$.01— The late afternoon game between Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys lived up to the national feature game billing. The Packers prevailed 35-31 thanks to a fantastic final drive from Aaron Rodgers and the banged up Green Bay offense.
It sure looked like Dallas was on its way to the huge home win when Dak Prescott scooted into the end zone on a read-option keeper to put the Cowboys ahead 31-28 after the 2:00 warning. That drive featured a controversial fourth-down conversion by Ezekiel Elliott where he initially appeared short of the mark, but the call was reversed upon challenge. That was the second reversed spot on the drive, and both appeared correct after reversal. That’s what replay is for.
Prescott and the Cowboys tempted fate by leaving Rodgers just over a minute to rally back. Despite a blinding glare through the AT&T Stadium windows, Rodgers calmly and coolly marched the Packers down the field for the winning TD. It was caught by none other than Davante Adams, a poetic Hollywood ending to the script. Adams was the player speared in the face by Bears LB Danny Trevathan in Week 4, spending the night in the hospital after the brutal hit. The Packers wideout showed no signs of injury or trepidation as he hauled in Rodgers’ pass over rookie CB Jourdan Lewis in the front left corner of the end zone.
Prescott was really good, but Rodgers was just a little better. Both threw for three touchdowns, but Prescott’s one INT was a costly one; Damarious Randall plucked a tipped pass and ran it into the end zone to bring life back to the Packers late in the game. The conversion failed, after a (deserved) taunting penalty on Randall pushed the attempt back. It makes what Rodgers pulled off in the end even more stirring. He led the Packers to overcome their own mistakes and even more injuries. Ty Montgomery didn’t play, so Green Bay just plugged in rookie RB Aaron Jones and he runs for 125 yards. Jordy Nelson sat out the final drive with a malady apparently suffered when he couldn’t haul in Rodgers’ errant two-point toss. It didn’t matter.
Perhaps no team finds ways to win better than Green Bay. They showed the Cowboys how to pull it off in dramatic fashion, and that could come back to haunt them in the postseason. It sure seems as if both teams are headed there, though the Cowboys are going to have to work at it as they now trail the Eagles (dominant over Arizona 34-7) by two games in the NFC East. Dallas remains very close to being very good but isn’t quite there yet. The Packers remain very close to being bad but, as long as Rodgers is upright, couldn’t be further away. Tony Gonzalez called him the best clutch QB ever in the FOX postgame show, and it’s hard to argue against the Hall of Fame tight end.
$.02— Cam Newton made the national news for all the wrong reasons during the week. In his Wednesday post-practice press conference, the Panthers QB made a disturbing and childish comment to a legitimate question asked by a legitimate reporter who happens to be a woman. Newton laughed and poked fun at Jourdan Rodrigue’s question about route running by his receivers. His quip, “It’s funny to hear a female talking about routes” immediately blew up on social media. His posture and condescending tone didn’t help his case.
Newton took a tremendous amount of heat for his flippant sexism. It made the “A” segment of the CBS Morning News and even a BBC segment on their world news service. Many men in the media took up for Rodrigue. Those of us in the PFWA received a statement from our organization strongly condemning the mistreatment and belittlement of someone trying to do her job. Newton deserved the heat. And he got it.
He produced what sure seems like a heartfelt and sincere apology the next day. It wasn’t rushed and he didn’t read (much) off a canned script. That’s good. It doesn’t take away what he said or undue the harm, but Cam at least acknowledged that he was bothered by what he said. He was also reflective and empathetic without pandering following the Panthers game in Detroit.
This sort of thing is not uncommon for female reporters in male sports. Women like Rodrigue consistently face a bias, whether overt or subconscious, from both the men they cover and the ones they call colleagues. I’ve seen it firsthand way too many times. I have probably been guilty of at least thinking those thoughts, too. It’s sad because many female reporters are more accomplished athletes than their male counterparts. I think of Allie LaForce, a fantastic basketball player and CBS analyst from my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio. I think of Tori Petry, who covers the Detroit Lions (quite well) and is a kick-ass cornerback on a female football team. I’ve had numerous conversations with women who cover football who also played my sport of choice, volleyball. Many of them would wipe the floor with a lot of the guys who play macho a lot better than they play actual sports.
