$.01--The NFL cleared the schedule for Sunday’s late-afternoon matchup between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and their teams, the Buccaneers and the Packers. With just one other game on in the window, an AFC East matchup that even the East Coast didn’t want to watch, the battle of future Hall of Fame QBs took center stage.
Alas, it was the kind of one-sided beatdown from which networks often switch to a more competitive game. Brady’s Bucs bombarded Rodgers and the visiting Packers, scoring 38 straight points in a 38-10 blowout that knocked Green Bay from the ranks of the unbeaten.
It looked like a feature matchup early, with the Packers surging out to a 10-0 lead. Then Bucs CB Jamel Dean sat on a Rodgers throw and turned it into a Tampa Bay touchdown. Two plays later, the Buccaneers picked off Rodgers again. From nearly 200 throws without a turnover to two in three plays, it was a tidal surge that washed away any hope for Rodgers and the beat-up Packers.
The floodgates quickly opened. Ronald Jones raced for over 100 yards and 2 TDs on the ground. Brady was an efficient distributor, tossing two TDs while hitting 8 different receivers and avoiding mistakes. Meanwhile the Tampa Bay defense teed off on Rodgers, who looked frustrated and discombobulated at the disintegrating line and disturbing lack of open receivers. The normally unflappable Rodgers was, well, flapped off. He eventually ceded the controls, but not to first-round lightning rod Jordan Love. It was Tim Boyle who ended the game at QB, with Blaine Gabbert playing the role of human victory cigar in place of Brady for Tampa Bay. Green Bay managed just four first downs after the first two drives.
The Packers need not overreact to this ugly loss. But this did validate the ongoing concerns at linebacker and safety in Green Bay. Their middle-of-field defense has largely stunk all season, but in past weeks the offense was good enough to mask it. There wasn’t enough eau de toilette in the bottle for the Packers this week.
$.02--The Cleveland Browns were one of the feel-good stories of the early season. Riding a 4-1 record and 4-game win streak, Kevin Stefanski’s Browns appeared ready to challenge the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Narrator: It didn’t happen
The Steelers stayed unbeaten by delivering a Mike Tyson jab to the Browns chin on the very first drives for each team. Cleveland’s glass jaw shattered into a thousand shards of bloodied and broken dreams.
Pittsburgh struck first with an impressive field goal drive. The Browns answered with Baker Mayfield throwing a bad pick-six to Minkah Fitzpatrick on his very first attempt. It never really got much better for Mayfield or the Browns. The Steelers rolled to a TKO, a 38-7 beatdown that saw a bruised Baker pulled for Case Keenum as a symbolic towel throw-in.
The line play was the real story of the game. Cleveland’s revamped offensive line, arguably the NFL’s best thus far in 2020, was Trevor Berbick to the Steelers’ Tyson-esque defensive front. It turned Mayfield, playing with bruised ribs from a week ago, into Evander Holyfield’s bloody ear behind the line. Other than one Myles Garrett sack on Ben Roethlisberger, the Cleveland defensive front was Peter McNeely, getting rocked by every jab the Steelers threw at them.
The Browns could not yet be Buster Douglas and pull off the improbable win over the bully in the division. As good as they’ve looked in the preliminary bouts, beating back the Cowboys, Bengals, Football Team and Colts, those tomato cans did not prepare them for the heavyweight champs that are the Steelers.
Pittsburgh was fantastic. For my money they’re the NFL’s best team through the first six weeks. That’s not an excuse for the Browns, it’s context. Cleveland won’t be the last team to get slobberknocked to the turf by this Pittsburgh team.
$.03--The Atlanta Falcons took the field in Week 6 with a new regime. Shortly after last Sunday’s home loss to the Panthers dropped the team to 0-5, owner Arthur Blank pulled the plug on longtime head coach Dan Quinn and GM Tom Dimitroff.
It was time. This was not a rash decision or pulling the rug out from under a team that didn’t get to fulfill its destiny. This was Blank recognizing that the Quinn/Dimitroff train was simply out of coal. Dimitroff had been calling the shots for the front office since 2008. Quinn got five full seasons at the helm. Their work together got the Falcons to a Super Bowl and within a whisper of a title.
