$.01--There was more on the line than just bragging rights in the matchup between the unbeaten Steelers and unbeaten Titans. There was historical precedent at stake.
In the Super Bowl era, there have been four meetings in Week 7 or later of two unbeaten teams. The winner of that game has advanced to the Super Bowl all four times. In other words...book those Super Bowl trips, Steelers fans!
Pittsburgh ran out to an early 24-7 lead and then clung on for dear life to improve to 6-0 for just the second time in franchise history. After scoring on its first four possessions, the Steelers barely managed a first down the rest of the way. But Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski yanked his potential game-tying field goal wide right, ending the impressive Tennessee comeback just short.
There’s no shame for Tennessee in falling to the Steelers, even if the heartbreaking manner and frustrating start sting in the short term. Pittsburgh is the most complete team in the NFL and they came out hellbent on proving it. Give the Titans credit for resiliency and for making it a very competitive game. But the consolation prize is not what coach Mike Vrabel wants.
The Steelers get another huge test next week against the Ravens. After what they did to the upstart Browns in Week 6, vanquishing the unblemished Titans in Week 7, and cruising over the inferior teams earlier on the schedule, the bullseye is now on Pittsburgh. I strongly suspect they’ll wear it comfortably. Mike Tomlin’s team is playing great football in 2020. And they did enough things wrong (Roethlisberger’s late INT, missed tackles) to give Tomlin a lot of fodder to stay on his lieges hard. That will keep them very tough to knock from the rare ranks of the remaining unbeaten.
$.02--Back in the 2020 NFL Draft leadup, I was not a huge fan of Oregon QB Justin Herbert. He was, in a word, frustrating. Herbert had obvious physical gifts and was a likable young man with good leadership skills at a (fairly) major program, but he seldom played to the sum of his traits. He struggled under pressure and didn’t always play with a lot of urgency.
It made Herbert a difficult evaluation. While I didn’t sour totally on him, and I did feel a lot better about Herbert after a stellar Senior Bowl week, I had some hesitancy for the rookie being thrown into action for the Los Angeles Chargers. Like a lot of draftniks and even some NFL front offices, I had a sense Herbert needed the time to get his proverbial feet wet without pressure.
Herbert has quickly made those worries look as silly as Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog being bosom buddies. In Week 7, Herbert was smoking hot once again. The big rookie carried his team with aplomb, accuracy and poised precision. It was not without some sputtering and a nice second-quarter surge by the visiting Jaguars, but Herbert and his team responded.
In the process, Herbert became just the second rookie QB to ever toss at least 3 TDs passes in three straight games. He matched Patrick Mahomes in throwing for at least 250 yards in each of his first five starts. Herbert also ran for 66 yards, a Chargers franchise record for a quarterback.
Granted the Chargers won for the first time with Herbert at the controls and it wasn’t exactly a glamorous opponent; the Jaguars have the worst defense in the NFL outside of Dallas and haven’t won since Week 1. But the Chargers sure look like they’ve found something in their first-round pick. In the process, they’ve proven the art of draft evaluation is not an all-or-nothing endeavor.
$.03--Time for a little visit to my living room, circa 3:45 p.m. ET Sunday. As the managing editor for both the Browns Wire and Lions Wire for USA TODAY, I had a vested and professional interest in the outcome of their concurrent games. And it was pretty clear both the Cleveland-Cincinnati and Detroit-Atlanta games were going to come down to the last play.
The Browns game in Cincinnati was a little ahead on the clock, and it was a captivating watch. Baker Mayfield shook off a horrible start, an Odell Beckham Jr. injury and some stiff competition from Bengals counterpart Joe Burrow to guide the Browns into a barnburner. Burrow led the Bengals on a fantastic drive to take a 34-31 lead with just over a minute to go.
About 20 seconds in real-time after the Bengals scored, I turned to the screen on my right and saw the Falcons drive down the field in a death-by-papercut bleeding of both the clock and the Detroit defense. Todd Gurley couldn’t slam on the brakes hard enough to stop from unintentionally scoring a go-ahead TD with just over a minute left in the game. The 2-pt. conversion made it 22-16 Falcons with 1:04 left.
