$.01-- Thursday Night Football has a well-earned reputation of producing some underwhelming performances. The short week hurts prep time, it hinders recovery time and often includes a non-playoff team getting its mandatory primetime appearance.
Not this week.
The Rams and Vikings, two of the NFC’s perceived best contenders, played an epic, wildly entertaining game in Los Angeles.
Goff was magnificent. His two TD throws to close out the first half are as good as any passes you’ll see all season. On the dead run to his right, Goff fired a laser to Cooper Kupp in the back corner of the end zone. Kupp’s hand even got hit a bit just before the ball arrived but he still snagged it and got both feet down. It’s a throw very few QBs can make. The next drive saw Goff unleash a 47-yard bomb on the post to Brandin Cooks, once again just over the good coverage by the Vikings.
Kirk Cousins valiantly attempted to keep pace. In the end, his 422 yards and 3 TDs both came up short to Goff and his 465 and 5. The Rams also benefited from the run game, something the Vikings simply do not have.
Minnesota also doesn’t have the pass rush or the speed in the secondary to match wits with a high-powered passing attack. At 1-2-1, they might be the most disappointing team in the league through the first month. There’s no shame in getting outgunned by the Rams, who will be ranked No. 1 on most power polls this week. But a week after a lifeless home loss to lowly Buffalo, Mike Zimmer’s team now finds itself well behind in the overall chase in the crowded NFC.
$.02-- The early slate of games on Sunday featured several thrillers. None was more unlikely than the Tennessee Titans improving to 3-1 with a stunning overtime win over the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Corey Davis made an emphatic leaping catch in the end zone to secure the emotional win for the Titans. It’s probably time to give Tennessee more credit than just being a little better than the Jaguars and Texans, who’d they defeated in drudgefests the previous two weeks. Knocking off the Eagles will bring the credibility they coveted.
Davis (1st round ‘17) wasn’t the only key young Titan to make a major contribution. Marcus Mariota (1st round ‘14) played one of the best all-around games of his four-year career. Harold Landry (2nd round ‘18) forced a huge strip sack from Eagles QB Carson Wentz early in the 4th quarter. Kevin Byard (3rd round ‘16) was all over the field with 11 tackles.
As is customary for the defending champs in any season, the Eagles keep getting the best shots from their opponents. Philadelphia fought hard but fell to 2-2 with the hit-and-miss offense missing too many chances. Wentz posted impressive numbers (33/50, 348 yards, 2 TDs) and showed no real signs of lingering impact from his ACL injury. Those are positives to take away from the loss, but I’m sure Eagles fans would rather have the win after taking the early overtime lead. Credit the Titans for playing for the win and not the tie, too.
$.03-- Despite complaints from everyone from fans to coaches and even the quarterbacks its designed to protect, the NFL and NFLPA doubled down on the roughing the passer emphasis. In a statement released on Thursday from NFL Executive VP, and former NFLPA leader, Troy Vincent declared the new rule enforcement is not going anywhere:
The NFL Competition Committee met last night by conference call to discuss the enforcement of roughing the passer rules with a specific emphasis on the use of body weight by the defender. The committee reviewed video of roughing the passer fouls from both this season to date and 2017.
In reiterating its position on quarterback protection, the committee determined there would be no changes to the point of emphasis approved this spring or to the rule, of which the body weight provision has been in place since 1995.
To ensure consistency in officiating the rule, the committee clarified techniques that constitute a foul.
Video feedback will continue to be provided throughout the season to coaches, players and officials illustrating clear examples of permissible and impermissible contact on the quarterback.
Sorry, Clay Matthews. Sorry, NFL fans who cannot comprehend how a tackle that is encouraged everywhere else on the field at all other times is subject to a massive penalty when the person being tackled is a quarterback. I don’t get it either.
