$.01--It’s unfortunate that the most prevalent NFL story is a negative one before the teams even took the field in Week 4, but that’s life in the COVID-19 pandemic. This week’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans was postponed after several players and staffers from the Titans were diagnosed with the coronavirus after last week’s win over Minnesota. 

The game was initially expected to get bumped back by a day or two, but as more Titans kept testing positive, those options became untenable. Now the two teams will meet in Week 7 thanks to some schedule finagling that also Pittsburgh’s game with the Ravens to Week 8. 

This was the NFL’s first real test of handling an outbreak on a team. There is no bubble, no mandatory isolation for players. It’s a reminder that daily testing doesn’t prevent infection, something also unfortunately brought to light with President Trump and the First Lady. The first three weeks went very well for the NFL, but this was the adversity monkeywrench both the league and the NFLPA spent months diligently preparing for so they could take the field at all.  

By and large, the league’s response has been effective. Tennessee’s foe in Week 3, the Vikings, closed down their facility and shut down practices. Four straight days of testing everyone who had been contact-traced to the Titans game resulted in zero positive tests. That’s a huge sigh of relief and also a big win for the planning and implementation of the new protocols and protections. When done properly and by the book, it worked. The system didn’t fail, the Tennessee Titans did. 

$.02--Another of this week’s primary games of interest was impacted by COVID-19. News broke on Saturday morning that New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for the virus and would miss the marquee matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. The NFL acted quickly and postponed the late afternoon national broadcast. 

Newton instantly becomes the most prominent athlete in any North American sport to get a public positive diagnosis. The former MVP remains very popular even after moving on from Carolina. That happens when you take over for Tom Brady in New England. Reports indicate Newton is asymptomatic, which is good news. And contact tracing and aggressive testing appear to indicate Newton did not infect any other Patriots personnel, even better news. 

The game became a scheduling football. Early indications from the likes of Adam Schefter and Tom Pelissero pegged the game for Monday or maybe Tuesday, but very much up in the air. Just as the inactives for the early games on Sunday started rolling in, the official word on the reschedule came out. We’re now getting a doubleheader on Monday night, with the Chiefs and Patriots kicking off early and the NFL pushing back the start time of the Packers-Falcons game. 

Once again, the NFL’s system and planned flexibility worked. It also worked for the Lions-Saints game when a New Orleans player, former Lions FB Michael Burton, initially tested positive upon arrival in Detroit. Aggressive re-testing proved it was a false positive and the game proceeded as scheduled. Lions fans know all too well the false-positive diagnosis, something that hit QB Matthew Stafford over the summer. The shudders I had waking up Sunday morning to the overnight news of Burton’s test and the game being thrown into question quickly passed. Alas, I was subjected to watching the Lions actually play and get woefully outcoached and out-executed by Sean Payton’s Saints. 

$.03--The Cleveland Browns are 3-1 for the first time since 2001. Cleveland got there in wildly entertaining and nail-biting fashion in a thrilling 49-38 win over Dallas that was simultaneously much more lopsided but also a lot closer than the final score would indicate. It was that kind of a game in Dallas.  

The Browns ran out to a 41-14 lead, moving the ball at will against a Dallas defense that often appeared to effectively only have 9 guys on the field. Cleveland racked up 302 rushing yards with three separate Browns -- none of them named Nick Chubb -- topping 70 yards on the ground. Discontent with an easy blowout win, the Browns took about 12 minutes of game time off and allowed Dak Prescott and the Cowboys surged all the way back to cut the lead to 3 with under four minutes to play. Browns fans everywhere were clutching whatever pearls they could grab, ready for the inevitable historic collapse. 

It took a fabulous individual effort from Odell Beckham Jr. on a “so crazy it worked” call for the Browns to seal the shootout win. Beckham took an end-around and was initially dead to rights in the sights of Cowboys EDGE Aldon Smith. But OBJ eluded the catastrophe and promptly sprinted untouched up the right sideline for a 50-yard TD run. To add insult for the Cowboys, Dallas blocked the extra point but LB Jaylon Smith botched the scoop and instead allowed the Browns to recover in the end zone for two points instead of one. 

The game featured over 1,000 total yards of offense, 68 combined first downs and never once featured two drives in a row ending with no points. Dak Prescott was outstanding in the furious comeback. His fourth-quarter line was better than many starters post in an entire game:

Alas, as was the case in the Cowboys’ loss in Week 3, the final play was an interception (by Denzel Ward at the Browns 2) that slammed the door on Dallas. Somehow, many in Dallas will blame Prescott and ignore the soft butter that is the Dallas defense that turns every opposing offense into a hot sword. Prescott wasn’t perfect; it’s a shame the Cowboys utterly punchless defense and poor coaching decisions require him to be so in order to win.  

Back to the Browns: they’re a star-studded team that is learning to win together. They’ve got the best offensive line in the NFL and in Myles Garrett, who registered a strip-sack in his third straight game, they have a leading candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year. It’s impressive how quickly rookie coach Kevin Stefanski righted the ship after an abysmal Week 1 in Baltimore. It’s okay to believe, maybe just a little, Cleveland. This one just might stick.  