Mayfield got to go first. Perfect strikes to Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones helped Mayfield set a Browns record with 21 consecutive completions and into striking distance. But a booth review and a timeout moved the attention back to Atlanta and the Lions’ last gasp behind Matthew Stafford.
No. 9 delivered. Gurley was right to try and not score, because he gave just enough time for Stafford to execute another of his patented game-winning drives. It was not without trepidation, including the very real fear of a 10-second runoff on an official review to end the game. Stafford sizzled a perfect strike to a wide-open T.J. Hockenson crossing the front of the end zone as time expired for the game-tying touchdown. A celebration penalty pushed Matt Prater’s extra point back 15 yards, and just because nothing is ever easy for the Lions there was real concern Prater would miss an almost identical attempt to one he yakked earlier in the game. But he hammered it home for a Lions 23-22 win.
For the full feel of the emotion, check out Lions play-by-play man Dan Miller on the call. Dan’s the best in the business and I’m proud to call him a friend.
Seconds later, Mayfield threw his only incompletion after the first quarter with an intentional spike to kill the clock. One play later, Mayfield feathered in a fantastic TD pass to Peoples-Jones, who nicely separated at the end to make a great catch on the side of the end zone. That was TD pass No. 5 on the day for Mayfield, tying a franchise record. For Mayfield, who was wretched in the Week 6 drubbing in Pittsburgh, it was an amazing turn of events and perception amongst Cleveland fans.
It wasn’t yet over, however. Burrow got the ball back with enough time for two plays. His Hail Mary into the end zone was nearly answered, but Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine smartly played what looked like an intentional tip play by the Bengals to end the game. Burrow was fantastic but Mayfield was better.
It was a draining 15 or so minutes of trying to stay focused and professional but also feeling the exhilaration of two thrilling comeback wins for the teams I cover. It doesn’t happen often. Cleveland is 5-2 and sitting in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race. Detroit is 3-3 and beating the bad teams (sorry Atlanta) they are supposed to, and they too are within spitting distance and a very favorable schedule from the NFC playoff berth they likely need to keep the GM/coach combo of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia. It’s the first time since 2014 that both teams have had non-losing records after two weeks at the same time.
$.04--What is it with the Dallas Cowboys staying prominent in the news despite being one of the three worst teams in the NFL? Sadly, the Cowboys are back for a bad reason.
A brutal reason.
Quarterback Andy Dalton had to leave Dallas’ 25-3 shellacking by the previously 1-win Washington Football Team after taking an ugly and completely unnecessary shot to the head. It’s not pretty to watch, but the video of Jon Bostic’s unapologetic cheap shot is available here.
Bostic was ejected and rightfully so. He should be suspended for the brutal shot at a sliding Dalton and for aiming directly for the veteran QB’s head. The hope is that Dalton will recover fully from the apparent concussion at some point, and the sooner the better.
It would be easy to excuse Dalton for taking his time coming back. The Cowboys are now 2-5 and just got lit up on defense by what had been the NFL’s weakest offense by a fair margin--and that’s in a league where the New York Jets still exist. No defense allows more points, yards per run or forces fewer takeaways. The Dallas offensive line is an injury-ravaged mess that cannot protect Dalton, that much is clear. They’re not opening holes in the run game for the slumping Zeke Elliott, either.
They’re going nowhere with the combination of Ben Dinucci and Garrett Gilbert as their QBs, not even in the truly awful NFC East. It’s a race to 6 wins for the division title, and right now Dallas is the least-impressive of the troika (DAL, WAS, PHI) that are but a third of the way there nearly halfway through the season.
$.05--Less than two months ago the Minnesota Vikings made what everyone considered a shrewd move in trading for EDGE Yannick Ngakoue from the Jaguars. Jacksonville didn’t want to pay the 25-year-old pass-rushing specialist his exorbitant contractual demands, so they shipped him to Minnesota for a 2nd round pick in 2021 and a conditional 5th-rounder in 2022.
I applauded that move for the Vikings. Ngakoue was a younger/faster/cheaper replacement for Everson Griffen on the edge, one that would keep Minnesota’s defense potent. And while Ngakoue didn’t play poorly for Minnesota, the Vikings certainly didn’t feel like they were getting enough return on their $12 million investment in Ngakoue for 2020. Minnesota traded Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens this week, getting back a 3rd rounder in ‘21 and a conditional 5th in 2022.
