Monday Morning Digest: The NFL Is Fun Again, Especially If You're the Patriots
The games were better this week. Much better. Thank heavens.
Packers-Falcons was a gem. Seahawks-Saints came down to the final play. Redskins-Bengals was a tie, but it was an exciting tie, full of subplots and momentum shifts. Even Jets-Browns, a clash between the two worst teams outside of the AFC South, featured quarterback intrigue, a second-half comeback and plenty of exciting moments.
Fun football is back. At least for a week. Or until the league starts issuing fines for Sunday's touchdown celebrations.
Digest is here to catch you up on all the games mentioned above, plus:
- Travis Kelce's sexy game against the Colts
- The NFC's full-scale descent into mediocrity (hey, not all the news is good!)
- The Greatest Battle of Rookie Quarterbacks since the last Greatest Battle of Rookie Quarterbacks
And much more. Starting with this earth-shattering headline:
The Patriots are good.
Top Story: The Patriots Rule, and It Isn't Even Close
Why don't we just cancel the rest of the season and give the Lombardi Trophy to the New England Patriots?
Sheesh, you can't say anything these days without sounding like a politician.
No, nobody seriously wants to end the NFL season right now, no matter how many ties and Browns games the league throws at us. But the Patriots are so good right now that the second half of the year almost feels irrelevant.
The Patriots have outscored opponents 136-71 since Tom Brady's return. The Patriots' only loss of the season came when injured third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett took one for the team against the Bills in Week 4. The Patriots avenged that loss with a 41-25 victory in Buffalo on Sunday, which wasn't as close as the score indicates.
The Patriots didn't even look all that sharp in the blowout, committing 10 penalties and having trouble stopping the run. If that's what they look like on an off day, you don't want to see them when they’re clicking, because it will look a lot like it has often looked for the last 15 years.
The upcoming schedule looks non-threatening. The Seahawks and their crossing-guard offensive line visit Foxborough after a bye, but then it's smooth sailing until the Broncos in Week 15. And really, who in the AFC can pose a serious playoff threat?
- The Broncos? They lost their MVP when defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was injured in a sideline collision Sunday. Even when Phillips returns, the Broncos backfield consists of Trevor Siemian and Devontae Booker. Brady was winning Super Bowls when they were in elementary school.
- The Steelers? Ben Roethlisberger spent the bye soaking his injured knee in a Lazarus Pit. We'll see.
- The Chiefs? Good team. But we know how Patriots-Chiefs games end: The Chiefs embark on a 10-minute, game-winning scoring drive with four minutes left to play.
- The Bengals? That window of opportunity closed last year. It was tied shut Sunday morning.
- Some AFC South team? (Insert spasms of uncontrollable laughing here.)
The road to the Super Bowl looks well paved and tollbooth-free. If they make it, the Patriots face one of the NFC contenders that spent the last few weeks getting into each other's and their own way (see next slide).
So the Patriots look like prohibitive champions. Brady looks like the runaway MVP. Bill Belichick deserves Coach of the Year for going 3-1 with second- and third-string quarterbacks.
This is all very familiar ground, so familiar that it's a little dull. The Patriots again? What about some new team, with fresh faces and storylines? The NFL needs a jolt of excitement (and ratings) that won't come from another autumn-long Brady coronation.
Maybe we should end the season, give the Patriots a trophy and start over.
Nah, they'd just win the next season, too.
This week's Digestible Nuggets sort through the rubble of the NFC playoff race to see which way teams are trending.
Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1): The Cardinals offense is predicated on the concept of protecting Carson Palmer so he can attack defenses vertically. The Cardinals cannot protect Palmer, and when they do, he now struggles to attack defenses vertically. Trending: Down.
Atlanta Falcons (5-3): The offense keeps looking better and better. The defense isn't getting any worse. Trending: Up.
Carolina Panthers (2-5): Still mathematically alive. Still employing the reigning MVP. Still incapable of covering a wide receiver. Trending: Up, from a deep chasm.
Dallas Cowboys (6-1) and Philadelphia Eagles (4-3): See next slide.
Detroit Lions (4-4): There were a lot of "Lions are better without Calvin Johnson" takes in the discount-opinion bin in recent weeks. At least Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Golden Tate's 79 combined receiving yards put a stop to those. Trending: Sideways.
Green Bay Packers (4-3): Packers Fan Edition: THE SKY IS FALLING, RETREAT TO YOUR BUNKERS! Everyone Else Edition: Everybody's injured and they are still kinda OK. Trending: Down slightly.
Minnesota Vikings (5-1): Spent Sunday preparing for what's left of the Bears on Monday night and hoping reality doesn't settle in after that.
New Orleans Saints (3-4): The same Drew Brees Offense/No Clue Defense team you have known and loved for years. Spent most of Sunday driving down the field and settling for field goals, a strategy that will soon lead to more 45-32 losses. Trending: Up slightly.
