$.01--Tom Brady made his triumphant return to New England, playing against the Patriots in Foxboro for the first time. Unless you live under a rock, you knew all about that already. It was the most hyped-up regular season game in memory, with promotions worthy of cinematic showings trumpeting the epic matchup between TB12 and Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
Even a steady rain couldn’t dampen the over-the-top hype. The game was credentialed for more media than cover the World Series. All 600-plus media in Gillette Stadium witnessed a close, competitive but not particularly well-played game from either team. Tampa Bay prevailed 19-17 when Patriots kicker Nick Folk doinked a 57-yard potential game-winner off the left upright with less than a minute to play.
Brady’s Bucs played without several regulars, notably Gronk at tight end. It didn’t stop Brady from breaking the NFL’s all-time passing yardage mark, surpassing Drew Brees. It also didn’t stop Brady from outrushing the entire Patriots team; Brady ran four times for 3 yards, including kneeldowns at the end. The Buccaneers managed minus-1 net rushing yards on 8 carries, only two of which gained any yards at all. It was that kind of game.
Brady was gracious and thoughtful in his postgame interview, reflectively thanking the Patriots fans for their years of support. He was clearly relieved the game was over and the focus on him as the only storyline was done. That is not something either he or Belichick asked for, and their years of actions prove they’re both all about the team and the outcome, not the individual battles.
Keeping that focus on the team over the individual, it’s a huge win for the 3-1 Buccaneers. They moved into a first-place tie with the Panthers in the NFC South and stayed ahead of a crowd of 2-2 teams in the NFC. The loss drops Belichick’s Patriots to 1-3 and in a 3-way tie for last in the AFC East, with everyone looking way up at the Buffalo Bills.
$.02--Sunday’s late afternoon window was all about the NFC West (apologies to Green Bay and their waxing of Pittsburgh). And the day ended with the Arizona Cardinals alone in first at 4-0 and the rest of the division thoroughly up in the air.
The Cardinals bombarded the previously unbeaten Rams, 37-20, blowing open a close first half with the vaunted “score before halftime and then score on the first drive of the third quarter” wraparound. Arizona’s offense could not be stopped, scoring 4 TDs and 3 FGs on eight possessions after an initial 3-and-out. It was a balanced attack, with the Cardinals topping 200 yards on both the ground and the air on a series of long scoring drives that wore out the Rams defense.
Matthew Stafford and the Rams offense only got three drives after the half, and the missed FG--on a questionable decision to kick it--on L.A.’s first second-hald drive effectively ended the game right there. Stafford was good but not great, and his uneven first-half performance wasn’t good enough to overcome a defense that couldn’t get off the field. It was evident the Cardinals had the better all-around offense and a dialed-in Kyler Murray to orchestrate a huge win.
While the Cardinals were running away at the top, the Seattle Seahawks evened up the bottom by beating the 49ers, 28-21. Seattle’s offense managed four touchdowns despite only picking up 14 total first downs and going 3-and-out the first five times the Seahawks had the ball. The Niners offense couldn’t make enough plays to capitalize, and the special teams really let down San Francisco. It was the kind of game that could spell a quick end to Trenton Cannon’s time with the team with three special teams gaffes, aside from a missed FG from emergency kicker Mitch Wishnowsky.
An injury to Jimmy Garoppolo made way for Trey Lance time, and that didn’t go so well either for the Niners offense. Seattle’s defense perked up its coverage and the rookie struggled to find targets and pull the trigger on time. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense cashed in opportunities effectively and shrugged off the abysmal start to run away with the win.
Both the Seahawks and Niners are now 2-2, but the divisional road win gives the Seahawks the tiebreaker. Expect those tie-break factors to be huge as the season plays out with four viable playoff teams packed into one division. For now, Arizona is the cream of the crop.
$.03--The Bears are about to relocate from the Chicago lakefront home they’ve had for 50 years. Team ownership signed a purchase agreement for a hefty sum to buy the old Arlington Park race track northwest of O’Hare Airport and well away from downtown Chicago.
It’s a move the city of Chicago will fight, but the inevitability of the team moving to Arlington Heights is only delayed by how quickly the team can convert the old horse track into a football facility. The days of Soldier Field, which has been open for 100 years and where the Bears have played since 1971, are mercifully coming to a close.