$.03— Newton’s Panthers scored perhaps the most impressive victory of Week 5, surging out to a big lead in Detroit before holding off a late Lions rally. Cam was fantastic in blistering what had been a very good Detroit pass defense, completing 26 of his 33 passes for 355 yards and 3 TDs. He also avoided turnovers against the NFL’s best team at taking the ball away. He was as sharp as he’s looked since leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl following the 2015 season.
His controversial remarks aside, this was a fantastic business trip for Newton. As a result, his Panthers are now 4-1 and earned a road win over a team they could very well be jockeying with later this season for either a playoff spot or home field advantage. The entire Carolina team was sharp, a testament to how well coach Ron Rivera focused his players on shutting off the outside world and handling business. This was a validating win for the Panthers in my mind, proof the 3-1 start with some odd results was not anything unsustainable.
That was supposed to be what this game was for the home team, but the Lions dropped the ball. In Eric Ebron’s case, that is not metaphorical. The enigmatic tight end dropped a would-be touchdown early, one of a few miscues from the Lions receivers. On a day where Matthew Stafford needed all the help he could get, he didn’t get enough. The Panthers won the line of scrimmage battle and harangued Stafford all day. Stafford missed his postgame press conference while getting treatment for a litany of maladies from the game: ankle, thigh, hand, elbow. Other than the late rally against a vanilla Panthers pass defense, he wasn’t anywhere close to as sharp as Newton.
It’s a very disappointing loss for the Lions, who have become a little too predictable and conservative on offense. The drops and the poor play of Greg Robinson as the replacement left tackle (get well soon Taylor Decker!) are viable excuses, but Jim Bob Cooter has effectively taken away the one trait which makes Stafford special, his deep throws. They’re practically nonexistent in the Detroit offense. For some recommended deeper reading on the Lions offensive woes from before this disheartening loss, check out what Sean Lanigan wrote over at Detroit Lions Podcast.
$.04— Congrats to the Los Angeles Chargers on their first win as representatives of their new home. When Tre Boston picked off Eli Manning, the winless team from Los Angeles defeated the winless team from New York 27-22.
The Chargers and Giants being the weaker teams in their respective cities is an odd development based on recent histories and on preseason expectations. Many—myself included—predicted the playoffs for both the Giants and Chargers this season. Meanwhile the Rams and the Jets were both expected to jockey for top 5 draft position.
Many, again raising my own hand here, were horribly wrong on all those accounts. The New York Jets are now 3-2 after pushing the hapless Browns down the steps in Cleveland, taking advantage of wretched ball security from now-benched QB DeShone Kizer and ponderous coaching decisions by Browns coach Hue Jackson. Being less bad was more than enough for the Jets to fly past their season win over/under total (2.5 at many books in August) just five weeks into the season. The Rams join the Jets at 3-2 after a tough 16-10 loss to Seattle. The Seahawks appeared to have figured out the new and improved Rams offense, specifically second-year QB Jared Goff. Even so, the Rams are a team on the rise and are poised to dramatically surpass the preseason expectation of 6.5 wins.
The Giants are now the team where it’s legitimate to wonder if they can win a game. They left the loss to the Chargers down four wide receivers. Most notable of those losses is Odell Beckham, who suffered what appeared to be a serious ankle injury. He’s the team’s best player and the only real playmaker on offense, as well as being the lightning rod needed to absorb all the negative energy from the prickly New York media. Brandon Marshall, Dwyane Harris and Sterling Shepard also left the game with injuries. Shepard’s leg injury looked nasty, though there are no reliable reports on if, or how much time he will miss. Manning couldn’t win with those guys, and it sure seems unlikely a team with no discernible sustainability to its run game and now absent its best receivers will help Eli turn back the clock on his rapidly receding career hairline.
$.05— The Indianapolis Colts unveiled the statue of Peyton Manning outside Lucas Oil Field, honoring the all-time great as the franchise hosted the San Francisco 49ers. They picked a good week to do so. The home team persevered for a 26-23 overtime victory when Adam Vinatieri’s field goal wobbled through the uprights.
Manning took the field to raucous cheers, wearing a tie and looking thoroughly uncomfortably in doing so. He took a snap from Jeff Saturday, his longtime center, and threw a deep pass—perfectly—to longtime top target Reggie Wayne. The stadium erupted in joy and nostalgia for recent glory days.