Seattle Seahawks (4-2-1): Scored a defensive touchdown, set up another touchdown with a trick play and then returned to their steady diet of penalties (11 in the loss to the Saints) and field goals. Someone named George Fant is currently the Seahawks left tackle. The offensive line's motto should be "We fant in your general direction." Trending: Down, but also down a familiar path.
Washington Redskins (4-3-1): Pesky middleweights who play all the other pesky middleweights close. Which may make them the most dangerous team in the NFC. Trending: Sideways.
Game Spotlight: Cowboys 29, Eagles 23
The duel between two impressive rookie quarterbacks turned into a duel between impressive rookie quarterbacks.
Dak Prescott made several big-time throws (and runs) early, but he also threw a red-zone interception and misfired frequently in the second and third quarters when pressured by the Eagles defense. Carson Wentz looked a little shaky from the crowd noise, got the usual pass-dropping sabotage from his receivers and threw a lot of low-protein short passes. But he also delivered some strikes and led impressive mid-game drives.
The Eagles led 23-13 early in the fourth quarter, but a Wendell Smallwood fumble led to a Cowboys field goal, and then some miscues pushed the Eagles out of field-goal range on the following drive. Prescott rebounded from his mid-game slump with a touchdown pass to Dez Bryant to tie the game.
The Cowboys got the ball first in overtime, mixed Ezekiel Elliott (22 carries for 96 yards) runs with Prescott passes and a bold fourth-down sneak, and drove down the field for a nifty Prescott scramble-and-toss game-winner to Jason Witten.
What It Means
Both of these quarterbacks have very bright futures.
As for the present, Prescott has Dez, Witten, Elliott, the line and a veteran coaching staff. Wentz has the Eagles defense and special teams, but awful receivers and rookie head coach Doug Pederson, who made a series of situational blunders (shaky calls in field-goal range, Andy Reid Memorial Clock Management Idiocy in the final seconds of the fourth quarter) that allowed the game to tilt the Cowboys' way.
There is no complete team in the NFC East right now, just four teams with real strengths but frustrating weaknesses. The Cowboys are in great position to remain at the top of the heap. Just try not to remember how helpless they looked before the Eagles started handing them fourth-quarter opportunities.
Lots of Tony Romo trade speculation, even though Romo's crazy reverse mortgage of a contract makes him untradeable and everyone knows it.
Player Spotlight: Josh Norman, Cornerback, Washington Redskins
What He Did
Josh Norman had a busy morning covering A.J. Green in the 27-27 Redskins-Bengals draw in London. Norman committed five penalties and dropped two likely interceptions. He also held Green to just one catch for 10 yards in the first half, but Green finished with nine catches for 121 yards.
A few catches occurred against other defenders or when Norman was briefly out of the game. But a 40-yarder with Norman draped over him like a pass interference shawl proved that it was a less-than-stellar day for the star cornerback.
Norman questioned the officiating of field judge Brad Freeman after the game. Some of the calls against Washington defenders were a little tacky. But it's not the field judge's fault that Green kept beating Norman deep, only to not quite reach Andy Dalton's scattered passes.
What It Means
"Shutdown" cornerbacks like Norman exist in a perpetual spin cycle that is almost as complicated as the one that surrounds quarterbacks. But while a consensus opinion generally forms around established quarterbacks, shutdown cornerbacks are often simultaneously considered overrated and underrated. That's the kind of game Norman had: stellar in spurts, lousy in stretches, easy to interpret as a catastrophe or a middling success against a Pro Bowl opponent.
Much of the Redskins' season has been about Norman: the "only plays one side" controversy, the Odell Beckham Jr. game and now a penalty count that has grown to 13 and a postgame "you suck" to an official. Norman is generally brilliant but also sloppy and inconsistent at times. For the money he's making, he needs to at least catch the interceptions that quarterbacks like Dalton throw right at him.
What Happens Next
A long flight home to calculate just how much saying "you suck" about an official is going to cost Norman in fines.
Game Spotlight: Falcons 33, Packers 32
The Packers entered the game without their top two running backs, second-best wide receiver Randall Cobb and whatever the heck your fantasy football service considers Ty Montgomery. So the stage was set for another week of "What's Wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" storylines after Rodgers failed to manufacture an offense out of Jeff Janis and Aaron Ripkowski.
But Rodgers didn't play along. Instead, he threw for 246 yards and four touchdowns. And Matt Ryan and the Falcons matched him score-for-score. Literally: No team scored twice in a row for the entire game.
A Rodgers-to-Janis touchdown and a two-point conversion on a Rodgers keeper gave the Packers a 32-26 lead with 3:58 to play. But Ryan led a crisp final drive, distributing passes to Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Devonta Freeman and tight end Austin Hooper. Sanu broke wide-open in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Rodgers failed to deliver a final comeback with 31 seconds left. What's wrong with that guy?