I say mercifully because Soldier Field is simply not a suitable venue in today’s NFL anymore. The renovation from a couple decades ago turned the grand old arena into a weird spectacle, almost as if an alien spacecraft landed on top of the old structure. It’s an uncomfortable stadium with limited seating (the smallest in the NFL) and subject to exaggerated weather conditions along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Parking and exiting are a major chore, much more limited than Indianapolis or Detroit or Houston or even another lakefront facility, FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
There is already talk of a dome, a new colossus that can host events like the Final Four, a bowl game and perhaps even an Olympic bid. The location is more easily accessible, sandwiched between two big highways and with easy access in all directions, as well as a Metra station designed for high volume. Obviously, it's not as easy for fans from the south side of Chicago or the NW Indiana exurbs, but that’s an unfortunate tradeoff of modern geopolitics.
By the time the new facility is ready, which won’t be until at least 2025, the Bears might actually have both a franchise QB and a playoff-caliber defense. Who knows, maybe the move is what the team needs to put those two hands together. Playing with just one of those hands for nearly the entire tenure in Soldier Field was killing the franchise and a fan base long past ready to win.
The Bears did pick up a nice 24-14 win over the mistake-prone Lions on Sunday, which should put a little short-term lipstick on the pig that is the Matt Nagy era in Chicago.
$.04--How much longer will Urban Meyer last as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars? The clock sure is ticking in a lot of inquiring minds after his Jaguars blew a 14-0 lead and lost to the Bengals on Thursday night.
The Jaguars are 0-4. Trevor Lawrence, through only some fault of his own, has lost as many games in his first month in the NFL as he did in high school and college combined. But the focus is on the man in charge of the team.
Meyer has never handled losing well. And he’s never lost like this. Even at Bowling Green, Meyer found almost instant success at picking up a doormat team and turning them into champions. Utah, Florida, Ohio State, rinse and repeat at increasingly high levels. His college record is an absurdly successful 187-32. But Meyer is quickly learning that the NFL is a very different scene from college, even if he still enjoys the occasional interactions with co-eds.
It surprised many, myself included, when Meyer agreed to leave the cushy world of television and take the Jaguars' job. He was a venerated hero on the FOX college gameday set, with fans chanting for him to take over their college program at every stop--even Michigan. Now he’s experiencing what Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and other collegiate coaching legends have found out the hard way--what works in college doesn’t translate to the NFL. Given Meyer’s history of bailing at the first sign of adversity, the clock is ticking on his disastrous turn in Duval.
$.05--Three teams who entered Week 4 unbeaten picked up their first losses. One of the teams in the Cardinals-Rams matchup had to lose, so that one was a given. The other two teams to fall from the unblemished ranks were the Panthers and the Broncos.
Dallas had its way with the Panthers, pulling away from a close early game to seize a 36-14 lead halfway through the fourth quarter before Carolina made the score a more respectable 36-28 final. A ruthlessly efficient Dak Prescott carved up what had been a very strong Panthers defense, which could not stop the run at all either. Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard went over 200 combined rushing yards on 30 carries as Dallas controlled the game script. Creating two second-half takeaways was something the Cowboys defense sorely needed to prove itself, and sending the Panthers to the loss in the process is an even sweetere development for the 3-1 Cowboys, who are the clear class of the NFC East.
Denver got to 3-0 by beating three teams that had yet to win entering Week 4 (NYG, JAX, NYJ) and the emperor’s clothes transparently evaporated under the bright light that the Ravens shone upon them. Losing QB Teddy Bridgewater did not help Denver, but even Bridgewater at his best was going to struggle against Baltimore’s aggressive, well-coordinated defense. After the Broncos took a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter, the Ravens defense smothered them. Baltimore limited Denver to just 8 first downs in as many drives, creating 7 punts and an interception. The Broncos D was game despite some attrition in the secondary, and that’s a positive for Denver to regroup around.
Their losses leave just the Cardinals and the Raiders (playing the Chargers on Monday night) as the only unbeaten teams. And the Cardinals have toughies on deck with San Francisco and Cleveland. If the Raiders survive Monday night, their schedule sets up nicely for Las Vegas to be the last remaining unbeaten team. That’s not something many people betting in Vegas would have wagered on…
$.06--From the pinnacle to the pit. It is a long way down…
The Jaguars and Lions remain winless. The New York Giants, New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts left their winless ways behind with victories in Week 4.
The Giants handled a late-game deficit against the visiting Saints capably. Down 21-10 with a little over 7 minutes to go, the G-men leaned on their offensive standouts and a couple of key stops by the defense to claw back. Daniel Jones engineered an impressive game-tying FG drive inside the final two minutes with several good decisions. Saquon Barkley ended it in overtime with a close-call TD plunge to secure the victory. The fired-up Giants finally played with some confidence on both sides of the ball.
The other denizens of MetLife Stadium also broke into the win column. The Jets invaded Nashville and escaped with an overtime win of their own over the gaffe-prone Titans. It was a game neither team appeared all that motivated to win, but give the Jets credit for making plays and not folding when the Titans tied the game in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. The Jets defense played as well as a team that surrendered 157 rushing yards to Derrick Henry and almost 300 yards passing to Ryan Tannehill--playing without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown--can play.
