$.01--The top of the AFC was decided in two games on Sunday, and the balance of power shifted with the results. The new kings of the AFC hill are in Buffalo and Los Angeles, while Kansas City and Cleveland are looking up from lofty but precarious perches of their own.
The Chargers beat the Browns, 47-42, in a game almost completely devoid of defense on both sides of the ball. Los Angeles came up with one critical stop late in the fourth quarter and it made all the difference in their win, a game that featured 8 touchdowns in the second half. Justin Herbert outgunned Baker Mayfield in the matchup of two of the NFL’s top young QBs.
The Chargers benefitted from a truly terrible pass interference call, but also some poor play calls down the stretch by the Cleveland offense. Between Herbert and an impressive offensive line, the 4-1 Chargers look to be the class of the West. But there is another…
Buffalo pounded Kansas City in a game that didn’t end on Sunday. A lengthy storm delay couldn’t cloud how impressive the Bills looked in surging to 4-1 and dropping the Chiefs to 2-3 and last place in the West. Josh Allen was the better quarterback over Patrick Mahomes, and the Bills defense was the far better prepared and sharper unit to their counterparts for the home team.
The Bills needed to prove themselves in a challenging game, something they havent really had this year. Consider that box checked in the thickest Sharpie available. Buffalo looks as complete as a team can through five weeks, Sean McDermott has done a masterful job of getting the right pieces in the right places to do exactly what he wants. His decision to not pressure Mahomes paid off, crowding throwing lanes and gumming up the big-play works. Allen played smart, seemingly always knowing where his best option was on each play.
Baltimore is 3-1 and plays Indianapolis on Monday night with the chance to move into the conversation at the top too, but right now it’s pretty clear the two best teams are the Bills and Chargers with fewer teams than expected scurrying for the top of the next tier below them.
$.02--It’s going to be very strange in Week 6 when the Seattle Seahawks take the field and Russell Wilson won’t be their starting quarterback. But that’s the mountain the Seahawks must climb for the next few weeks.
Wilson badly injured a finger in Seattle’s loss to the Rams on Thursday night. He hit Aaron Donald’s hand with his follow-through on a pass, resulting in a torn ligament and a fracture. What happened to Wilson is commonly known as “mallet finger” and, in his case, it required surgery. Wilson will be out for at least four weeks and could miss 8-10 if the progress doesn’t follow the best-case outcome.
Geno Smith is the new starter in Seattle, the first player to start a game for the Seahawks since Tarvaris Jackson in the final game of the 2011 season. Smith did a reasonable impression of Wilson in Thursday’s loss, matching Wilson’s TD and INT total and looking competent in emergency relief. He’s thrown just 101 passes since 2014 as a vagabond backup and has never really engendered much confidence in extended action, however.
That won’t be good enough for Seattle, which continues to flounder with one of the NFL’s worst defenses. They gave up another 476 yards and 24 first downs to the Rams on a night where L.A. quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t have his best either despite a gaudy stat line. Now 2-3, losing Wilson for even a month is almost certainly a death blow for Pete Carroll’s Seahawks.
$.03--Sunday’s viewing started earlier than normal thanks to the NFL exporting the Jets and Falcons game to London. After the display of “football” between two of the NFL’s worst, they might not want more anytime soon.
The Jets and Falcons took to Tottenham and showed the English fans what everyone in America already knew: the Jets are not good at football things. The 27-20 final score is somewhat deceptive; Atlanta raced out to a 17-0 lead after the first three possessions for each team, where the Jets failed to pick up a first down. It was the breakout game Atlanta had been waiting for from rookie TE Kyle Pitts, aided in part by the Jets trying to cover him on a TD reception with DE John Franklin-Myers. Much of what New York tried to do didn’t make much sense to the Americans in the audience. Imagine the poor Brits trying to decipher the intricacies of American football from watching overwhelmed rookie Zach Wilson and the Jets.
Matt Ryan became just the seventh passer to ever complete 5,000 passes by tacking on 33 against New York. Ryan has a Rookie of the Year award, an NFL MVP, and he ranks in the top 10 of nearly every passing category you can list. Yet Ryan never gets mentioned among the top QB historically. Consider that Ryan has 35 more completions on almost 700 fewer attempts than Dan Marino, and the same amount of Super Bowl appearances. But if you tried to tell anyone that Ryan belongs in the same conversation as Marino, you will absolutely get laughed off the stage. Perception matters.