What It Means
This is Falcons football. Sometimes it's a 33-32 win. Sometimes it's a 33-30 loss. The offense is multidimensional, the defense mostly theoretical. If the Falcons can keep doing this all year, playing well late in the fourth quarter about as often as they play poorly (or find themselves at the mercy of the referees), they will finish 10-6 and probably host a playoff game.
The Packers are an injury-riddled team on both sides of the ball. They played about as well as they possibly could Sunday, given the limitations of their roster. If they don't develop at least the pretense of a running game—running backs combined for 48 yards on 13 carries—and get healthier in the secondary, they are destined to lose more games like this, no matter how well Rodgers plays.
Falcons at Buccaneers, while the Packers and Colts battle to see which team can provide less support for its quarterback.
Player Spotlight: Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
What He Did
On a day when Alex Smith was knocked out of the game twice with blows to the head and running back Spencer Ware also entered concussion protocol, Kelce caught seven passes for 101 yards and one touchdown in the Chiefs' 30-14 win over the Colts.
The reality television star celebrated his touchdown with a dance that's apparently called the Milly Rock, which is just sassy enough to keep his eventual fine from the NFL down in the low five digits.
What It Means
Rob Gronkowski may be the NFL's best tight end, but Kelce is the best offensive player on the best team no one is talking about.
The 5-2 Chiefs generally win with a turnover-happy defense, an option-laced offense and just enough Kelce (and Jeremy Maclin and emerging speedster Tyreek Hill) to keep pass defenses honest. With immobile Nick Foles replacing Alex Smith and Charcandrick West subbing for Ware, the option game was off the table.
Luckily for the Chiefs, no one on the Colts could cover Kelce. Granted, they're the Colts (who plan on fielding a substandard defense until Andrew Luck's contract expires), but no matter the opponent, Kelce allows the Chiefs to do more with less than any other contender right now.
And let's face it: If you gave Gronkowski a show such as Catching Kelce, in which 50 lovelies vie for the bachelor tight end's affection, there would not be a whole lotta chasing going on.
What Happens Next
A visit from the Jaguars should move the Chiefs to 6-2, though their cornerbacks may end up with more receptions than Kelce. Also, Kelce must choose among Maya, Jamie Leigh, Loreina and some other young ladies much better at ensnaring him than anyone Ryan Grigson is paying.
Unsung Heroes of the Week: Pat and Marty Schottenheimer
What They Did
The Schottenheimers attended the 30th anniversary reunion of the 1986 Browns on Sunday. It was no ordinary homecoming: Marty Schottenheimer has been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years. "He's in the best of health, [but] sometimes he just doesn't remember everything," wife Pat Schottenheimer told Tony Grossi of ESPN.com last week. "He remembers people and faces, and he pulls out strange things that I've never heard, but he's doing well. It's going [to] be a long road. We both know that."
What It Means
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5.4 million Americans suffer from the illness. For many individuals, it's more terrifying than any other illness, threatening to turn a once-capable, proud spouse or parent into a lingering burden upon loved ones without their even realizing it.
The Schottenheimers and others are proving that an Alzheimer's diagnosis is not automatically a death sentence of the will or an end to quality of life or productivity. Philadelphia sportswriter Bill Lyon spent months documenting his battle with the disease in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Country music legend Glen Campbell recorded an album while in the early stages of the illness.
There are now medications, treatments, support networks and hope. Alzheimer's erodes the sands beneath your memory and identity, but the Schottenheimers are among the millions who refuse to let the disease isolate them from the people and things that they love.
Despite better treatments and understanding of the illness, Alzheimer's stories don't have happy endings. Like Pat Schottenheimer said, it's going to be a long road. Marty's teams, ill-fated as they were, should be remembered for their determination, effort, weekly excellence and dignity in the face of eventual defeat. Those are important lessons for all of us to take through life, especially as we get a little older.
Defender of the Week: Star Lotulelei recorded three sacks and forced the first-quarter fumble that Thomas Davis recovered for a touchdown to start the Panthers' 30-20 victory over the Cardinals. When you can generate pass rush straight up the middle, no one notices how bad your secondary is.
Offensive Line of the Week: The Saints controlled the line of scrimmage against the Seahawks, allowing Tim Hightower to rush for 102 yards while Brees endured just two sacks. So this week's award goes to Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and special guest sixth lineman Senio Kelemete.
Special Teamer of the Week: Cowboys punter Chris Jones gave the team a much-needed third-quarter lift with a 30-yard fake punt that eventually led to a Cowboys field goal. When I searched the internet for Jones' 40-yard-dash time, it took me to defensive lineman Chris Jones. You remember...the shorts incident? I will do you a favor and not link it. Anyway, Jones the punter is fast, and his pants maintained structural integrity throughout his run.