The Colts finally got a passable performance from Carson Wentz in throttling the banged-up Dolphins, 27-17. Wentz nicely avoided mistakes and dialed up just enough plays to outduel one of his Indianapolis QB predecessors, Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins were flat and outclassed, tacking on a garbage-time TD to make ti closer than the contest really was. The win lifts the Colts to just one game behind the Titans in the AFC South, which is quickly shaping up to be a division where the first team to 7 wins runs away and hides with the playoff berth.
And then there were two winless teams, Detroit and Jacksonville.
A quick look at the schedule gives the Jaguars a reasonable shot at winning in Week 5. They host the Titans and get them after the built-in mini-bye from playing on Thursday night, while the Titans played an extra quarter of a physical game on Sunday. Detroit heads to Minnesota, which fell at home to Cleveland in a defensive slugfest. The Lions offense isn’t beating a good defense, period.
$.07--It seems odd to get Super Bowl news in late September, but the NFL will never refuse an opportunity to remind anyone of the most visible sporting event on the planet. And the league, along with corporate sponsorship partners (they’re not paying me so I won’t mention them here) revealed the musical acts for the most-watched musical performance of the year--the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s a step in a bolder direction for the NFL.
Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar will share the stage in Los Angeles in February. It’s a hip-hop takeover from the more family-friendly, pop-oriented offerings of recent years. While that’s not my musical persuasion, I applaud the NFL for not shying away from going with a collection of artists that is outside their typical comfort zone.
It’s interesting to have so many headliners. Any of those artists could have been a headliner on their own. And that’s where the issue might come in. The halftime show is a 15-minute spectacle. Simple math dictates that each artist gets just 3 minutes apiece. That is watering down or rushing the issue. Even pairing Snoop, Dre and Eminem for 2-3 songs still soaks up over half the show. Less might have been more here. They could have been just fine with Dre and Snoop holding court, maybe having Kendrick Lamar as a special guest appearance.
It’s an exciting new direction in embracing artists whose music doesn’t have universal appeal. It opens the door for a harder-edge rock act like Metallica, or a strictly country-themed halftime jamboree. Eminem, Dre and Snoop all have recognizable hits for fans outside the hip-hop umbrella. It should be fun and I’m more excited for it than I have been in years, and again--it’s not my style of music.
--An unexpected defensive struggle broke out in Minnesota between the Browns and Vikings. Cleveland won despite a bad game from Baker Mayfield. That’s bad news for the rest of the league; not that the Browns are overly dependent upon Mayfield to win, but the fact they can still win when he’s not playing well is an indcation of how good these Browns really are.
Fun fact I just discovered researching this column: Since the start of last season, only two NFL games have been won with 14 points or fewer.— Jason Lloyd (@ByJasonLloyd) October 4, 2021
The Browns have both of them. The 10-7 win over the Texans last year in awful weather and today. That’s it. That’s the list.
--Three AFC North teams are 3-1. That’s not terribly surprising. What might catch folks off-guard is that one of those teams is Cincinnati and the team that isn’t is Pittsburgh. To call the Steelers offense anemic is an insult to the iron-deficient. In the last two weeks the Bengals and Packers defenses have dared Ben Roethlisberger to try and beat them down the field and he quite clearly cannot. Hard to see Pittsburgh escaping the cellar here even with the Bengals being iffy and both the Browns and Ravens not playing as consistently well as expected in spote of their 3-1 records.
--In the “was it Sam Darnold or the Jets?” conundrum, it was probably the Jets…
Sam Darnold is the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 5 touchdowns within his team's first 4 games of the season (h/t @EliasSports).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 3, 2021
Darnold has rushed for more touchdowns than the Jets have scored this season. pic.twitter.com/stm71jIz05
--Buffalo blew the doors off Houston, 40-0. It might have been the worst offensive performance ever by the Texans, who somehow managed to have a negative net passing yardage total into the fourth quarter. Davis Mills and the Texans picked up two first downs before the fourth quarter. Mills threw four INTs to a Bills defense that, to their immense credit, didn’t appear to get bored or tired of beating up the wimpy Houston attack.
Buffalo has two of the league’s three shutout wins in 2021 and has now scored at least 35 points three weeks in a row. While the degree of difficulty on the schedule is akin to Alabama’s pre-SEC slate, it’s still mighty impressive work by Sean McDermott’s crew.
