marquez Valdez-Scantling had a buck 49 and Davante Adams produced, but will there be enough to contend with the big guns in the NFC, and will it drive Rodgers bonkers come playoff time?…The Giants’ victory over Philadelphia is seismic in the NFC East, and New York actually has a shot to make the playoffs. Daniel Jones isn’t Kyler Murray, but he’s established himself as the second-best quarterback from that 2019 class and seems to have won over the Giants. Of course, 34-yard touchdown runs help your case…How does Russell Wilson already have 10 interceptions? That’s second-most in the league and puts the prospective MVP candidate in the vicinity of Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins and Drew Lock. With a defense as putrid as Seattle’s, Wilson really doesn’t have that much margin for error. Meanwhile, sleeper MVP pick Patrick Mahomes has a 25:1 pass-to-pick ratio…I miss Dak Prescott. The guy averages over 60 more yards per game than the next highest quarterback, and now we’re stuck with a revolving door of backups. And the NFC East is ours for the taking…The Los Angeles Rams’ defense ranks second in points per game allowed and yards allowed. This is a good football team. Aaron Donald should be a candidate for MVP…Denver has to be super disappointed with 2020. Drew Lock hasn’t taken the leap he expected, while Las Vegas has leapfrogged the Broncos in the AFC West pecking order. The Broncos rank last in the AFC with a -12 turnover differential and don’t look competitive against good teams. You can’t play the Chargers every week.

Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Dolphins-Chargers, 49ers-Saints, Ravens-Patriots, Raiders-Broncos, Bucs-Panthers

Best Sunday: New York Giants – The Giants pulled into second place in the winnable NFC East and now have a win over the Eagles on their resume. 

Worst Sunday: Denver Broncos – Denver has to be disappointed with their season, especially in contrast to the team on the other side of the box score, the resurgent Vegas Raiders.

Lamar Jackson Watch

Stat Line: 24 for 34, 249 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 98.8 passer rating, 55 rushing yards, 17-23 loss to New England

The Skinny: See above.


Tom Brady Watch

Stat Line: 28-39, 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 124.0 passer rating, 1 rushing touchdown, 46-23 win over Carolina

The Skinny: Tompa Bay got back on track after a despicable showing against New Orleans in primetime last week, putting up a season-high 46 against a feisty Carolina team. Brady had his third 300+ yard game and fourth 3+ touchdown game of the year. His QBR rose from 4.0 in Week 9 to 91.2 in Week 10. In all, a good week.

Carolina is a team that the Super Bowl hopeful Bucs should beat, but the win was impressive. After a fumble on the Bucs’ first drive, Tampa Bay scored on each of its last nine drives (kneel-downs aside). The Panthers literally couldn’t stop them. Brady spread the wealth around, too, with Chris Godwin (six catches for 92 yards), Mike Evans (six for 77 and a score), Antonio Brown (seven for 69) and Rob Gronkowski (two for 51 and a score) all registering over 50 receiving yards. Ronald Jones’s 98-yard touchdown run was the highlight of the game, but Brady couldn’t have done much better.

A division sweep at the hands of New Orleans could keep Tampa Bay out of the NFC South top spot, but there’s no denying the Buccaneers’ lethal top gear. The now-healthy Bucs should be favorites in all of their remaining games aside from their matchup against Patrick Mahomes in a couple weeks, and no opponent will want Tampa as their draw. Let’s see where the Bucs stand after battles against great defenses in Los Angeles and Kansas City before drawing any pre-playoff conclusions, but this team, and quarterback, is better than last week’s showing. 

Kyler Murray Watch

Stat Line: 22 for 32, 245 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 88.7 passer rating, 61 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 32-30 win over Buffalo

The Skinny: Kyler Murray the MVP passer wasn’t quite in his element on Sunday. The Bills’ pass rush succeeded in limiting the explosive Murray behind the line of scrimmage, and take out a fluke interception on the once-in-a-blue-moon Larry Fitzgerald drop and a similarly improbable Hail Mary touchdown that gave the Cards the win and Murray has a modest stat line of 245 yards and no touchdowns or picks. 

I like the blue line on the left sideline.