Hopefully the fans soaked that in, because the game they watched featured two of the league’s worst teams in 2017. They were evenly matched, as it took extra football to separate the Colts from the winless Niners. As is typical of a Brian Hoyer game, the San Francisco QB fought back from his own lousy play to mount a furious rally. Hoyer caught fire late as the Niners scored on all three fourth-quarter possessions, tying it with a brilliant 14-play drive capped with impressive rookie TE George Kittle sneaking over the goal line. Fans of Hoyer’s old teams (Houston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Chicago, New England) have seen this before: supernovas of promise followed by dark black holes of losses. One overtime drive went nowhere, and the Colts capitalized with Vinatieri’s knuckleball winner.
The Colts are now 2-3 with wins over the Niners and Browns, both by 3 points. Neither vanquished foe has won a game. San Francisco has now lost four games by a field goal or less and now draw three straight NFC East opponents in a row. Sadly for them, the one they miss is the hapless Giants. It could be a very long haul before the Niners break out of the defeated column.
Indy has a chance to get on a bit of a roll, believe it or not. They get the Titans next, and Tennessee has lost two games in a row in ugly fashion. Then comes the schizophrenic Jaguars, who have blown out the Texans, Ravens and Steelers (more on that below) but also dropped games to the aforementioned Titans, a blowout loss, and the previously winless Jets. A road date with Cincinnati follows. By that point, Andrew Luck could return and the Colts would suddenly rise up from the dregs and challenge for a playoff berth.
$.06— Sunday Night Football held such promise, with the Houston Texans hosting the Kansas City Chiefs. Houston scored 57 last week while the Chiefs entered as the last unbeaten team at 4-0.
Very little of the rest of the game mattered after Kansas City’s very first drive. On that drive the Texans lost two critical components from their defense to major injuries.
Whitney Mercilus was the first to go down with what initially appeared to be a shoulder injury. It was later diagnosed as a chest injury which sure looks like a detached pectoral to this untrained eye. Mercilus was a second-team All-Pro last year and a versatile do-it-all defender for the Texans, able to rush the passer as a double-digit sack artist but also capable of stuffing the run while crashing inside. Yet the news got even worse for the fans in NRG Stadium.
J.J. Watt collapsed to the turf a few plays later. He did not get up easily, and left the sideline on a cart. The All-World defensive end subsequently went to the hospital where the worst fears were confirmed: Watt is out for the season with a knee injury. It’s not a torn ACL but rather a tibial plateau fracture. In layman’s terms, he snapped off the top of his shinbone just below where it attaches to the bottom front of the knee.
All the air left the building with the catastrophic loss. Watt is one of professional sports’ biggest icons. I dare say no athlete is as popular or beloved in his city as Watt is in Houston. Crowd shots showed fans buried in tears. I’m just happy my Texans fan son went to bed before it happened. He’s in for a tough morning.
The Chiefs ran away with the game 42-34 with their outstanding team speed and a patient disciplined aggression from Alex Smith. Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense made some great plays, notably this sizzler from the rookie QB to Will Fuller, but the Chiefs offense was simply too much. So was Tyreke Hill’s 81-yard punt return TD which essentially iced the game with 7 minutes left. The Texans did not quit, even scoring a TD on the final play. Watson once again impressed on the national stage, but the pall of the defensive injuries and the Chiefs relentless attack were too much.
$.07— Something is very wrong in Pittsburgh. The Steelers got railroaded by the Jaguars 30-9 at Heinz Field. Both teams are now 3-2 but there is a distinctly different feel to them. For Pittsburgh, the feeling is impending doom.
Ben Roethlisberger had arguably the worst game of his career. He threw five INTs, including two pick-sixes, to Barry Church and Telvin Smith. His body language and general approach were indicative of someone who didn’t seem all that interested in playing any better. Roethlisberger himself poked a little fun at that notion after the game, but there was definitely some self-reflective truth in his sarcastic sass that he might be washed up and not have it anymore.