The NFL announced plans to expand the international series into Germany, perhaps as early as next year. Football in Germany was a huge hit in the old NFL Europe, where five teams were based in the country when that league folded (RIP) in 2007. It’s something the NFL has long sought--a more permanent presence across the Atlantic. The 17-game schedule makes it a natural addition as a neutral-site game for the odd number.
Fun fact: The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team to never play in the international series. Look for that to change quickly when the league increases its presence in Germany.
$.04--This is one of those weeks where the off-field action trumped the on-field product for too many teams. And unfortunately, it’s a familiar scene for Washington…
The Washington Football Team saw their training facility swarming with DEA agents this week as part of an investigation surrounding team trainer Ryan Vermillion. The feds executed search warrants and were present at both team facilities and Vermillion’s home in Loudon County. No exact details about the sordid details of the investigation exist yet, but you can find a lot of really fun speculative rabbit holes if you go looking around. Most involve illegal distribution of prescription drugs, which Vermillion is not legally licensed to give out.
To this point, the focus is strictly on Vermillion, who came to the WFT along with head coach Ron Rivera from the Carolina Panthers. He’s been suspended by the team. The WFT just happens to be where he works, but it’s still unsettling to hear about the lead trainer of an NFL team being the subject of a massive DEA investigation. It’s the same team that was fined $10 million earlier this year for an unprofessional workplace that fostered bullying and lacked accountability. And that’s only partially related to the scandal involving the WFT’s blatant, illegal and illicit sexual harassment of their own cheerleading staff that included a video of outtake reels of the women in various states of nudity.
The Football Team does still manage to play football despite the chaos surrounding the organization. Well, kind of anyway. After scoring on their first three drives, Washington managed to turn the ball over 4 times (2 INTs, 2 on downs) and squander the early lead in a 33-22 loss to the Saints. Washington’s defense, which on paper appeared to be one of the NFL’s toughest entering the season, has given up an average of 34 points per game in the last four weeks.
$.05--Washington is tangentially guilty by association to the uproar over Jon Gruden and an allegedly racist email Gruden sent on the subject of NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. Gruden is in some serious hot water for the decade-old email that dates to his time as an ESPN broadcaster. The email from Gruden was to then-WFT GM Bruce Allen and it predates Gruden’s brother, Jay, working for the WFT as their head coach.
Raiders owner Mark Davis issued a rather stern statement shortly after the contents of the email surfaced.
That’s Davis not backing away from publicly rebuking his celebrity head coach. Even though this was years before Davis hired Gruden, the statement gives the indication that it might be the reason Gruden gets fired. I don’t expect that to happen, but a suspension seems likely even though the emails came when Gruden was not employed by the NFL.
Gruden’s Raiders didn’t help their coach with a flat performance in a 20-9 loss to the Bears. The Chicago defense played well, but the Las Vegas offense seemed out of sync and the offensive line overwhelmed by the task. Justin Fields wasn’t great under center for Chicago but made just enough plays to even both teams’ records at 3-2.
$.06--Urban Meyer remains the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, though his grasp on the job is tenuous at best. After his Jags lost their 20th game in a row (only five on Meyer’s watch) in typically uncompetitive fashion, it’s hard to not think Jacksonville owner Shad Khan doesn’t have his hand on the plug ready to yank it from Meyer’s back.
Meyer publicly embarrassed the organization by cavorting with co-eds after last week’s loss. He didn’t return to Jacksonville with his team but stayed behind instead to be with his family, and that turned into a salacious meme sensation. Any chance Meyer had to win the trust and respect of his players back slipped further away in a lopsided 37-19 loss to a depleted Tenneseee Titans team. It was 31-13 into the fourth quarter as Jacksonville squandered some scoring opportunities.
At 0-5, Jacksonville is one of two winless teams remaining. The other is Detroit, who fell in heartbreaking fashion on a last-secodn field goal. Instead of galavanting off with women who aren’t his wife, Lions head coach Dan Campbell cried in his postgame press conference because he wanted them to win so badly it physically hurt him to lose. Campbell will be fine in Detroit; the players absolutely love him and respect him. Nobody will ever say that about Meyer in Jacksonville.
$.07--Saturday was one of the most epically memorable days of college football in a long time. It was a day that showed how easy it is to lose yourself into the college game.
In the early viewing window, the Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma and the SEC shootout between Ole Miss and Arkansas played out concurrently and each are instant classics.