The Vikings got five sacks in six games from Ngakoue, but his net impact on the overall defense was not worth it. His run defense, never a strong suit in Jacksonville, cratered; Ngakoue carries the lowest run defense grade of any EDGE entering Week 7 according to Pro Football Focus, and the eye test confirms the PFF grade. He finished his pressures well but wasn’t generating enough of them, either.
There’s a lesson here. It seemed like a brilliant move for Minnesota, but the Ngakoue trade flopped. Beware declaring winners and losers too early. I still think Ngakoue is going to make a splash in Baltimore, where he’s not going to be required to be an impact every-down player. But I’ll reserve judgment on that until I see how he fits. Once bitten, twice shy.
$.06--It’s not often the New England Patriots are not a very good football team. After Sunday’s walloping at the hands of the visiting San Francisco 49ers, it’s very close to time to consider Bill Belichick’s Patriots a bad team.
San Francisco spanked the Patriots 33-6, the biggest margin of defeat at home in Belichick’s 21 seasons coaching in New England. It could have been even bigger if not for two Jimmy Garoppolo INTs and a litany of injuries suffered by the M.A.S.H. unit that is the 49ers.
It’s the first time in a very long time the Patriots looked outclassed all over the field. San Francisco had the better running offense. The 49ers had the better quarterback. They had the better pass rush. They had the better secondary. They might even have had the better gameplan, though it’s hard to tell what the Patriots were doing with Cam Netwon playing so poorly at QB.
Newton was dreadful. He was 9-of-15 for 98 yards but tossed 3 interceptions before giving way to Jarrett Stidham, the human white flag from Belichick. Stidham managed a bad INT too, just for good measure.
The Patriots fall to 2-4. They’ve lost two in a row since their bye week, to Denver and now the Niners. Next up are the division-leading Buffalo Bills, who eked out a gut-check 18-10 win over the miserable Jets despite not scoring a touchdown. Belichick’s Patriots are also looking up at the Miami Dolphins, who are on a bye at 3-3. If they don’t start playing better quickly, the incredible 17-year run of double-digit victories is coming to an end. With what they’ve got on the roster, it seems much more likely they’ll lose 10 or more games for the first time since Belichick’s first season in Foxboro way back in 2000.
$.07--Saturday marked the return of the Big Ten to the football field. It was a long time coming for the lifeblood of the Great Lakes region--where I live and where everyone had a bit more pep in their steps thanks to the return of our annual fall rite.
Okay, not everyone felt the pep. The Michigan State fans probably headed for the cider mill early as their Spartans got routed by Rutgers in the early game window. Maryland fans probably checked out quickly too after getting trounced 43-3 by Northwestern, though Maryland shouldn’t be in the Big Ten to begin with.
But the college football slate returning to near-full action--the MAC and PAC-12 kick off in the next two weeks--it was a void in life now filled. Ohio State rolling Nebraska after a competitive start, Indiana shocking Penn State in an overtime thriller, Purdue upsetting Iowa in another nailbiter, Michigan lighting up the night sky against what I expected to be a good Minnesota team, it was a fantastic day. There were some fun interlopers from other conferences too, including a fun Oklahoma State win over Iowa State to keep the Cowboys in the CFB Playoff mix.
I know many question the sanity and prudence of the decision to start playing college football in the middle of a pandemic, particularly at a time where positive test rates and infection numbers are skyrocketing in many places. COVID-19 remains a very real threat and it must be respected. But if the schools can operate this relatively safely, it’s a much-needed boost in the ravaged, fragile mental health of our country. It was quite noticeable here in Big Ten country.
--It’s been this kind of season in Houston. McClain fired this off at halftime with the Packers up 21-0...
After watching this debacle, when I get home tonight, I'm going to watch something that's easy and uplifting. Something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) October 25, 2020
--Drew Brees threw his 7,000th completion on Sunday in New Orleans’ close win over the Carolina Panthers. That’s the NFL record, of course. Tom Brady is 2nd on the list and actually closed the gap by four (he had 33 completions to Brees’ 29 on Sunday) in the Buccaneers’ too-easy romp over the Raiders. Brady remains over 450 behind.
