Option 1, Week 10’s Burning Question: Who comes out on top in Tennessee-Baltimore?
One of the most significant results of last year’s playoffs was the 1-6 matchup out in the AFC, with the visiting Tennessee Titans upending the 14-2 Baltimore Ravens and MVP Lamar Jackson. Back in Baltimore but in the day time slot and the middle of the regular season, the game proved to be more exciting than the last, with teams so evenly matched that the game needed extra time to determine a champion.
Baltimore did plenty to signal a rebound from last week’s primetime upset at the hands of the New England Patriots, but also did plenty of tripping over their own feet. The Ravens have struggled with injuries on the offensive line and secondary, but still managed to take a 21-10 lead early in the second half. The formula — a defensive attack that held megarusher Derrick Henry to just 37 rushing yards in the first half and picked off Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill and a two-man wrecking crew of Mark Andrews and J.K. Dobbins wreaking havoc on offense. Given Lamar Jackson’s undefeated record with a lead to that point, the Ravens looked to have the game locked away. And then Henry broke out.
Tennessee’s offense took off once Henry broke into another gear. It’s been a trend for Henry to pick it up in the second half, but the numbers were astounding — 96 rushing yards in the second half and overtime alone for King Henry. Down by 11 to an undermanned but talented Ravens team, the Titans scored on three consecutive drives, while Lamar Jackson gambled on a shot play that was intercepted and punted on another drive. The Ravens couldn’t make the Titans pay for their early struggles, and though they managed to send the game to overtime, the offense faltered on the first drive of the period and watched Henry prance in for the walk-off touchdown.
It’s fair to signal the alarm bells in Baltimore — the Ravens have doubled last season’s loss total and are 1-3 against winning teams, with the only win against fringe team Indianapolis. Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram combined for eight yards on five carries and the defense looked gassed. With a trip to Pittsburgh coming in just a couple days, Baltimore’s mood is desperate. And they’re in third place, now behind the Cleveland Browns. Not to say all is lost — the Chiefs, Steelers and Titans are all legit teams, and the Ravens did move on offense (9 of 15 on third down) and were stout in red zone defense. This is just a game that the 2019 Ravens would win, and the 2020 squad couldn’t pull out.
Tennessee’s emergence as a contender is my takeaway from the close affair. From the start of last season, I characterized the Titans as a physical team that plays good teams really well. Sunday’s win should be bulletin board material for that. Henry is like the Clayton Kershaw of football — getting better instead of tiring late — and took over the game when Jackson clearly was not able to. But the play of the day had to be receiver A.J. Brown’s pair of receptions, in which Brown broke multiple tackles on each by simply overpowering Ravens defenders. The latter catch-and-pound was more than impressive — it was defining. No team should want to play Tennessee.
Option 2, Week 10’s Huge Performance: Taysom Hill, New Orleans Saints
Taysom Hill starting as an NFL quarterback is priceless. Consider this — Hill is A) in his 30s B) was a special teamer as of last season C) had six receiving touchdowns last season D) had attempted 18 NFL passes entering this week and E) beat out Jameis Winston, the man who threw 30 interceptions last year, for the honors of the start against the division rival Falcons. Instead of serving up an egg against a resurgent Falcons team (something Drew Brees has done plenty of times in his tenure in NOLA), Hill broke out and proved coach Sean Payton’s bold decision right.
The Saints started out slow, though it wasn’t all Hill’s fault — the BYU product was as accurate as could be expected and Wil Lutz missed a field goal. But by halftime, the Saints were back in the lead, and from then on it was the Taysom Hill show. Hill rushed for two touchdowns, a game-leading 51 yards, and the majority of New Orleans’ third down conversions. As a passer? Hill put on his best Brees impression, completing 18 of 23 and earning a 108.9 passer rating on the day. He wasn’t afraid to go deep, either, connecting with Emmanuel Sanders for a couple long throws, though one prospective touchdown was called back for a holding penalty.
Watching Hill and his unorthodox throwing motion in full force was a sight to see (on NFL Game Pass afterward, anyway). The guy threw more passes Sunday than in his whole career and he’s proven to be more than just a gadget player. But that gadget ability is what makes the Saints shift from a team on the decline to a primetime must-see. New Orleans has enough for its roster that Hill doesn’t have to be the hero every week. The key is Sean Payton’s play calling — as long as defenses can’t answer all of Hill’s different utilizations, the 8-2 Saints should keep rolling. In an improved and deep NFC, the Saints could have just what they need to turn the playoff bracket upside down and avoid their annual January defeat.