$.04--Week 4 kicked off with a doozy of a matchup: winless New York hosting winless Denver. I guess I need to specify which winless New York team, eh? It was the Jets, and they’re still winless. 

One of the big reasons they are winless is the flippant lack of discipline shown by the team. Imagine a team coached by Adam Gase, with Gregg “Bountygate” Williams running the defense, having discipline problems…

Six personal foul penalties against the Jets directly led to four of Denver’s first five scores, two Brandon McManus field goals and three touchdowns. Just for good measure, the Jets were guilty of a roughing the passer on the final play of the game, a ridiculous situation all around with the Broncos up by nine points. The Broncos, helmed by deep reserve QB Brett Rypien, don’t win without the Jets’ complicity and penalties.  

This was the Jets’ most winnable game on the entire season schedule. Facing a third-team QB, playing at home against a winless team making a QB change on a short week, and the Jets still crashed and burned. Even a fantastic scramble TD by Sam Darnold and a pick-six from Pierre Desir couldn’t overcome the Jets’ own bungling. It’s hard to fathom another team going 0-16, but these Jets could very well pull it off. The common denominator of Gregg Williams, shared with the winless 2017 Browns, is not a coincidence. 

$.05--A quick check on the winless teams entering Week 4... 

Cincinnati escaped the land of the winless by edging out Jacksonville 33-25. A week after tying Philadelphia, Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon got the job done over the Jaguars. The Bengals now have a 1-2-1 record and a dead-even point ledger.

Minnesota buried Houston, 31-23, to notch its first victory. Someone had to win and it was the Vikings. Kirk Cousins outdueled Deshaun Watson, with quite a bit of help from Dalvin Cook on the ground, to make it happen. The Vikings are now 1-3, leaving Bill O’Brien’s Texans at 0-4 and in very serious peril of implosion. O’Brien the coach isn’t doing much better than O’Brien the GM, the man who gave away Houston’s first- and second-round picks in 2021 and DeAndre Hopkins and somehow thought the Texans were better for it long-term. 

The Giants, like their stadium mate Jets on Thursday night, failed to crack the win column despite a close shave with victory. The Rams vaulted to 3-1 by holding off a plucky effort from the Giants, 17-9. New York plays five of its next six against fellow NFC East foes. In a division that is 2-11-1 outside playing one another, the odds are pretty strong New York notches a couple in that span. Maybe. Daniel Jones will need to play better to make that happen. 

The Eagles were the last winless team to take the field, playing Sunday night in San Francisco. And like the Bengals, they parlayed the tie a week ago into a victory. Philadelphia got a lot of help from 49ers backup QB Nick Mullens, who threw was might be the worst INT you’ll ever see to stretch the Eagles lead to 11 late in the 4th. Carson Wentz wasn’t good...except when he was great, notably on a deep TD strike to Travis Fulgham to take the lead. The Eagles flew from winless to first place in the NFC East with the victory. 

$.06--On the other end of the spectrum, we have the undefeated Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks. They are the first two teams to hit the 4-0 mark, each led by an MVP candidate at QB. 

Seattle successfully navigated the fluctuating waves that are the Miami Dolphins with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB. Russell Wilson maintained his lead on my MVP ballot with another fantastic game: 24-for-34, 360 yards, 2 TDs. He did throw an interception, but the Seahawks otherwise avoided self-inflicted wounds: Seattle did not have a penalty enforced against them in the entire game. That’s how to avoid the upset, folks!

Buffalo similarly survived a viable challenge in Las Vegas, holding off the Raiders 30-23. Josh Allen turned in an adventurous but turnover-free performance, throwing for 288 yards and 2 TDs. Allen started strong and then cooled off, but stayed just warm enough to keep the Bills’ team-centric engine running to 4-0 and firm control of the AFC East. The Bills keep winning close games, but considering the relative inexperience of the core of the team, learning to win those games now will pay dividends down the road. 

The Pittsburgh-Tennessee winner would have joined them at 4-0, but that isn’t happening for a few weeks. Kansas City can also advance to 4-0 in the early Monday night game. The Bills next two games: at Tennessee and then home for the Chiefs. Those unbeaten ranks are going to dwindle quickly. 

$.07--On Saturday afternoon I sat down to watch TCU and Texas play football. Instead, I watched the officials suck all the oxygen and excitement out of a fairly compelling college rivalry.

TCU wound up winning a close game, 34-32, and there was indeed some interesting action and great plays...in between the officials getting more air time than the endless barrage of Joe Biden ads that aired on every single commercial break.  

One incident in particular--an incomplete pass before the half--resulted in two separate play reviews, two separate penalties, and a targeting review. It took over 11 minutes of actual time between snaps. Even insufferably enthusiastic FOX announcer Gus Johnson seemed bored with the nonstop barrage of officiating-induced delay. 

