Monday Morning Digest: Broncos, Patriots on the Bright Side of Awful Week 2

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2017

Monday Morning Digest: Broncos, Patriots on the Bright Side of Awful Week 2

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    Digest is here to wrap hours of mostly-mediocre football into one tight, exciting package. We'll get you caught up on: 

    • The Broncos dropping thunder and lightning on the Cowboys.
    • The Patriots' blowout in New England and the latest Gronk injury.
    • The Vikings' struggles in Pittsburgh and the latest Sam Bradford injury.
    • Coaching reunion games, several of which were downright watchable.

    And much more.

    Think positive, true believers. Digest is here to put the fun back in the Never Fun League.

Silver (and Black) Linings for Dreary Day of Football

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Yeah, the NFL kinda stinks these days.

    The NFL this week is all about games with 12-6, 9-3 or 13-9 final scores; journeyman quarterbacks executing vanilla offenses that go nowhere; rookie kickers missing field goals; turnovers, penalties, blowouts and $100 parking spots. It's a mess.

    Watching this weekend's action reminded me of the old joke about the optimist locked in a room full of manure. Undaunted by his stinky surroundings, he began digging and burrowing through the stuff. His reasoning? "With all this crap, there has to be a pony!”

    Enjoying the NFL these days is all about finding that pony. Rainbow Dash and her friends are buried in the action somewhere. You just have to keep looking.

    With that in mind, let's stop griping about having to watch Mike Glennon and take a moment to enjoy these five bright spots from Sunday's action:

    Great Defenses: Low-scoring games can be slogs, and some teams are so terrible that they can make an average defense look like the 1985 Bears. But the Ravens and Panthers defenses look dominant after two games, while the Chiefs and Broncos can win with defense while also occasionally scoring points. And though Seahawks games are increasingly like tax audits, at least the team is staying on brand.

    Beast Mode Redux: Marshawn Lynch was just a supporting character in the Raiders' 45-point explosion against the Jets, rushing for 45 yards and his first Raiders touchdown. But Lynch provided some Beast Mode memories on a few runs, caught the Jets off guard as the pitch man on a flea-flicker (granted, it's hard to catch the Jets on guard) and danced Raiders fans into a frenzy after Michael Crabtree's third touchdown catch. More than ever, the NFL needs its most compelling running back/cheerleader/iconoclast/folk hero.

    Kareem Hunt: The Chiefs rookie running back followed up on his sensational debut with 81 yards and two rugged touchdowns against the Eagles. He's the cure for the early-season NFL blahs: a small-school Cinderella who is easy to root for and can light up the highlight reel with power, speed, moves, runs and receptions.

    Patriots precision: Tom Brady scrambled up the middle with 16 seconds left in the first half and no timeouts to get the Patriots in chip-shot range. Brady leapt to his feet and hustled off the field. The offensive line waltzed to the new line of scrimmage in formation, the rest of the kicking unit looked like an aerial stunt team positioning itself with zero margin for error and Stephen Gostkowski nailed the kick as time expired. At least someone is still sweating the small stuff.

    Parity: That said, the Patriots look more vulnerable than usual, even after blowing out the Saints. The Cowboys took it on the chin against the Broncos. The Steelers look flat. The NFL is up for grabs at the moment, so while your home team may look terrible, it is not necessarily out of the running (unless it is part of the Tank Brigade. Are you still having fun, Jets fans?)

    End-Zone Celebrations: Falcons lineman Andy Levitre can make a basketball hoop out of his arms so Devonta Freeman can shoot a free throw after a touchdown without a 15-yard penalty or the breakdown of society. Just think what the Bengals might dream up by the time they finally score a touchdown!

    Shorter Games: NASCAR-style commercial breaks and other measures to quicken the pace of games have had a clear effect. Most noticeably, bad games now usually clock in under three hours (Buccaneers-Bears came in at a crisp 2:55, for instance) instead of lingering because of endless punts and long breaks after meaningless late touchdowns.

    Of course, complimenting bad games for being short is like praising a restaurant for serving bad food in smaller portions, or being happy that you were locked into a small room full of manure. But until the NFL figures out how to keep things lively again, at least it can keep things moving.