Unfortunately, Vincent’s press release indicates the NFL doesn’t care what the fans want or what the players want. I understand the sentiment: Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers is great, Green Bay with Brett Hundley or DeShone Kizer is somewhere between embarrassing and depressing. Rodgers got his collarbone broken twice on these hits, and Tony Romo had one snap that way too. I absolutely get that. I also get that the hypocrisy is a turnoff for many fans who are just now coming back to the game after being up in arms over the (still unresolved) national anthem protest brouhaha. At some point, the owners are going to wonder why they’re paying Roger Goodell $40M a year to do nothing except tarnish the shield he’s sworn to protect.
$.04-- Miami went into New England at 3-0 and with a great chance to throw some dirt on the 1-2 Patriots in the AFC East race. The Dolphins return to Miami just a game up in the standings and hoping to extricate some dirt from their own blowholes after a 38-7 blowout loss to the defending AFC champs.
New England was in command from the opening kickoff. The offense, the defense, the special teams, the coaching, the crowd. Everything favored the Patriots. Miami netted just six first downs on its first nine possessions. New England scored on six of its first nine possessions.
This was exactly the statement game New England needed to silence the critics. Last week’s ugly loss to lowly Detroit, where the Patriots looked outmanned and outclassed all over the field, led many to wonder if this is the end of the Brady/Belichick golden years.
Even undermanned, the Patriots still have “it”. Getting rookie RB Sony Michel and stalwart LB Dont’a Hightower in the lineup jolted both sides of the ball out of the doldrums. Adding Josh Gordon (2 catches) provided a spark, too. This team faced adversity and responded with a resounding victory.
Now we get to see what the Dolphins do with adversity. Their first loss of the season is a crushing one. They gained just 172 total yards. Perhaps the most indicting damnation of the Dolphins loss was backup QB Brock Osweiler throwing for the team’s only TD in garbage time. They could not run. They could not pressure Tom Brady. Nobody stepped up to make key plays in critical times. It’s a mental setback they must process and get over if the Dolphins want to keep swimming with the AFC playoff crowd. Next week’s trip to Cincinnati and the 3-1 Bengals will reveal more of just how valid that 3-0 start really was for Miami.
$.05-- Two rookie quarterbacks made their starting debuts on Sunday. Baker Mayfield for the Browns and Josh Rosen for the Cardinals took over the roles and wound up with identical outcomes, though they got there via very divergent paths.
Both Mayfield’s Browns and Rosen’s Cardinals lost by a field goal on the final play of the game. Cleveland fell in overtime in Oakland, 45-42, in a game where the officiating directly stole the win away from Mayfield and his squad. I don’t say that flippantly, either; Walt Anderson and his officiating crew decided that the Raiders won this game, plain and simple.
Mayfield played a complicit part in both the 42 points (yay) and the loss (boo). The No. 1 overall pick made some fantastic throws in his 41 attempts. By my count, Browns receivers dropped 7 of them. Mayfield completed 21 passes, netting 295 yards with offsetting TDs and INTs, two of each.
There could have been more. Mayfield just missed a wide-open Antonio Callaway deep behind the Raiders defense early on, points the Browns could have used. His second INT was a terrible decision late, forcing a throw he didn’t need to make. Two lost fumbles are a definite black mark on Mayfield’s performance, too. Yet his spunk, energy and leadership kept the Browns together during a wild, horribly officiated game.
Rosen was far less prolific, for better and for worse. He threw just 27 passes, completing 15 for 180 yards. One did go for a TD on Chad Williams’ only catch of the day. Like Mayfield, his receivers let him down far too often. J.J. Nelson dropped a perfect throw well behind the defense on what would have been a 59-yard TD. His quick release aided a line which frequently put Rosen on his back but resulted in just one sack, and he didn’t turn the ball over.
Better days are ahead for both. The wins might not be immediate, however.
$.06--Look at the top of the NFC North and you’ll see an unusual sight. The Chicago Bears sit alone atop the division for the first time in years at 3-1.
The Bears scored what might be the most convincing victory of the season in eviscerating the visiting Buccaneers, 48-10. It really wasn’t that close, either. Mitchell Trubisky threw a month’s worth of TD passes in the first half, five in total. Trubisky found five different receivers with those TD strikes, all capping drives of at least 70 yards and doing so in seven plays or less.