--From the Sunday night game, Budda Baker makes a spectacular INT off Russell Wilson. DK Metcalf makes an even bigger one chasing down Baker to prevent the TD. Check out the graphic version of the incredible rundown:
D.K. Metcalf reached 22.64 MPH and traveled 114.8 yards to chase down Budda Baker on his 90-yard interception return (Baker's top speed: 21.27 MPH).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 26, 2020
This was the 2nd-fastest speed reached on a tackle this season.#SEAvsARI | #Seahawks | #RedSea pic.twitter.com/nyX0Y16LQz
The Seahawks defense held and forced a wild Kyler Murray heave on 4th down that fell incomplete. Metcalf’s effort and freakish speed saved the Seahawks a touchdown.
--Kansas City scored on offense, defense and special teams in routing the overmatched Broncos 43-16. The game was notable for being the first game played in 2020 with snow on the ground. Didn’t cool off the defending champs, who have looked very good the last two weeks after struggling over a couple of games.
--Keep an eye on a couple of disappointing teams with cap issues as potential sellers before the upcoming trade deadline: Minnesota and Houston. Thinking out loud and nothing more--Vikings safety Anthony Harris would be perfect for Cleveland.
--This is scary stuff:
I just saw the Jake Hansen (potential) concussion play from before— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) October 24, 2020
Yikes. Scary scene for the talented Illinois LB pic.twitter.com/Bk3OTXadnO
--My working comp for Clemson RB Travis Etienne is former Minnesota Vikings standout Robert Smith. Runs like this make me feel even better about that comparison:
TRAVIS ETIENNE OH MY🔥— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 24, 2020
--Catch. Of. The. Year.
This defies physics https://t.co/6QdgNbslkp— Justin (@afc2nfc) October 24, 2020
--Alabama lost WR Jaylen Waddle for the season with a broken ankle. Waddle was in prime contention for the top WR spot in this draft class and it’s a blow for the Crimson Tide too. It didn’t matter against Tennessee, but Waddle’s game-breaking speed and sticky hands will be missed when Alabama draws a tougher foe.
--Quietly, Marshall has thundered into the national rankings. The unbeaten Herd (5-0) are now in the top 20. Marshall won’t crash the playoff, nor should they with their soft C-USA schedule. Doesn’t matter. There is more to playing than chasing national championships. Winning a conference title with an unbeaten record, and the Herd stands a very good chance to pull that off, makes for a fantastic season in Huntington.
$.10--In the latest windmill for Americans to vitriolically tilt at, there will be no over-the-air broadcast of the seminal classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The staple of Halloween and childhood will not be on regular TV in 2020, nor will the (highly overrated) Thanksgiving special or the greatest Christmas special ever created, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Cue the (faux) outrage!
The specials were sold to AppleTV, where they will now air exclusively. No more tuning in to ABC to watch them as my kids have done for the last few years, as I did some 40 years ago and as my parents did in the 1960s.
Is it a bummer? Yeah. I don’t have AppleTV and I’m not signing up for the pay service just to watch something I’ve seen scores of times already. But enough with the aghast “the world’s going to hell and this is why” craziness. To quote Charlie Brown, good grief.
If you really have your heart set on watching any of the Charlie Brown holiday specials, you’ve certainly seen them before. Like me, you probably have them on DVD. I had them on VHS, too. A quick internet search brought up multiple online sources--many of them legal--where you can watch any of them on demand whenever you want, too. The three-pack of DVDs was on sale at my local gas station for $7.
I’ll gladly pay $7 to watch TV for 30 minutes without any political ads these days. Heck, that’s even worth sitting through the dreadful “B-side” of the Thanksgiving episode.
Would it be better if we could happen upon the nostalgia as we scurry across the cable guide to avoid watching another prolapsed uterus on Dr. Pol or the latest remodeling show that spends tens of thousands more overhauling an old house than it would take to demo the whole thing and start from scratch? Yes, sure it would. But that’s not how TV works anymore. In Charlie Brown Halloween parlance, you get a rock. But if the shows mean that much to you, there are ways to keep Lucy from yanking the football away. Try them instead of adding to the cacophony of negativity that enshrouds our nation.