Reunion Weekend: You Can't Go Home Again

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Week 2 featured homecoming games for several head coaches facing their former mentors, plus a few players facing their former teams for the first time. It turns out that beating your old boss or employer is not as easy at it sounds. A recap of the reunions:

          

    Sean McVay vs. Jay Gruden: Redskins 27, Rams 20

    McVay's Rams spotted Washington 13 points with some shaky offense and turnovers, then picked up the intensity and made a game of it with diving catches and leaping touchdowns. McVay, who was Washington's offensive coordinator last season, still gets to enjoy moral victories whenever the Rams look more creative and spirited than Jeff Fisher's Rams, which is a little like outrunning a tree stump.

    Last week's demolition of the pathetic Colts aside, the Rams are more encouraging than good right now.

          

    Doug Pederson vs. Andy Reid: Chiefs 27, Eagles 20

    The Eagles and Chiefs were tied at 13 early in the fourth quarter, but Pederson's team lost its composure after a Carson Wentz tip-drill interception and a Travis Kelce shovel-pass touchdown. While Reid stayed balanced and produced big plays in the running and passing games, Pederson (a former player and coach under Reid) abandoned the run and allowed the Chiefs to tee off on Wentz late in the game.

    Pederson's coaching performance would look worse if Reid didn't do the same darn thing to Bill Belichick last week.

          

    Sean McDermott vs. Ron Rivera: Panthers 9, Bills 3

    Rivera's defense-oriented Panthers team, whose quarterback barely played in the preseason due to injury, faced McDermott's Buffalo Triple-A affiliate, a defense-oriented team (McDermott previously was DC for Carolina) whose quarterback barely played in the preseason due to injury. The result: four field goals, nine sacks, 12 punts and 431 combined yards of total offense.

          

    Bruce Arians vs. Chuck Pagano: Cardinals 16, Colts 13 (OT)

    Arians left Indianapolis five years ago, but Colts fans are understandably having trouble letting go. This game was a tonsillectomy. The Cardinals did everything they could to lose except petition the NFL for a better opponent.

          

    Brandin Cooks vs. the Saints: Patriots 36, Saints 20

    Cooks contributed to scoring drives with a 22-yard catch and a 13-yard end-around. The Saints miss him. He's about three weeks from becoming the Patriots' only wide receiver.

          

    Mike Glennon vs. the Buccaneers: Bucs 29, Bears 27

    Glennon threw a pick-six and got strip-sacked as the Buccaneers built a 29-0 lead. He then threw for 166 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter of a blowout to make his stats spiffier. It was as if he never left Tampa Bay.

Game Spotlight: Broncos 42, Cowboys 14

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    What happened

    Everything ganged up against the Cowboys: the Broncos defense (expected), the Broncos offense (unexpected), the altitude (expected) and a thunderstorm that caused a long delay late in the first quarter (that's new).

    The Broncos bottled up Ezekiel Elliott early, holding him to eight yards on six first-half touches. That kept the Cowboys from playing their ball control and down-and-distance-advantage game.

    Trevor Siemian (who finished with 231 yards and four touchdowns) beat the Cowboys at their own game, efficiently sniping at their defense with the help of a two-touchdown effort by Emmanuel Sanders (pictured) and a running game that thumped out 96 yards before halftime.

    By the end, Elliott had just eight rushing yards and Dak Prescott was uncharacteristically rattled.

          

    What it means

    Prescott had the game most young quarterbacks cope with in their rookie year, the one where the running game abandons him, the opponent builds a lead and he is forced to throw 50 passes into the teeth of a defense that knows what's coming.

    It was a snowball situation: The final score looks horrendous, but better early play-calling and execution could have tilted the game in a totally different direction.

    Siemian did not morph into Aaron Rodgers on Sunday any more than Prescott became Mister Bumbles. But he made the throws that were there for him, and in a league where so many teams just appear to be grossly incompetent, efficiency and balance may be the Broncos' secret weapons.

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in 2017, an NFL team with a great defense and an offense that can execute a basic game plan fairly well may be a contender.

          

    What's next

    The Broncos head to Buffalo to try to keep a straight face against the Bills offense. The Cowboys may have a similar problem in Arizona next Monday night.