Mystery Touch of the Week: The Buccaneers should have been ready for the Donald Penn tackle-eligible touchdown catch. Penn caught three passes when he played for the Buccaneers, two of them for touchdowns. But the Buccaneers weren't ready for the Penn tackle-eligible touchdown. It was Penn's sixth career reception. Defensive coordinators, please take note: Penn is starting to catch up with Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo.
Anemic Stat Line of the Week: Reggie Bush carried twice for a loss of eight against the Patriots, attempting an impromptu lateral back to Tyrod Taylor when he was hemmed in at the end of one rush. (Luckily, the Patriots were more stunned by this boneheaded move than Taylor.) Bush now has nine carries for a loss of two on the season. If he keeps losing yardage at this rate, by the end of the year his whole career will disappear, Back to the Future-style.
Winner: Fantasy owners who took a flier on Jacquizz Rodgers a few weeks ago have reaped the dividends. Rodgers followed back-to-back 100-yard games with 19-69-1 against the Raiders on Sunday. Doug Martin's hamstring is one of those injuries that looks like it will linger through the whole season. Even if/when Martin returns, Rodgers has the all-purpose skills to settle into the old Charles Sims role, which can still be fantasy productive.
However, rookie Peyton Barber may be the player to own moving forward after Rodgers suffered a foot injury late in the game. According to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, head coach Dirk Koetter said, "I don't think it's probably good. But I don't know for sure. It's something to do with his ankle."
Loser: Russell Wilson hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in three weeks and has 44 rushing yards this season. The upcoming schedule (Bills-Patriots-Eagles) won't be easy. Wilson has a history of going on a tear after stretches like this, but you should take a long look at your backup until he snaps out of it, or the Seahawks trade for Joe Thomas, or something.
Committee: The Bills were supposed to go with a committee approach with LeSean McCoy injured. Instead, they just got away from the run long before their loss to the Patriots got out of hand, even though it was raining and the Bills have no downfield passing threats. (How's that Rex Ryan for Coach of the Year campaign going?) Mike Gillislee went 12-85-1, usually looking great when he had the ball. Reggie Bush wasted a couple of touches in relief. Gillislee is the man with Shady gone, but it may not matter if opponents have figured the one-dimensional Bills offense out.
Fluke: Andrew Hawkins is a fun player, a 5'7" mighty mite who rose up from the CFL and a Michael Irvin reality show to find steady employment as a Browns slot receiver and special teamer. Sunday marked the first and last two-touchdown game of his career, unless he returns to Canada or is traded to a team that will allow him to again face the Jets.
Leech: Deep-bench Broncos running back Juwan Thompson rushed one time for one yard and one touchdown. Take that, Devontae Booker owners!
Richard Sherman sounded off on the officiating in the Seahawks-Saints game. "The calls—or the lack thereof—were pretty egregious," he said.
Cam Newton went a step further in his complaints about late hits. "I don't even feel safe," he said. "And enough is enough. I plan on talking to Commissioner [Roger] Goodell about this. It's not fun."
As mentioned earlier, Norman was neither as eloquent as Sherman nor as solution-oriented as Newton. "I just got to know. Who is official 88?" Norman asked. "He sucked."
There was a lot to complain about. Newton took some low hits and has been a pinata all year. The Seahawks were victimized by some uncalled moving-pick pass interference plays that would draw a foul in a college basketball game. The Redskins-Bengals officiating was all over the London map: Norman may have been guilty on most of his five penalties, but it's not every day you see an uncalled open-field facemask penalty, preserved forever on Jamison Crowder's touchdown catch.
Norman will be fined. Sherman and Newton may be, too, with the league in full counterproductive discipline mode right now. And bad officiating will continue.
Because the officials are human.
They don't have super-slow-motion replays and overhead angles. They don't get to watch endless-loop GIFs of plays. The rulebook is complicated and the game speed blistering. Fans and players can expect all of the perfection we want, and we will never get it.
Some folks wanted pass interference penalties to be reviewed after Sherman tangled up Julio Jones late in the fourth quarter of the Falcons-Seahawks game a few weeks ago. Others want everything reviewable. They would apparently trade "getting it right" for four-and-a-half-hour games full of stoppages and rule interpretations. Which still wouldn't quite get it right.
Maybe we should factor human error into the equation, the way we did before our televisions were high-definition and our access to replays infinite.
Look, the complaints are justified. But they are complaints. No one wants to hear them. It's your right to vent around the break-room microwave or light up sports-talk radio all morning. But it's the players' jobs to play through them and leave the postgame griping to us. It's part of the job. And part of the recognition that next week, your opponent will complain about a call that went your way. That means you, Sherman.
When in doubt, players should take a cue from the old barber's "How ya doin'?" response.
How was the officiating?
"Can't complain. Because even if I did, no one would listen."