It’s time to consider he might actually be close to the end. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to his threats to retire this past offseason. Now 35 but with numerous injuries and countless big hits on his body, Roethlisberger has not looked good other than about 3 drives all season. He’s struggling with accuracy down the field, something which he previously did as well as anyone. His ability to throw deep on the move was almost nonpareil, but that too has diminished. He’s not getting a lot of help from anyone other than Antonio Brown, which doesn’t mitigate his decline.
It’s too early to write off Roethlisberger or his Steelers, but right now they have the look of a team that realized Father Time is closing in quickly. It’s not been an impressive season by coach Mike Tomlin, either. Sure they’re still 3-2 and still in first place in the AFC North, but thus far the only teams they can play with are the fellow AFC North foes.
The road win for the Jaguars is as impressive as the loss was ugly for Pittsburgh. The Jacksonville defense got back in fine form. Even a declined Big Ben still has enough ability to ravage some defenses, but the Jaguars gave him no quarter. Leonard Fournette’s 90-yard touchdown burst was a fitting cap to one of the more impressive wins by the Jaguars in some time.
$.08— Michigan State survived Michigan and the torrential rain in the second half, stunning the Wolverines at the Big House. For those of us who live in Michigan, this is the most significant football development of the last 10 months.
I saw Michigan State in person two short weeks ago, and they got absolutely annihilated by the visiting Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was the better team in all three phases—offense, defense, special teams. On that night the Spartans also lost the coaching battle.
On this Saturday night, Mark Dantonio and Michigan State won the coaching battle over Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. And for many Wolverine fans, including some family members who greet each other not with “hello” but rather “Go Blue”, the Harbaugh buzz is slowly dulling. That is despite the fact his Michigan offense was missing starting QB Wilton Speight, whose career is likely over with three broken vertebrae. John O’Korn, who arrived in Ann Arbor with major fanfare despite his inglorious flameout at Houston, was terrible. When he wasn’t making panicked passes or throwing interceptions, he was missing open receivers just enough to turn potential big plays into 3rd and 10.
Some of the issues fall squarely on his coach and Harbaugh’s ongoing tone-deafness with in-game adjustments to what’s happening in front of him. In a driving rainstorm, Harbaugh abandoned a pretty effective run game and trusted his fate to a jittery backup QB behind an offensive line that couldn’t win on the edges in pass protection. It harkens to his bizarre clock management decisions and tilting at officiating windmills in their losses a year ago. His Wolverines, especially on offense, often look like a bunch of talented players who have never met before. You’d better believe Harbaugh shares in some of the blame for that, and that includes his decision to hire Pep Hamilton to stifle his own creative tendencies and get even more predictable based on formation and personnel packages.
Harbaugh is dangerously close to becoming Michigan’s answer to John Cooper at Ohio State. Great recruiting classes, outstanding results against nonconference powers, but never able to win the important Big Ten games or rivalry games. Harbaugh is now 1-4 in his two rivalry games, the Spartans and the Buckeyes. He’s 0-3 in those games at home. Right now, Michigan will be lucky if they can manage a third straight third-place finish in the Big Ten East. He is still a messianic figure for the vast majority of Michigan fans, the prodigal hero returning from glory afar to lead the Wolverine nation back to dominance, not just prominence. Through three years, he’s led Michigan to the exact same record as his predecessor, Brady Hoke. Not exactly the stuff of legends…
--Iowa State stunned Oklahoma, beating the Sooners for the first time since 1990…in Norman…and did so with a linebacker playing quarterback. The Cyclones showed great team speed and chemistry on both sides of the ball, while the error-prone Sooners always seemed a half-step late or a half-count slow. It’s one of the biggest upsets you’ll see all year, as Iowa State entered as 31-point underdogs.
--From that game, the scouting eye was attuned to Iowa State WR Allen Lazard and Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. This was my first ’17 look at Lazard. It will not be my last. The physical 6-4, 225-pound wideout jumps off the screen for his physicality and how well he breaks out of cuts for a bigger receiver. He only caught 3 passes but still made a big impact. His blocking is reminiscent of Anquan Boldin, though as an NFL prospect I see him more in the lines of a faster Devin Funchess.