Game Spotlight: Patriots 36, Saints 20

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    What happened

    Tom Brady threw for 447 yards and three touchdowns, despite the fact that many of his passes had a trajectory and velocity somewhere between a softball slow pitch and a baby hook shot from the high post.

    Adrian Peterson rushed eight times for 26 yards for a Saints offense that lacked any cohesion or identity, despite lots of sloppy play by the Patriots cornerbacks. Peterson did convert a 4th-and-short late in the fourth quarter with the Saints trailing by 23 points, which is as close as you can come to a pity date on an NFL field.

    Rob Gronkowski suffered a hamstring injury, Chris Hogan came up limping and Phillip Dorsett exited the game with a bad case of being Phillip Dorsett, leaving Brady distressingly low in firepower and tempering the "We're back, baby" enthusiasm in New England.

         

    What it means

    You know how Gronk injuries go: Information will be nonexistent for weeks, he will suit up for some games but barely play, be a late inactive in others and score two touchdowns in one just after insiders report that he is heading for the IR. Expect him to be less than his usual Gronk self for a while, which is actually becoming Gronk's usual self.

    With Dorsett (knee) joining Danny Amendola on the injury report and both Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell on IR, Brady will lean even more on his running backs. Luckily, he has about 20 of them, and they can all catch. Brady's knuckleball velocity remains the issue everyone is quietly trying to not be concerned about.

    The Saints defense can still be counted on to provide a 12-men-on-the-field penalty whenever it needs a big stop. As for Peterson, by resorting to gimmicks to keep the offense fresh while placing an over-the-hill superstar in a ridiculous situation, the Saints have become the first team in NFL history to simultaneously jump the shark and nuke the fridge.

          

    What happens next

    The schedule saves the day as the Patriots host the Texans, with their rookie quarterback and with offensive linemen playing tight end. The Saints will face Peterson all week, then the Panthers in Charlotte next Sunday.

Player Spotlight: Devonta Freeman, Falcons

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    What he did

    Devonta Freeman rushed 19 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns, adding two receptions for 16 yards.

    The two touchdowns helped the Falcons establish a lead early in the game. But what Freeman did late in the game was more significant. Freeman had four touches for 36 yards on a third-quarter drive that ended in a Matt Bryant field goal. He added four carries for 22 yards on the next drive and an eight-yard run on a 3rd-and-short Wildcat on the next drive.

    Freeman's runs netted first downs, which kept the Packers off the field and kept the Falcons from reliving the Super Bowl in a 34-23 victory that was closer than it needed to be.

          

    What it means

    The Falcons flirted with fourth-quarter disaster in Week 1, with the Bears driving down to the goal line on the final drive but coming up short. But Aaron Rodgers is more dangerous than Mike Glennon (understatement of the century), and Sunday night's game began feeling uncomfortably Super Bowl-like when Rodgers began rifling passes to open receivers in the second half. Every minute the offense ticked off the clock mattered.

    Freeman's runs not only munched clock but also created opportunities in the passing game. That kind of balance will help the Falcons—now 2-0 despite their consistent habit of playing 45 minutes of championship football—redefine their late-game identity.

          

    What's next

    A trip to Detroit, where Freeman and the Falcons face a Lions team known for one thing: fourth-quarter comebacks.

Player Spotlight: Case Keenum (and the Vikings' QB Situation)

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    What happened

    From Monday night through Sunday morning, Sam Bradford's prognosis deteriorated from "MVP!" to "MRI!" to "What, were you expecting good news about a Bradford knee injury?"

    With Bradford shelved, former Texans and Rams backup Case Keenum assumed his familiar role as the patron saint of a lost cause. Keenum (20-of-37, 167 yards, no TD or INT) did his best Bradford impression by hanging tough against a stiff pass rush and completing a high percentage of teeny-tiny passes. But Keenum overthrew several open receivers and failed to move the ball consistently against a Steelers team that spent its second straight week dawdling instead of pulling away from an opponent with a bad offense.

          

    What it means

    It's always something with Bradford: knee injury, bad coordinator, knee injury, offense that doesn't fit his talents, sudden trade, bad offensive line, knee injury. His short-term prognosis is unclear, but it's a bad sign that Bradford's injury occurred during a Week 1 game in which he was barely touched. (After Sunday's game, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Bradford "is fine," and might be out six weeks.)