Meanwhile, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pumpkin got smashed in Chicago. The magic is gone after his Bucs managed just four first downs in the same first half where the home team raged. He was replaced by Jameis Winston, who was accurate in taking what the Bears defense gave him, which was little nibbles and no shots down the field.
Chicago’s defense is legit and the primary reason why the Bears are 3-1 and looking down on the division they’ve finished last in four years running. If they can get anything close to this from Trubisky and the offense again, they could stay up top for a while.
$.07-- Because I live in Michigan, married into a big-time Wolverine booster family, will see them in person in the next two weeks vs. Maryland and Wisconsin, and get to deal with their fiercely loyal fans on an hourly basis…
Jim Harbaugh’s luster has to be gone as Michigan’s coach. Escaping with a 20-17 comeback win over Northwestern is a lot better than losing in Evanston, but that’s not where this Michigan program is supposed to be in Year 4 of Harbaugh. Being down 17-0 to an underwhelming and heretofore disappointing Wildcats team, one that Akron thumped two weeks ago, is not meeting expectations.
I’ve made this assertion on ESPN 96.1 in Grand Rapids, and the more weeks which pass the more I’m convinced it’s true: Jim Harbaugh has become Jim Caldwell. And that’s not what Michigan signed up for when anointing Harbaugh as the messianic savior of the once-proud program.
Like Caldwell, recently and popularly deposed as head coach of the Detroit Lions, Harbaugh reliably beats the teams he should but cannot defeat higher-profile rivals. Like Caldwell, he is almost always caught on camera with the same expression. Replace Caldwell’s slightly frowning glare with Harbaugh’s agape mouth and expressionless eyes, hands on his thighs instead of crossed over his chest, and they’re the same guy on the sidelines. There is little emotion, no real signature trait or accomplishment other than being too talented of a roster to be lousy.
It’s not about Ohio State. It’s not about Michigan State. If Harbaugh is who he was advertised to be, what the rivals do doesn’t matter to Michigan. His lionization in Ann Arbor dictates that. Not holding him accountable for failing to deliver means those rivals will continue to not need to worry enough about Michigan.
--Congrats to Adam Vinatieri for setting the all-time record for most made field goals. The Colts kicker broke Morten Andersen’s record on the final play of the first half. No. 566 was right down the middle, appropriately enough...
...unfortunately for Vinatieri, his rookie coach spoiled his momentous day:
Frank Reich goes for it on fourth down, hands the ball to the Texans in field goal range.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) September 30, 2018
Then as the Texans line up for the game-winning field goal, Frank Reich ices the kicker just before the ball is snapped. The kick misses but doesn't count. After the timeout the kick is good
--Sunday was quite the prodigious passing performance:
Five quarterbacks – Jared Goff (465 passing yards), Andrew Luck (464), Derek Carr (437), Kirk Cousins (422) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan (419) – passed for at least 400 yards this week, most ever in any week. We are at 12 through four weeks, also a record -- Please don't compare stats— John McMullen (@JFMcMullen) October 1, 2018
John is one of my favorite NFL follows, by the way. Check out his work, you won’t be disappointed.
--Earl Thomas broke his leg in Seattle’s win over Arizona, likely ending the Pro Bowl safety’s season. On his way to the locker room on a cart, Thomas flipped off his own sideline as Cardinals players offered their sympathies and encouragement for his health. It’s a classless act from Thomas, who held out for more money he’ll almost assuredly never see now. I understand his frustration and don’t blame him for trying to maximize his earnings, but that middle finger will be the way a lot of fans, both in Seattle and around the league, remember him.
--The Ravens looked great in running past the rival Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football. Joe Flacco and his speedy targets were the more dynamic offense most of the night than Big Ben and Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh just couldn’t maintain momentum, a tribute to the Ravens pesky defense. The Steelers remain in last in the AFC North with the division loss at 1-2-1 but seem further behind the Ravens and the Bengals (both 3-1) than the meager gap might indicate.