I returned from my son’s basketball event and flipped on the television to find Texas leading Oklahoma 41-23. The Sooners had benched preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler at QB in favor of freshman Caleb Williams at halftime and it worked. Williams sparked an epic comeback in a thrilling contest. Texas’ offense had two bad series in a row and that was all Williams and WR Marvin Mims needed to author the amazing comeback win. A 25-point fourth-quarter outburst led the Sooners to the 55-48 comeback win in a truly fun game to watch with no rooting interest.
The same was true of the Arkansas/Mississppi matchup. Several late lead changes and dramatic plays kept everyone glued to the screen--when they weren’t transfixed by the OU/Texas game. Ole Miss held on when Arkansas’ 2-pt. conversion failed after scoring a touchdown on the game’s final play. It was a draining experience even for me, someone with no skin in the game. But wait, there’s more…
Iowa and Penn State, two top-5 teams, played an intensely close game. The Hawkeyes comeback win, aided in part by Penn State injuries at QB, wasn’t exactly great football, but it was a high-stakes game with max effort oozing out of every player on every snap. Notre Dame stunned Virginia Tech in another close game, followed by Michigan squeaking past Nebraska.
As the Wolverines were improving to 6-0, the nation’s eyes turned to College Station. Texas A&M managed to stun No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal that wasn’t good until it bent inside the left upright just before sailing over the crossbar. And this one had everyone glued to the set.
I never expected the Aggies to come back after blowing the long-held lead. Their offense had been so anemic and the Crimson Tide was flowing with confidence. But a stirring drive from QB Zach Calzada tied it up, and TAMU quickly snuffed out Alabama’s offense with a too-quick 3-and-out. Seth Small’s FG as time expired set off a social media explosion and an audible cheer in my neighborhood near Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Such a thrilling day in the world of college football! It reminds us that the game can still be a lot of fun.
--The Bengals and Packers combined to miss five field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime before Green Bay’s Mason Crosby finally made one (his 4th of the day) to lift the Packers to their fourth straight win. They weren’t the only teams with kicking issues…
From ESPN Stats & Info:
Entering Sunday Night Football, there have been 12 missed FG and 12 missed extra points in Week 5. Since the extra point was moved back in 2015, Week 5 of this season is the first week in that span to have double-digit missed field goals AND double-digit missed extra points.
--For the second time in three weeks, the Detroit Lions lost by a 19-17 score on a career-long FG from the opposing kicker as time expired. In Week 3 it was Justin Tucker setting the NFL record with his 66-yard game-winner. On Sunday, Minnesota’s Greg Joseph nailed a 54-yarder over the same goal he came up short on a 49-yard attempt earlier in the second half.
--Arizona stayed unbeaten with a tough divisional win over the San Francisco 49ers. The Cardinals won this one on defense, and that’s a very scary proposition for the rest of the NFC.
--Both Bengals QB Joe Burrow and Browns LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah were taken to local hospitals after their team’s losses with throat contusions. I’ve never heard of that exact injury before, but hearing about big-name players taking ambulances for evaluation for the unusual malady is concerning.
--Speaking of injuries, the New York Giants might need a few new offensive weapons after Sunday’s blowout loss to Dallas. RB Saquon Barkley (ankle), QB Daniel Jones (concussion), and WRs Kenny Golladay (knee) all left the game. Already on the sidelines: OT Andrew Thomas (foot), WR Sterling Shepard (hamstring) and WR Darius Slayton (hamstring). Some will return for Week 6, but that’s effectively every important player on the offense missing in action.
--I really enjoyed “The Move” short film on the CBS pregame show, documenting how a fraternity packed up the Baltimore Colts facility in one night to facilitate the team’s move to Indianapolis. Very well-done. As someone who lived on the other end of the move--my family moved to Indianapolis (from Cleveland, ironically enough down the line) three months earlier--it sure struck home. It sure beat the pointless yelling and (deliberately?) unfunny skits that predominate the network pregame yakfests.
--Sometimes you just have to see a play to believe it. That’s the case with this wild one between South Dakota State and Southern Illinois, two of the best teams in the FCS:
This might be the craziest play of the weekend 🤯🤯— PFF (@PFF) October 9, 2021
--Georgia is the deserving new No. 1 team after pasting a ranked Auburn team on Saturday. It needs to be mentioned they’re on top despite rolling with a backup quarterback, Stetson Bennett, under center. Their defense is going to be very difficult to beat.