    The fact that Bradford looks like an All-Pro when everything breaks just right becomes irrelevant when nothing ever breaks quite as right as it needs to for him. Even if Bradford returns, some other little problem will emerge to keep him from becoming the player everyone has spent seven years claiming he will someday be.

    Under Keenum, the Vikings offense is more conservative than ever, making it the football equivalent of your father-in-law's Facebook feed. Just days after Monday night's emphatic win, the Vikings now appear poised for another .500-ish season of defensive heroics and quarterback calamities.

          

    What's next

    The Vikings host the Buccaneers next week. Their announcement that they have signed an emergency quarterback, followed by the Category 5 outrage that his name is not Colin Kaepernick, is scheduled for midday Wednesday.

Week 2's Ugliest Sequences of Ugly Ugliness

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    Remember all that optimism from earlier in this article? Well, forget about it. Sunday’s games featured some of the ugliest sequences of football you will ever witness:

          

    Vikings at Steelers, Third Quarter

    • The Vikings botch a desperate fake punt, giving the Steelers the ball in field-goal range
    • Le'Veon Bell gets three touches (a run and two short passes) for three yards
    • Chris Boswell misses a 51-yard field goal, but...
    • The Vikings were in an illegal formation, so Boswell gets a second chance and makes it

          

    Cardinals at Colts, Fourth Quarter/Overtime

    • A late-game sack and holding penalty force the Colts to punt from deep in their own territory, giving the Cardinals the ball near midfield with 25 seconds left
    • Carson Palmer hits Jaron Brown on a short cross. The Colts defense lets Brown reach the sideline and tightrope-scamper for 20 yards, preserving the final Cardinals timeout
    • The Colts get caught with 12 men on the field while Palmer kneels to position the kicker—only Chuck Pagano's defense can get confused by a kneeling opponent—giving the Cardinals even better field position
    • Phil Dawson (pictured) misses the 42-yard field goal, forcing overtime.
    • The Colts get the ball, but Jacoby Brissett’s first pass of overtime is jumped by Tyrann Mathieu for an interception
    • The Cardinals inexplicably run three plays to three different running backs before letting Dawson win the game

          

    Eagles at Chiefs, Second Quarter

    • The Chiefs go three-and-out after an Alex Smith sack
    • Darren Sproles fumbles the punt return (you know the NFL is bad when even Sproles is screwing up)
    • The Chiefs run three plays (including a Smith sack) and settle for a field goal
    • After the kickoff, Carson Wentz's pass ricochets off defender Terrance Mitchell’s hands. Zach Ertz grabs it and rumbles 53 yards to get the Eagles in field-goal range
    • Rookie kicker Jake Elliott misses the field goal

          

    49ers at Seahawks, Third Quarter

    • The entire quarter was a travesty. The final tally: zero points, six punts, seven penalties, 20 offensive plays that netted three yards or less, including two sacks.

Inside the Numbers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Good stats, bad stats and weird stats from Week 2, for fantasy use and/or general enlightenment.

          

    Jay Cutler, Dolphins: 24-of-33 for 230 yards, 1 TD

    Cutler threw for just 75 yards on 13 completions in the first half, including a one-yard pass on 3rd-and-6, a minus-two-yard pass on 3rd-and-4, an eight-yard pass on 3rd-and-14, a three-yard pass on 3rd-and-17...you get the idea.

    Cutler began throwing beyond the sticks on third downs in the second half (with the help of DeVante Parker, who ripped some 50-50 balls from defenders), leading the Dolphins to a field-goal-heavy 19-17 win over the Chargers.

    As long as Cutler is doing more than fluffing his completion percentage, the Dolphins remain poised to find that second-place sweet spot in the AFC East. Although right now, they are in first place.

          

    Chris Thompson, Redskins: 3 carries for 77 yards and 2 TDs, 3 catches for 29 yards

    A 61-yard touchdown provided most of Thompson's production. Thompson now has 162 yards and three touchdowns on 13 touches this year—12.5 yards per touch. The fact that the third-down back is actually the best back, or at least deserves more than one or two touches per quarter, dawns slowly for some coaches. A rib injury to Rob Kelley, however, could lead to more Thompson touches. 