Option 3, Week 10’s Crucial Decision: Quarterback Switcharoos
A couple of teams have had the misfortune of losing their starter for the season — Dak Prescott in Dallas and now Joe Burrow in Cincinnati. But Week 11 also showed that even seemingly set quarterback rooms are in flux, with multiple first-time starters getting the nod (Carolina’s P.J. Walker, New Orleans’ Taysom Hill) and one coach of an AFC playoff contender making a gutsy switch to give his team a boost and signal a win-now mentality.
Tua Tagovailoa has captured this column and taken it hostage the last couple weeks. And why not? The hyped quarterback out of Alabama was the most fascinating and divisive prospect coming out of the draft, and his 3-0 start with the Dolphins shot Miami to the top of the AFC East standings and into the playoff conversation. But with the Dolphins now the favorites against host Denver, Miami underperformed and the Tagovailoa hype train came to a crashing halt Sunday.
The day started out well, as Tagovailoa found DeVante Parker in the end zone just five minutes into regulation. From there, it was a disaster. The Dolphins punted on five of their next six drives as the underdog Broncos took a 10-point lead. Tagovailoa protected the ball, but perhaps a bit too well — six sacks for 33 yards lost in just over two quarters of action.
With 10 minutes to go, the Dolphins still had a chance, and coach Brian Flores entrusted veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami’s opening day starter, with the spot under center. While the change ignited the nonexistent Miami offense to the tune of three points on the Dolphins’ next drive, the Fins’ hopes for a comeback were extinguished by a Justin Simmons interception in the game’s final minutes. After a couple big steps forward, the Dolphins took a humbling step back in chilly Colorado.
This decision would not have been half as fascinating if in Chicago or Washington, where the coaches are shuffling through a couple veteran options. Flores abandoned ship with his rookie quarterback, and instead of giving further reps, he gave his chance what he thought would be a better chance to win the game by inserting Fitzpatrick. What does that mean going forward? Is Miami still Tua’s team, as Fitzpatrick indicated post-game? Or will it be a constant shuffle? Will Tua lose confidence from this setback? Week 11 pulled Miami back down to earth after a couple big wins, and these questions cloud their playoff future and Tagovailoa’s developmental timeline.
Checkdown: Finding NFL Teams’ NBA Equals
This was a great week of NFL action, but football ceded its monopoly on sports programming to the National Basketball Association this week. The NBA held both its draft and the start of its free agency period this week (my Magic got Cole Anthony!!!). With the NBA once again in the air, I decided to blend the two together and search for 10 uncanny parallels between the two leagues.
Kansas City Chiefs as the Los Angeles Lakers– The best teams in their respective leagues, and the last round of playoffs bore it out. Each team features the league’s best player (James, Mahomes) and offensive playmakers that make his job even easier.
Baltimore Ravens as the Milwaukee Bucks– Transcendent MVP talent with a strong supporting cast and in a small market, but the focus has shifted off the regular season wins and into the postseason.
Green Bay Packers as the Philadelphia 76ers– Recent change in management was made in each case to boost a team with top-level talent to postseason success. Results still pending on whether the change was a positive one.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the Los Angeles Clippers– Two dream teams with nautical names in warm-weather, coastal cities. Remains to be seen if the Clippers’ sinking will see its NFL equivalent in the Bucs walking the plank in January.
Arizona Cardinals as the Dallas Mavericks– Kyler Murray and Luka Doncic have taken their leagues by storm as sophomores, and while neither has their team in title contention yet, the future is bright.
Detroit Lions as the Sacramento Kings– Both small-market teams has had some promising pieces the last decade but has done absolutely nothing with it. You can count on them to make the dumb decision. At least you don’t have to watch the Kings every Thanksgiving.
Pittsburgh Steelers as the Miami Heat– Two teams where 2020 has more than validated their distinct, blue-collar cultures. Management has the rings, but the new faces across the balanced rosters won’t stop short of picking up another.
Miami Dolphins as the Phoenix Suns– Perennial cellar-dwellers who had surprising runs of success with their young talent. A couple years ago losing to either would have been a joke.
Dallas Cowboys as the Boston Celtics– Bear with me on this. Two historic, recognized brands that have rosters infused with young talent but have fallen short of high expectations over these past five years.
New York Jets as the New York Knicks– This is the most obvious one, and the cherry on the top is that they even share a city. What can go wrong, does go wrong.