Texas lost 296 total yards of production to penalties in the first half, including losing a long kickoff return. There were 26 total enforced penalties between the two teams, two sets of offsetting fouls and four others declined in the Horned Frogs win. 

Max Duggan took a beating but led the Frogs to the upset in Austin, the second straight season his swaggering presence and sporadically exceptional play beat the Longhorns. Texas fought both the officials and its own sloppy execution. QB Sam Ehlinger played better than his box score would indicate, and it’s not his fault his RB fumbled at the TCU 1-yard line going in for the potential game-winning score. The outcome also leaves Oklahoma State as the only unbeaten team in the Big 12, meaning if there is eventually a College Football Playoff, don’t expect the Big 12 to be involved.  

$.08--NFL quickies, Twitter edition 

--This is awesome. Good job, Football Team!

--From former NFL GM Randy Mueller, and he’s right on:

--I won’t go into it here, but go down the rabbit hole of Golden Tate and Jalen Ramsey for a lot more context on this brawl at the end of the Rams-Giants game:

--I told y’all, write off Tom Brady at your own peril…

--It’s really hard to be a Lions fan these days. Sigh.

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--Iowa State wore all-black uniforms for its matchup with Oklahoma on Saturday night. Normally going black on a uniform is a good thing, but the Cyclones prove one of the exceptions. Their regular colors are cardinal and gold (think Washington Football Team but more subdued). These uniforms were black with big white numbers, and the helmets were also all black. It looked....generic. Be proud enough of your school to at least incorporate one of your colors into the alternate uniforms, Iowa State. Ohio State’s black uniforms, which were hideous, at least had some visible scarlet in the mix.  

--Remember about a year ago when Auburn freshman QB Bo Nix was emerging as a cult hero? Good times. Nix was ineffective at best and thoroughly outgunned by Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV in the Bulldog’s too-easy win in the SEC rivalry. There’s a lot of football left for Nix to play in his Tigers career. Here’s hoping those early successes and hype don’t keep weighing on him the way it appeared to on Saturday.  

--Nick Saban still has never lost to a former assistant coach. Alabama thumped Texas A&M and ex-Saban (at LSU) assistant Jimbo Fisher, 52-24. Saban is now 20-0 when facing a head coach that used to work under him. 

--North Dakota State QB Trey Lance comes with considerable NFL Draft hype. He’s a fixture in the top 10 of 2021 mock drafts, and Daniel Jeremiah--the best of the big-media draft analysts--compares him to Andrew Luck. I have not watched a lot of Lance yet, but I did peek at his one game this fall on Saturday. NDSU has just the one game because the FCS-level schools are still planning on spring football. Lance was not exceptional against Central Arkansas, not as a passer anyway. He did run for 143 yards and made mostly good decisions with the ball, but the accuracy and anticipatory throws were not to NFL standards. Quite frankly he looked like Mitchell Trubisky. That’s obviously a terrible comparison and it’s just one game under very strange circumstances, but maybe pump the brakes on Lance, a redshirt sophomore, being an NFL franchise’s messiah in 2021. 

--SMU beat Memphis to stay unbeaten on the season. They did so despite the entire student section being ejected from the game for failure to comply with COVID-19 protocols, namely social distancing and wearing masks. They missed a thrilling finish, with the Mustangs prevailing over the 25th-ranked Tigers 30-27 on a last-second FG. SMU is 4-0 and the only team from a non-power conference with any chance at the College Football Playoff with UCF’s upset loss to Tulsa. 

$.10--Political signs are banned in my subdivision. Normally I’m against such restrictions on individual expression, but in this case I’m happy we have the rule.  

It’s apparent that few other communities around where I live have such restrictions. The residents clearly don’t have any restraint in proclaiming who they are voting for, that’s for sure. And that’s a change in culture that is not a positive development, not when we are so politically divided and divisive.  

Maybe it’s just the way I was brought up in the time I was brought up, but caring about what other people voted for is just not something I value. I’m fairly open about who and what I support politically with people who know me well, but I don’t advertise it publicly. I can’t fathom why anyone would or should care, quite honestly. 

My values, background and political persuasions are my life experience. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to understand why I think the way I do. They’re even quite different from my own siblings, who are from a different generational group than me (I’m Gen-X, they’re Gen-Y) and all live in different states. That makes for some interesting conversations when we’re all able to get together, especially when our Boomer parents are involved. But those are for my family. Not anyone who doesn’t know us all. 

When I drive around and see nearly every house with signage, flags, and even “Trump” mowed into a giant hillside, I ignore it. All of it. I don’t know why those people support what they do. They don’t influence me at all. I don’t care about celebrity endorsements either and also can’t fathom why anyone would care what a singer or a porn star or a tech company CEO feels about a candidate. Ask yourself why you would care. 

Vote for what you believe, what you value, what you think makes the best sense for you. Nobody can tell you about those things better than you yourself can. If you want to tell folks how you’re voting, that’s your right. Just don’t expect everyone to care.