But Kyler Murray the playmaker proved to be uncontainable. Murray rushed for two touchdowns and was a crucial cog in an Arizona rushing attack that very nearly tripled Buffalo’s output. While the Bills’ defense did as good a job as any team this year of stopping Murray, Buffalo’s offense gave the Cards offense every chance (five consecutive scoreless drives) to get back in the game after the Bills went up 23-9. And, of course, the Hail Murray, in which he rolled out to his left, evaded defenders, and launched as perfect a deep ball as there is to his number one target. 

The Arizona Cardinals are now the number one team in the number one division in the NFL and already have more wins in 2020 than they did all of last year. Kyler Murray should be the MVP frontrunner right now, having every bit the sophomore breakout that past MVPs Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson enjoyed in recent seasons. What was most impressive about his performance against the AFC East leader was that so much went wrong, yet Murray found a way to get his team back in the game and give his team a chance. 

The Cardinals probably didn’t deserve to win on Sunday. But they sure deserve respect as a legitimate playoff contender.

Josh Allen Watch

Stat Line: 32 for 49, 284 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 77.3 passer rating, 38 rushing yards, 30-32 loss to Arizona

The Skinny: Josh Allen found himself on the losing end of a thriller after DeAndre Hopkins pulled down a miraculous Hail Murray. In another high volume game, Allen had an uneven performance, throwing two unforgivable interceptions and blowing a 23-9 lead while also throwing a go-ahead score to Stefon Diggs with just 34 seconds to go. 

Allen’s season-high 49 attempts, along with Buffalo’s unimpressive 73 rushing yards, paint a picture of the Bills’ lack of offensive balance. In games in which Allen throws over 40 attempts, the Bills are 2-2, with both of those wins against the New York Jets. Under 40 attempts, 6-1, with the one loss against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The formula worked early, with the Bills scoring on all four of their first half possessions to take a 16-9 lead at halftime (though Tyler Bass’s 50+ yard field goals sure helped). A third quarter touchdown pass from Allen to Cole Beasley (remember that name) put the Bills up 23-9, and given Kyler Murray’s struggles to get anything going, the Bills had every opportunity to pull away. Buffalo’s next five drives: 6 yards, 14 yards, 5 yards, 8 yards, and 0 yards. Across those five drives, Allen was 7-12 for 55 yards with two interceptions. That can’t happen in a win. 

Even then, Allen had a chance to retake the lead in the fourth quarter and he did exactly that, with a nearly perfect 78-yard drive. 8-10, along with a 12-yard scamper. Allen’s throw to Diggs was his best throw of the year, but left 34 seconds on the clock. 

Sunday’s game had flashes of good Josh Allen and bad Josh Allen, as well as plenty of trademark Josh Allen plays. Allen, about to be sacked on one pass rush, lofted the ball to his line of scrimmage as he was falling backward and was somehow corralled by a Buffalo running back. Allen does things no quarterback has ever done and tries things no quarterback has ever done. It’s fun to watch as a viewer but must be agonizing as a fan. The loss should sting because Buffalo was the better team, but Allen has the Bills sitting pretty atop the AFC East.

Tua Tagovailoa Watch

Stat Line: 15 for 25, 169 yards, 2 touchdowns, 106.9 passer rating, 29-21 win over Los Angeles Chargers

The Skinny: Tagovailoa’s almost rout of the Chargers was closer to his debut win over the Rams than his breakout against the Cardinals, with defense and special teams providing plenty of help early. Still, you couldn’t watch that game and think Tua is anything other than a really special quarterback.

In a battle of rookie quarterbacks, Tagovailoa justified his higher draft slot. He played turnover-free football and made a couple of jaw-dropping throws, including one dropped snap that he somehow picked up, immediately threw and completed for a first down. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Tagovailoa led the league in aggressiveness percentage, evidence that the rookie wasn’t playing it safe in his third start. The defense held Justin Herbert under 250 yards for the first time all year and kept the Chargers under 100 yards on the ground, while a blocked punt by Miami’s stellar unit helped the Fins open the score up. 

Miami has become the team to watch in the NFL. The Dolphins are 6-3 for the first time since 2001 and have a franchise quarterback for the first time since Dan Marino. The offense, defense, and special teams all look dominant, with either side of the ball capable of carrying the team to a win. Coach Brian Flores should run away with the Coach of the Year award. Most of all, Tua Tagovailoa is incredible to watch. The Dolphins aren’t serious contenders for the AFC crown this year, but doesn’t mean I will be watching any less of them. 

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