--Buffalo’s blowout win over the Vikings in Week 3 might turn out to be one of the flukiest outcomes in years. The Bills got shut out 19-0 in Green Bay with rookie QB Josh Allen playing poorly behind a bad offensive line. They managed just 11 first downs and 145 total yards.
--Huge and impressive win by Notre Dame in walloping visiting Stanford. Aaron Book at quarterback continues to make the Irish offense a more formidable and complete unit, one which picked apart a front-heavy Stanford defense. This was likely Notre Dame’s last real test and chance to impress the playoff committee, and they passed with flying colors.
--Notre Dame DL Jerry Tillery proved why he’s a top-50 overall prospect in the win. Tillery earned the national defensive player of the week for his 3-sack outing, a number which doesn’t truly demonstrate his disruptive impact on the game. For a taller player (he’s 6-7), Tillery doesn’t struggle with leverage going inside. That’s unusual. His ability to get narrow and clear his shoulders through the gap with a long stride that is exceptionally quick for a long-legged player. He has some Calais Campbell to his game, minus the Jaguars All-Pro’s brute strength. Tillery also destroyed Michigan earlier this season and has been one of the most impressive defensive prospects I’ve watched this season.
--Ohio State stayed very much alive in the playoff race. Barely. The Buckeyes scored a stunning comeback win in Happy Valley over a game Penn State team. The Nittany Lions led by 12 halfway thru the 4th quarter before Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes offense threw blood all over the whiteout in the stands.
PSU coach Jerry Franklin made a terrible decision on his team’s final opportunity. Taking the ball out of QB Trace McSorley’s hand on 4th-and-5 was ridiculous, and it cost Franklin’s team any chance to pull off the win. That’s an unfortunate ending to an otherwise fantastic football game.
--Syracuse nearly pulled off the major upset, falling by 4 at Clemson and having a chance to get a final drive. Orange coach Dino Babers has his team humming along nicely. Meanwhile, Clemson saw QB Trevor Lawrence leave with a nasty-looking shot to his head and shoulder on a week where the man he edged out for starter, Kelly Bryant, decided to leave the program. The Tigers remain in control of their playoff destiny, but there’s is the shakiest status.
--The first score from an otherwise forgettable Georgia win over Tennessee was the highlight of Saturday afternoon:
Touchdown of the year. pic.twitter.com/hYmBmuNJis— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 29, 2018
--My Ohio Bobcats set a school record for total offense in a 58-42 win over UMass. OU raced out for 664 yards after trailing 14-0 early. The Bobcats are now 2-2 and the normally strong defense continues to struggle, but it was nice to see QB Nathan Rourke & Co. light up the scoreboard.
$.10--All of the national media focus this week was on the Kavanaugh hearings. I tried my damndest to avoid the spectacle, but I too got sucked into the embarrassing and shameless spectacle that has become the American political process.
It doesn’t matter what you think of Kavanaugh, or his initial and primary accuser Christine Blasey Ford. It doesn’t matter if you support President Donald Trump or not. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican or if you’re like me and eschew parties and cable news because you like to think for yourself.
We all lost this week. America lost this week. The tacky, petty partisan politics and the lemming-like lockstep following of the badly flawed, unethical and immoral leadership from both parties produces no winners. Even if your side “won”, or you think you scored points by sycophantically dunking on your Facebook friends with a (poorly thought, heavily biased and favorably edited) post, you lost.
I’ve quoted this song before, but Parkway Drive’s Crushed once again perfectly captures the current political climate for those tens of millions of us caught in between the increasingly and desperately radical and rampant hypocrisy of the two parties, neither of which gives a damn about any of us unless we write bigger checks:
To the left I see the rats and to the right I see the snakes
In my ear they’re whispering sweet sermons of cruel hate
So do you buy the fear, or do you buy the lies
Tell me, what will set us free
Do we kneel before the crooked few
Or do we bite the f***ing hand that feeds
Don’t kneel. Don’t bite. Fight back. Think for yourself. Listen to other points of view. Don’t assume that your opinion is necessarily right or someone else’s is inherently wrong and evil. We all lose with that. If we can’t learn that from the last week, we’ll all keep losing even if we think we win.