          

    LeSean McCoy: 12 carries for nine yards, 6 catches for 34 yards

    Shady rushed three times for zero yards in the first half, when the Bills netted just one first down. Contributing factors: (a) the Panthers front seven is outstanding, (b) Shady is nursing a groin injury, (c) the Bills offense only looked passable in Week 1 because it shared the field with the Jets offense.

          

    Michael Crabtree: 6 catches for 80 yards, 3 TDs

    Crabtree caught two goal-line touchdowns and one deep one, adding 26 yards on a flea-flicker and 21 yards on a short pass over the middle. Crabtree mostly picked on second-year Jets cornerback Juston Burris, at least when a defender appeared in the same frame as him.

          

    Baltimore Ravens: 4 interceptions against the Browns

    The Ravens now have eight interceptions of three different quarterbacks spread among six different defenders (Brandon Carr and Lardarius Webb (pictured) each have two) in two games, Opposing quarterbacks have an efficiency rating of 35.0 against them. And the Ravens face the Jaguars next week. Blake Bortles might just invent a whole new play, like a Pick-12 or something.

Awards Digest

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    Offensive Line of the Week

    We learned last week that the Jaguars defensive line is no joke. So running for 179 yards and three touchdowns while holding them to one sack is an accomplishment, even when the Jaguars offense has reverted to punts-and-turnovers mode. Let's hear it for Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline and Jack Conklin for helping the Titans rediscover their smashmouth identity.

          

    Defensive Player of the Week

    Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones recorded three sacks, two forced fumbles and one game-changing interception. Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt got most of the attention (deservedly), but the Chiefs' fourth-quarter dominance of the Eagles was made possible by Jones.

          

    Special Teamer of the Week

    Jon Ryan of the Seahawks averaged 44.1 yards per punt on seven punts, dropping three of them inside the 20 and keeping the 49ers corralled on their side of the field in a 12-6 Seahawks win that would classify as an epic snoozer if there weren't several worse games this week.

          

    Mystery Touch of the Week

    Vikings punter Ryan Quigley attempted a fake-punt pass early in the third quarter as the Vikings tried desperately to get some offensive momentum. Quigley's 4th-and-4 pass fluttered in the general direction of Blake Bell and bounced off a defender's cleat.

    Johnny Hekker executed a successful fake punt for the Rams. But with eight career completions, Hekker now qualifies as one of the NFL's more accomplished quarterbacks.

          

    Fantasy Leech of the Week

    Dalvin Cook rumbled 25 yards for an apparent Vikings touchdown, but he was ruled down inside the 1-yard line after a review. So the Vikings spoiled a million fantasy days by giving fullback C.J. Ham (with ball in photo) the goal-line plunge. Repeat after me, dad-joke fans: THAT'S NOT KOSHER.

The Last Word: Off-Field News with X-Men Angles

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    NFL football has not only gotten worse on the field; it has also gotten weirder off the field. A quick rundown of Sunday's off-the-field headlines:

          

    Ravens postpone "free DNA test kit" giveaway scheduled for Sunday.

    There’s a fine line these days between “fun stadium promotion” and “plot point for the next X-Men movie.”

          

    General stadium parking for Chargers games costs $100.

    The coffee shop they play home games in only holds about 500 people, so they need to gouge drivers to earn revenue. In Baltimore, a $100 parking spot comes with genetic testing, credit score analysis, a flu shot and a hernia checkup.

          

    David Johnson tweets that his knee surgery was successful.

    The photo shows Johnson’s child in his lap, which is adorable but gives the impression Johnson had one of his legs surgically replaced with a baby. Which is also both a rejected X-Men plot point and Ravens stadium promotion giveaway.

          

    ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen report that Jerry Jones is impeding progress toward a Roger Goodell contract extension.

    In the dystopian future ruled by genetically mutated Ravens fans with baby legs who control the world’s parking reserves, Jerry Jones is a Wolverine-like freedom fighter standing up for our rights. This is gold, Marvel. Why won’t you return my calls?