--Ohio State has rebounded quite nicely from the early-season loss to Oregon. Since losing to the Ducks, the Buckeyes have won 41-20, 59-7, 52-13 and 66-17. C.J. Stroud at QB gets the attention, but quietly the defense is figuring itself out too. The degree of difficulty amps up with games against top-10 foes Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan still on the slate. If the Buckeyes somehow run the table, that murderer’s row schedule makes them a lock for the playoff. I don’t expect it to happen, but Ryan Day’s team is playing some great football lately.
--I do not have a Heisman vote but if I did, it would currently go to Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker. In 6 games, Walker has run for almost 1,000 yards and 9 TDs at over 7 yards per carry. He’s doing it behind an offensive line that is average on its best day, too. His 94-yard TD scamper is the kind of moment that can catapult him to the win, too.
--It might be time to take Kentucky seriously. The Wildcats declawed LSU, 42-21, to remain unbeaten. Then again, LSU isn’t what it used to be. We’ll learn a lot about Kentucky next week when they play No. 1 Georgia. Don’t write them off just because “it’s Kentucky”--they’re a proudly physical team that plays with confidence and attitude on both sides of the ball.
--Wake Forest could wind up running the table in the ACC. The Demon Deacons are 6-0 and have themselves a quarterback in Sam Hartman to go with a balanced ground game. There is only one ranked team left on their schedule and it’s not Clemson, but rather North Carolina State. Trips to Clemson and UNC will not be easy, but Wake Forest has the ability to go 12-0 and make for some very uncomfortable playoff discussions for a team that didn’t even appear in the “others getting votes” in the (completely worthless) preseason polls.
$.10--My friend Ty Schalter is an incredible writer, and his writing transcends the sports he covers. He penned a great piece this week that really hit home for me.
Ty is a Detroit Lions fan and writer, my predecessor as the managing editor of Lions Wire at USA TODAY. He understands the soul-sucking toll it takes to cover a team you are also a fan of, and he nailed it in his latest “Gimmie Schalter” newsletter.
Every sportswriter will tell you that covering a sport for a living, especially in an access-driven role, changes your relationship to that sport. You lose your “fan card” pretty quick when the players stop being heroes on TV and start being Guys At Work.
It becomes impossible to watch the sport without your analyst brain kicking in: spotting formations and matchups, scouting positive and negative traits. Even if you’re covering the team you grew up loving, your emotional reaction to its every success and failure is dipped in layers of your emotional reaction to what it means for the players involved, what it means to the fans (who are your audience), what it means for the reaction-story idea you’ve been nursing, the season-long narrative you’ve been spinning, the Bold Prediction you made on Friday.
It becomes impossible to casually talk sports with people, because they ask for your professional opinion – and then cut you off and tell you their opinion, and expect you to certify it as Correct even if they’re talking out their absolute ass.
Boy does that strike a chord. It’s not something Ty or I like to complain about publicly. We do a job that is a dream for a lot of folks, and we appreciate the opportunity. It’s a great gig. But it is, in fact, a lot of work. It’s draining. It’s difficult to try and be a fan and also write objectively about a team--especially one as historically unsuccessful as the Detroit Lions.
I watch an insane amount of football. In the last week I watched 11 full NFL games, two of them twice in all-22 (I also work at Browns Wire) and wrote 84 pieces (not counting last week’s $.10) for publication from Monday thru Sunday. I watched in-depth film on five college prospects as well, plus good portions of several college games from Thursday night through Saturday. Oh yeah, I did 90 minutes in the radio studio at 96.1 The Game in Grand Rapids on Monday, six radio interviews, one TV spot (thanks FOX 17) and five podcasts including the Detroit Lions Podcast that I co-host every Wednesday night. I love it, but it’s my work and I take that seriously.
It’s very difficult to turn off the football brain. I don’t much enjoy watching football very often--it’s work for me. As Schalter so keenly observed, it’s not something people who don’t do it can comprehend.
I don’t mind the casual conversations with folks at my daughter’s volleyball matches or at the gym. I get it--I’m the football media guy and you want to chat. I really enjoy a lot of those, honestly. When it gets weird is when people I only know as acquaintances want to dissect the minutiae of the games and I just want to finish my fish taco, or try and catch my breath after running a 5k, and try to be off-duty for a few minutes. So consider this an apology in advance if I’m terse or distant if you want to talk football and I’m not with laptop open. Thanks Ty, for saying what needs to be said but we can’t always say.