For Mayfield, I’ll borrow a comp from my friend Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout. He compared the Sooners QB to Jeff Garcia and once you hear that you cannot unsee it when watching Mayfield play. His derring-do, his odd arm angles and lack of a legit fastball, his craftiness and accuracy from both inside and outside the pocket, they’re all like the better qualities of Garcia. It’s tough to convince NFL talent evaluators a guy with that meh of an arm and at that size can succeed, but he’s got a brighter NFL future than some guys who will get drafted before him in April.
-- Lee Corso celebrated his 300th College Gameday appearance for ESPN before the West Virginia-TCU game in Fort Worth. What an amazing accomplishment for Corso, who for men of certain generations is the jovial old voice of college football. His blend of irreverence, honest emotion and (occasional) keen insight on matchups and coaches is still a welcome addition to every Saturday morning.
Corso got to see a great game, too. The Horned Frogs rallied for a late TD to remain the only undefeated team in the Big 12. They did this thanks to QB Kenny Hill’s heroics, including a TD reception among his three scores. The Frogs’ more methodical pace on both sides of the ball prevailed against all-or-nothing West Virginia and puts them firmly in the CFB Playoff picture. They get Texas, the only other Big 12 team without a conference loss, and then Oklahoma in consecutive weeks to kick off November. If Gary Patterson’s team wins both, it’ll be hard to keep them out.
--An incredibly fun and entertaining game went down in Buffalo. Western Michigan beat the host Bulls 71-68 in seven (7!!!) overtimes. For all the offensive ugliness in Ann Arbor, there was creativity and pinpoint execution from both offenses in this #MACtion thriller. The game set many records, including an unofficial one of the longest continuous football broadcast without a commercial break. ESPN stayed with the game for the final 6 overtimes (almost 35 minutes of real time) with no break at all, apparently out of ads purchased. The announcers seemed as fatigued at the end as the players.
$.10— I’m not sticking to football here. Be warned.
As is inevitable, Colin Kaepernick was prominent in the Sunday football discussion despite still being out of the league. This time it wasn’t anything he did, however. The progenitor of the national anthem protest movement was the victim of a blatant “fake news” fabrication by Jason LaCanfora of CBS. The information man and purported insider flat-out fabricated a quote from Kaepernick that the exiled QB would happily stand for the anthem if that’s what it takes to get back into the NFL. “He’s not planning on kneeling. He’s going to donate all his jersey sales and he’s planning on standing for the anthem (if) given the opportunity,” LaCanfora told a piqued James Brown on CBS’ pregame show.
Except Kaepernick never said that. He certainly never said that to LaCanfora, who has some past credibility problems involving other NFL media members I know and trust. The two did meet and apparently did talk about Kaepernick’s desire to get back on the field, but LaCanfora walked back his quote and admitted Kaepernick never said anything like that.
That’s the very definition of fake news, blatantly fabricated by someone employed by an entity which is often seen as inherently liberal of bias. Whatever LaCanfora was thinking he was hoping to accomplish with this, he was wrong. A mere recantation of his lie is not enough.
Sadly, LaCanfora was not alone in making fake news. Mike Pence, the Vice President, made up some of his own. Pence attended the 49ers-Colts game in his home city of Indianapolis, presumably to help honor Peyton Manning. He even tweeted out a selfie with support of Manning…except it was an exact copy of a picture he tweeted out four years ago. Pence repurposed the old tweet and presented it as new.
Pence’s whole appearance was nothing more than absurdist political theater. He left in a supposed huff when several Niners players did not stand for the national anthem. His outrage on that issue might be genuine, but this was a blatantly staged act carefully scripted to enrage and encourage supporters. Niners players have been at the forefront of the protest and predictably continued their honoring of their former teammate’s ideals. Pence sidetracked from Las Vegas to travel to Los Angeles via Indianapolis just so he could fire off the fraudulent tweet and stir the darkly political pot.
I’m not sure which act is more disingenuous. Or stupid. Or blatantly divisive. All I know is both the protest movement launched by Kaepernick and the counter-protest wrapped in respect for the military have been horribly bastardized and weaponized by extremists from the left and the right. The vast majority of us in the middle are somewhere between overload and apathy, tired of the incessant nonsense and stolen integrity of what began on both sides as righteous causes. All I know is we are not getting any closer to solving any problems when those shamelessly attempting to keep us divided keep dominating the conversation.