Game Notes: The temperatures are getting colder and the playoff race is getting hotter. I think the Chiefs are a tier above all the other NFL teams, but after that so many teams have at least six wins in ten games — nine teams in the AFC alone. Good teams could get left out even with seven teams per conference…The Dalton Schultz experience is something. The backup tight end ran his mesh route wrong in Week 1 leading to a failed fourth down conversion in Week 1, then almost was the scapegoat again when he broke off his slant in the red zone this Sunday, then, in the very next play, found a whole half-end zone of real estate on a mesh route for the go-ahead touchdown against the Vikings…Andy Dalton looks to be a pretty capable quarterback for the Cowboys, who are now only 0.5 games back of the division lead. The running game has been going places the last couple weeks, and the defense made a pair of late stops in an impressive win. This is better than the DiNucci days, when the Cowboys were literally trying to reinvent football, and could lead to some meaningful December football for a 3-7 squad…If teams knew how good Justin Tucker was when he was a rookie, how high would they have drafted him? First round. The Texas graduate went from undrafted to Super Bowl champion in a year, and since has established himself as the most accurate kicker in NFL history. First round?…The Texans got another win behind Deshaun Watson. They aren’t relevant this year, but according to reports Watson is helping pick the next coach — a huge win for the future of the Texans organization. If the Texans retool this roster, Watson could be up with the big dogs in the next couple years, where he deserves to be…I didn’t see it live, but CeeDee Lamb’s twisting end zone catch was the best play I’ve seen all season, maybe since Odell. Just Matrix-level stuff…Ten years ago, I was rooting for an Andy Dalton led team to beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. This weekend, I was rooting for Andy Dalton’s team and for Wisconsin to lose, in their respective games. It all circles back…Okay, I can’t resist. Northwestern is 5-0, fools! Wins against Iowa and Wisconsin have boosted the Cats up to No. 11 in the country, and a trip to the Big Ten title game is almost a lock. I saw a couple of practices from the sidewalk and wasn’t that impressed, but wow, it’s incredible to see after last year’s nightmare. Hope to be at the games again soon, but if students’ absences are what it takes to get the Cats to the top of the Big Ten, it’s a worthy sacrifice to make.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Chargers-Jets, Broncos-Dolphins, Chiefs-Raiders, Vikings-Cowboys, Browns-Eagles
Best Sunday: Carolina Panthers — A shutout of sneaky Detroit is another highlight of coach Matt Rhule’s impressive first year.
Worst Sunday: Cincinnati Bengals — Lost to Washington, but even worse lost star rookie Joe Burrow for the season.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 17-29, 186 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 74.8 passer rating, 51 rushing yards, 28-34 loss to Tennessee
The Skinny: See above.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: Will play Sunday night.
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 29-42, 269 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 102.2 passer rating, 15 rushing yards, 21-28 loss to Seattle
The Skinny: Thursday Night Football was the rare anticipated Thursday Night game — a battle between two MVPs who required overtime to declare a winner in their last bout. Russell Wilson came away the winner, but I can’t understate how impressive of a football player Kyler Murray looks, even in defeat.
To anyone watching, it is clear that Kyler Murray believes that his team will win the football game, no matter the deficit. He has a Jordan-esque air to him and is just a gamer late, just like his NFC West counterpart, and while he was frustrated by the Seattle defense (which limited him to 15 rushing yards), he made fantastic throws all night long. Murray’s red zone touchdown throws, one on a slant and another a high-lofted arc on a drag route, were not particularly difficult throws but Murray threw them perfectly. The more difficult throws, like Murray’s rollouts and his out-route throws, looked easy. Seattle’s putrid defense had answers for Murray early (the guy had four passing yards in the first half), but he does not stay contained for long. The marriage of Murray’s athletic abilities both in the passing and rushing attacks with Kliff Kingsbury’s play calling is poetic.
Seattle came out with a great game plan and succeeded in stopping Murray from putting together an MVP-type performance, loading him with guys on either side of the line of scrimmage and taking away his running lanes. Still, they could not solve Murray and needed a fourth down sack to ice the game away. Any football fan would sign up for the third matchup of these teams as a Wild Card or Conference matchup, and with both quarterbacks playing playground-style football at a high level, the winner is anyone’s call.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: Bye week.
The Skinny: See above.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 11-20, 83 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 81.9 passer rating, 13-20 loss to Denver.
The Skinny: See above.