--Cincinnati went into South Bend and proved their legitimacy with an impressive 24-13 win over Notre Dame. While quarterback Desmond Ridder gets a lot of the attention from the fans and the draftniks, but the story for me was the Bearcats defense. Cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner continues to look like a top-20 pick, a viable shutdown corner with the athleticism and instincts to translate to the next level.
One of my focuses was on Myjai Sanders. He’s an inline DE for Luke Fickell’s Bearcats but projects as a stand-up EDGE in the NFL (think Robert Quinn). Sanders played better than his box score stats (1 TFL, 2 QB pressures) would indicate. I needed to see him leverage the outside in the run game and he did so against the Irish OL capably. Sanders’ ability to attack the inside shoulder and then work back outside, or vice versa, portends well. He’s not an exceptional rusher but has the trappings of a quality No. 2 pass rusher on an NFL team.
--Georgia 37, Arkansas 0. Wow. Just a week ago I wrote in this space about how impressive Arkansas has been in earning a top-10 ranking. For Georgia to so thoroughly eviscerate the Razorbacks is wildly impressive. I know Alabama was also quite awesome in beating a good Ole Miss team more convincingly than the 42-21 final score, but it would be hard for me to note vote Georgia as the No. 1 team in the country after this weekend.
--Count Oregon out of the national playoff picture after the Ducks lost in overtime in front of dozens at Stanford. No. 3 Oregon blew a late lead against the Cardinal, who tied the game on the final play of regulation. It was a rough outing for the Ducks offense and QB Anthony Brown, and that includes a major injury to top RB C.J. Verdell that will be a problem going forward.
--After five weeks of action, there is only one team in the MAC with just one loss. Kudos to Western Michigan and coach Tim Lester for being the best team in the league after beating back Buffalo. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention my Ohio Bobcats notching their first win of the season, knocking off Akron.
--Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker continues to impress both NFL scouts and Heisman voters. Walker churned out 126 yards and 3 TDs--nearly all in the first half--of the Spartans’ 48-31 win over pass-happy Western Kentucky. Walker has a lot of similarities as a runner to Cleveland's Kareem Hunt, another thick-legged back with great feet, balance through contact and outstanding burst out of lateral cuts. He’s doing it every week. Draft board riser, ladies and gentlemen.
I watched the game to get a fuller picture of WKU QB Bailey Zappe, who has some eye-popping numbers. Zappe, a transfer from Houston Baptist, thrives in the up-tempo and quick-read game, but he’s not just pigeonholed there. He has some pocket sense and escapability and doesn’t shy away from attacking down the field. I’ve now seen Zappe against Indiana and Michigan State and would file him with a draftable grade, albeit late in the draft. He’s got a chance to stick around the NFL as a backup in a Kubiak/Shanahan system for a long time.
$.10--Most weekdays from 2-4 p.m. you’ll catch me for at least part of the day listening to Eddie Trunk’s show on Sirius XM volume. When I’m not doing something football-related, I’m a music aficionado, and Trunk favors my style of music.
For those who don’t know Trunk, he’s a former record label exec and host of That Metal Show (among many other things). He’s great at seeing through the haze and peeling back the curtain on the music industry. And one of the reasons why I’m an avid listener is because I find so many parallels between what Trunk talks about in the music industry and the business side of football. How each industry is handling the COVID-19 pandemic and reintegrating fans while also trying to respect those who choose not to get vaccinated is very interesting.
Trunk has been hammering the point for months that touring--the primary (and often only) revenue source for musical acts these days--features a tug-of-war between bands wanting to do whatever they can to get in front of paying customers but also battling the realities of the global pandemic. One of my favorite bands, Avatar, had to fight that battle recently with their opening act, Tallah.
Avatar kicked Tallah off the tour after a major COVID-19 outbreak within the opening act. The Avatar touring party has been strict in keeping within its bubble. No backstage fans, no lucrative meet-and-greets, no fraternizing after the show or risking the golden goose that is the tour schedule. Tallah, an up-and-coming nu-metal act, flaunted those protocols and paid the price.
For those who advocate for universal vaccination status, this is your angle. Not being vaccinated means being responsible for the ramifications of not being vaccinated. And that’s not just the risk of the illness. It’s the risk of being incapable of working, of not being permitted entry into certain businesses who choose to enforce their fiercely protected right to refuse services. The freedom of personal responsibility comes with the burden of personal responsibility.
As Trunk often says, it’s up to each person to weigh the value of the impact of their choices. And he’s right. For some, not getting vaccinated is important enough for them to deal with the potential consequences. That needs to be respected, even if you don’t like it or understand it. But it must also come with the reality that it might be the wrong decision for the masses, and that is not a bridge that has been built, or even started construction, by the loudest voices on either side of the debate. To quote Avatar, Hail the Apocalypse…