Replacing Dimitroff, the architect of one of the most successful teams of the last 12 years, will not be easy. Rich McKay fills the role temporarily, but he’s not expected to keep the gig. Whoever takes over has a tough decision to make with Matt Ryan. Dimitroff’s first-ever draft pick is 35 and gradually losing steam after throwing the 10th-most passes in NFL history. He’s not the QB of the future, and the new GM could be drafting Clemson superstar Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick to replace Ryan.
Former Buccaneers head man Raheem Morris took over the coaching reins. As so often happens with interim coaches, Morris guided the Falcons to victory in his first game at the helm. Atlanta crushed the bitterly disappointing Vikings, 40-23, to surge past the 1-5 Vikings in the NFC standings. It’s that kind of year; the win knocks the Falcons out of the lead for the No. 1 pick. It’s still prudent to at least consider getting Ryan’s successor in the building.
Back to Dimitroff and Quinn...neither should be out of work for long. Dimitroff should be on the very short list of top GM candidates for the coming offseason. Quinn probably needs to return to being a defensive coordinator, but he also should be highly sought-after. Just because it didn’t end well in Atlanta doesn’t mean their accomplishments should be forgotten.
$.04--With the Giants beating the Football Team and the Falcons win over the Vikings, there remains just one winless team. Ladies and gentlemen, the New York Jets.
The walking expansion team that is Adam Gase’s Jets not only stayed winless, but they became the first team in 2020 to get shut out. Falling 24-0 to the Miami Dolphins, their dead-end roster of has-beens and never-will-bes sunk to a new low. And they were already the absolute dregs of the league to start the day.
Joe Flacco (35) handing off to Frank Gore (37) behind a line of four street free agents and rookie Mekhi Becton didn’t manage to score. Imagine that. When Jamison Crowder is hands down the best wideout on the team, what do you expect? No disrespect intended to Crowder, who is a perfectly capable starting slot receiver, but on a functional offense he’s no higher than No. 3 in the receiving pecking order. With these Jets, he soars above troubled journeyman Breshad Perriman and oft-concussed TE Ryan Griffin as the top target.
These Jets managed 13 first downs in the game, going 2-for-17 on third down conversions. In managing just 3.8 yards per play, to call the Jets attack anemic is an insult to iron deficiency. They’re deficient at everything a football team could possibly need.
They really do feel like an expansion roster, one being coached by ant-snorting-era Ozzy Osbourne. Gase is driving the crazy train off the rails with his snowblind paranoia. Instead of making him sober up before he kills all hope, Jets ownership continues to be the enabling manager sending him out there bombed out of his mind and ready to bite heads off bats.
Take it from someone who covered both of the 0-16 teams in NFL history, the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns: adding just one player, even a generational QB like Trevor Lawrence might very well be, will not wash away the culture of endemic losing created by such ineptitude. I know Jets fans want to keep Gase as a means to the No. 1 pick end, but experience tells me it’s a terrible idea to let him continue to destroy the team. You’re much more than one player away from even attaining mediocrity, New York...
$.05--The NFL killed the Pro Bowl game this week. Sadly it’s just a one-year break and not a permanent vacation for the most worthless of all exhibition games in any sport right down to your local 7-year-old t-ball league.
There will still be Pro Bowl players. The NFL is going to honor the spirit of the bowl by having Pro Bowl teams named, in part because many contracts have Pro Bowl incentives written into them. But instead of the game, the league has promised “engaging activities” and events for those named.
I have a few ideas for those engaging activities that I’d tune in to watch more than I’d ever witness one abhorrent snap of the actual Pro Bowl ever again.
- Punt, Pass, Kick competition
- American Ninja Warrior course
- Nailed It celebrity NFL edition
- Pro Bowl players going to random workplaces and real-life, in-person Tweeting at vocal critics of their performances
- Chicken wing eating contest for the linemen
- Longest surgical scar competition
- IKEA bedroom furniture assembly challenge with coaches yelling instructions
- NFL all-star poker tournament for charity
Do us all a favor and make this the end of the idea of ever playing the actual Pro Bowl game again. Please, Commissioner Goodell, we all need some positivity in our lives in these trying times.
$.06--We did not get a Thursday night NFL football game this week. Thanks to a COVID-induced schedule shuffle, the Bills-Chiefs game that was supposed to be played on Thursday wound up on Monday night. The Bills had just played on Tuesday, and they needed more than 48 hours to recover from the curb-stomping they got at the hands of the Titans.
Did you miss the Thursday night game?
I for one did not. With college football (more on that below) available to watch, school for the kids in the morning and youth sports earlier in the evening, it’s hard to get excited to watch an NFL game. Sure, some have been great matchups. But far more often than not we hear incessant complaints about the Thursday night NFL experience.
The alternate is the reality for this week: a Monday night doubleheader, with the first game kicking off at 5 p.m. ET. For those of us in the Eastern time zone, that means we can actually witness an entire MNF game. I didn’t do that growing up in the EST until I was in college because of the late start. Many will miss the beginning of the game, no doubt. For Chiefs fans, I get the consternation--the game starts at 4 p.m. Central and that’s asking a lot of die-hard fans who need to work until 5 or 6. ‘Tis better to catch the end than the beginning.
The NFL should seriously consider making the switch permanent. I know the Thursday games do well in the ratings, but the havoc it wreaks upon the routine and schedules for the teams isn’t necessarily worth it. Thanksgiving would be a worthwhile exception. Beyond that, add a second MNF game and stop the Thursday night madness.
$.07--Life in the Deep South ground to a halt on Wednesday with the startling revelation that Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Crimson Tide football is the lifeblood of Alabama and Saban is the messianic leader of the perennial national championship contenders. So when Saban tested positive and it appeared he would miss Alabama’s SEC showdown with Georgia on Saturday night, life effectively stopped.
The 68-year-old Saban famously controls every minute detail of the Crimson Tide. Nobody breathes without Saban’s explicit permission. How in the world could the mother of all micromanagers possibly relinquish his tight grip on the controls of the No. 2 team in the country while they’re facing the No. 3 Bulldogs in a de facto playoff elimination game?
The pearl-clutching across the SEC, the spontaneous prayer vigils popping up around Tuscaloosa and Daphne, it was all for naught. It turns out Saban’s test was a false positive. The greatest college coach of the last 50 years tested negative three straight days after the positive test, allowing Saban to be on the sidelines at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night. As you might expect given the emotional scenario, his Crimson Tide sputtered a bit early before storming to a resounding 41-24 win.
It wasn’t all positive for Alabama. Athletic Director Greg Byrne also tested positive for COVID-19 at the same time of Saban’s first test, and his positive was not a false one. And across the SEC landscape, Florida head coach Dan Mullen also tested positive among a rash of Gators contracting COVID, leading to a postponement. Sadly the message that comes out is all about Saban’s false positive, lending more credence and ammunition for those who simply don’t think COVID is worthy of attention.
--RIP Vaughn McClure. The 48-year-old was one of the best reporters in the business, most recently working for ESPN covering the Atlanta Falcons. McClure passed away this week. I had limited but memorable meetings with McClure. Seeing a peer that’s the same age as you pass away unexpectedly is a jolt of scary sorrow.
--Chicago improved to 5-1 by halting the Panthers’ 3-game win streak. It wasn’t an aesthetically pleasant win, but that’s not what this Bears team is all about. Snicker if you will at their strength of schedule, but they are consistently finding ways to win close games. Sunday’s 23-16 win represents their largest margin of victory of the season. The Bears are trending in the right direction and deserve more respect than they’ll see in this week’s NFL power polls.
--You don’t last as long in the NFL as Ryan Fitzpatrick has with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s body of work unless you’re a great teammate. Witness:
--Great comeback by Derrick Henry and the Titans to trump the Texans own great comeback and keep Tennessee unbeaten. Henry is the NFL’s most unusual weapon and the Titans use him expertly. They rode his 212 rushing yards all the way to the 42-36 overtime victory and needed every last inch of them to best a brilliant Deshaun Watson (335 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs).
--Every single COVID-19 test administered to NFL players, coaches and staffers on both Saturday and Sunday came back negative. The Jaguars practice squad had 12 positive tests on Friday but they effectively quarantined and contact-traced the infected well enough to get in their 34-16 spanking at the hands of the visiting Lions.
--Denver won in New England, 18-12, and did so without scoring a touchdown. Broncos QB Drew Lock was 10-for-24 for 189 yards, zero TDs and 2 INTs and somehow still beat Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Guessing that’s not going to sit well in New England...
--Clemson and Georgia Tech was my intended early Saturday watching choice, but Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers rolled out to a 45-7 lead in the early part of the second quarter. So I switched to South Carolina/Auburn. Good choice.
Gamecocks CB Jaycee Horn put on quite a display. Horn, the son of former NFL WR Joe Horn, picked off terribly overhyped Auburn QB Bo Nix twice. He was physical but also smooth in coverage. Horn was one of the top names on my CB watch list entering this season and this was the first I’d watched him. Don’t be surprised to hear his name in the top 20 of some upcoming mock drafts...including my own.
--Liberty blew out Syracuse 38-21 in New York for the Flames’ first-ever win over an ACC opponent. If you didn’t know the history of the two schools, you’d never know it was an upset. Liberty ran for over 330 yards and had more speed on both sides of the ball.
--One of the best games of the year was Thursday night with a ranked Louisiana team facing off against Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers prevailed 30-27 on a last-second field goal to cap an outstanding drive. The Ragin’ Cajuns chances at crashing the CFB playoff are dead, and CCU doesn’t have the gravitas to crash the party on their own, either. But this was a great football game between two Sun Belt foes who I would pick to win on a neutral site over many SEC foes in their region.
--Coastal Carolina RB C.J. Marable will play on Sundays. He’s not going to be a bellcow RB, but the 5-10, 200-pound senior has a lot of traits that will help him be a regular contributor on an NFL offense. He’s got a hold it/now-hit-it style with great burst and fast feet for his size. Marable also catches the ball quite well and does more than just run outlet routes. He should be a Day 3 draft pick that can make an instant impact.
--North Carolina was a surprising No. 5 in the country entering the weekend. Thanks to some issues catching the ball, they’re not sniffing that lofty of a ranking again anytime soon. Florida State improved to 2-3 by beating the mistake-prone Tar Heels, 31-28.
$.10--Congrats are in order for the Los Angeles Lakers, the 2020 NBA champions. It’s another title for LeBron James, a development that stirred some mixed emotions for me.
I’m a Cleveland native and a Cavaliers fan. More than any other team in any sport, the Cavs have been my life’s sporting passion. So seeing LeBron win with a team other than our shared homeland is conflicting.
The first time LeBron left, I was angry but I understood. He needed to leave to realize how important it would be for him to win for Cleveland. The manner in which he left is still irksome, but I understood the decision. He atoned for his sin.
Winning the title in 2016 and a teary-eyed LeBron screaming “Cleveland this is for you!” is the highest point of my almost 50 years on Earth as a sports fan. I still well up with tears of my own just thinking about it.
Leaving the second time actually rubbed the wrong way more than LeBron leaving for Miami. Going to the Lakers, the most successful team of my lifetime? Really?! It’s akin to joining the English navy to conquer the Falkland Islands. How about recruiting Anthony Davis to Cleveland and try to build something special at home, eh? Be better than Kevin Durant and the other ring chasers…
Yet there was LeBron, playing phenomenal basketball in the finals. He was great and it was fun to watch the King reign over the bubble. No. 23 was the undeniable MVP. The basketball fan in me was happy for LeBron James the player. The Cleveland Cavaliers fan in me sighed, resigned to the fact that our messiah left us once again, this time joining Goliath to defeat David. That doesn’t sit well with me and I hope it doesn’t with others who were fans of the Cavs before LeBron was even born, too.