Monday Morning Digest: Post-Rodgers, Can Anyone Besides Patriots Win Super Bowl?
In this week's jam-packed Monday Morning Digest...
- An Aaron Rodgers injury throws the entire NFL playoff picture into chaos.
- A hallucinogenic officiating freakout in Patriots-Jets causes tinfoil hats to start buzzing.
- A promising rookie quarterback endures a worst-case scenario: playing for John Fox.
- A Rams-Jaguars game turns out to be well-played, exciting and possibly relevant.
- An old running back finds the Fountain of Youth with the help of an older wide receiver and even older quarterback.
And much, much more.
It's Anyone's NFL: Updated Super Bowl Scenarios
Aaron Rodgers is out, perhaps for the year, with a broken collarbone. The Patriots are beating bad teams by magical rulebook reinterpretations. The Chiefs turned back into the Chiefs on Sunday after a charmed early-season run.
So your safest Super Bowl prediction is probably smoldering ash in the wastebasket. And don't look for the preseason-darling choices for help, either. The Raiders are counting on a quarterback with a broken back, with predictable results. The Cowboys lost the bye week in both the courtroom and the Anthemscape. It's anyone's NFL, folks.
Digest doesn't wait for the sportsbooks to update their Super Bowl odds. We like to keep you ahead of the house. So here are some of the most likely Super Bowl scenarios after Week 6:
Patriots Genius Scenario: Bill Belichick finds an impact defender—NaVorro Bowman, Dwight Freeney, Colin Kaepernick as a blitzing nickel safety—and gets the Patriots back on track next week by doing the easiest thing in the world: beating the Falcons in the fourth quarter. Likelihood: Higher than anything else on this list.
Patriots Conspiracy Scenario: A league rapidly running out of marketable superstars starts giving the Patriots wins by awarding them the ball on imaginary fumbles and flagging opponents for fouls like Illegal Hands on the Field and Defensive Pass Coverage. Likelihood: Not as high as WFAN callers think.
Packers "This is Fine" Scenario: Brett Hundley is to Aaron Rodgers as Rodgers was to Brett Favre. Or maybe the Packers can win with (struggles to keep straight face) innovative play-calling and a commitment to the running game. Likelihood: Zip.
Steelers Surge Scenario: The Steelers suddenly stop fighting amongst themselves and playing down to their worst opponents now that they beat a good team with the help of fluke safeties, tip-drill touchdowns and fourth-down goal-line stops on passes to backup tight ends. Likelihood: Moderate. A healthy QB-RB-WR combo is precious at this point.
Chiefs Don't Choke Scenario: The Chiefs rebound from Sunday's loss and stop losing games the way they did Sunday, which is how they have been losing big games since approximately Super Bowl IV. Likelihood: Low.
Eagles Wentz Wagon Scenario: Now clearly the NFC's best team, the Eagles win the Super Bowl on three Carson Wentz touchdowns, after which a consortium of internet experts still clinging to the opinions they formed watching FCS videos 16 months ago will explain that Wentz still isn't that good and petition the league to give the trophy to the Patriots. Likelihood: Low for an Eagles Super Bowl, roughly 83.2 percent for silly Wentz takes.
The Field: Do the Saints finally have a defense? Are the Rams for real? Can the Falcons hire a halftime hypnotist? Should the Bills and Panthers merge to form one giant Gundam contender? Can you bring yourself to believe in the Seahawks line? Case Keenum, anyone? Likelihood: As of mid-October, the chances of some team from the field making a serious Super Bowl run is low, but not nonexistent. And that's what makes this one of the strangest NFL seasons in years.
Game Spotlight: Patriots 24, Jets 17
You mean, besides one of the worst calls in NFL history?
Well, the Jets built a 14-0 lead because the Patriots defense started the game in its new default setting: Madden Rookie Tutorial Mode with an uncharged game controller.
The Jets then remembered they were facing the mighty (?) Patriots. A Josh McCown interception with 39 seconds left before halftime allowed Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to tie the game with a short touchdown, then a longer Gronk TD and another McCown pick restored the cosmic balance by giving the Patriots a 24-14 lead.
The Jets marched down the field early in the fourth quarter and scored an apparent touchdown on a short McCown pass to Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but the Patriots instead were gifted a touchback on an officiating decision that made the Tuck Rule look like a routine coin toss. The Jets still made a game of it, but they came up short in the end.
What It Means
No one is saying the Jets would have beaten the Patriots if the Seferian-Jenkins play was ruled a touchdown, or even an incomplete pass that gave the Jets two more cracks from the 4-yard line, but...
Wait, that's exactly what we are saying! The Jets weren't spectacular, but they played well enough to win. The Patriots did nothing of note on offense or defense on their late-game drives except the bare minimum to preserve the 10-point lead they should not have had.
This was the worst kind of bad call: a denial of the obvious in favor of a hinky rule interpretation, during a replay review (when hinky interpretations are supposed to be forbidden), and one that had an undue impact on the outcome of the game. That the call favored a powerhouse struggling to beat a doormat wasn't great for optics. That should not impact the call, but everything else mentioned in this paragraph should.
Conspiracy theorists can have a field day with this one while the Patriots faithful act like the cosmos owes them 490 good calls as retribution for Deflategate. Whatever. The Patriots are beating mediocre teams with smoke, mirrors and mysteries right now. There will be a reckoning when they face better opponents.
And all a win would do for a Jets team that plays hard but lacks talent is create unrealistic expectations.
Jets-Dolphins looks like a battle of two teams that care. Who expected that a month ago? Also, the Patriots and Falcons face off next week in a Super Bowl rematch that finds both teams eager to reclaim a little glory.
Player Spotlight: Adrian Peterson
Exhumed from the Saints bench, Peterson joined the Cardinals' remake of The Expendables and rushed 26 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns, including 54 yards and a touchdown on his first four carries, as the Arizona Sunshine Boys held off the Buccaneers, 38-33.
What It Means
There was a lot of talk about Peterson being finished when he rushed just 27 times for 81 yards in his four games with the Saints. While he certainly wasn't 2012 Peterson, he still ran the ball well at times for New Orleans. He just had no role whatsoever in a system that he did not fit at all, and it's hard for a back like Peterson to have any success when he's getting a random touch or two per quarter.
Peterson's Cardinals debut was not perfect. He fumbled late in the game while the Bucs were surging, but a teammate recovered. He had no impact on the passing game, and the Cardinals must integrate him more fully into the offense before his presence or absence makes them too predictable. Still, he got to do what he did best: establish himself early and set the tone for his offense.
Peterson, Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald all showed their age at times on Sunday—Fitzgerald even lost a fumble—but they also had moments of brilliance. The Cardinals are unlikely to make a playoff run, but it's great to see them put together this Rolling Stones Farewell Tour. It's like watching a 2009 fantasy team come to life.
What Happens Next
One trip to Los Angeles to face the Rams. Zero complaints by Peterson about his workload.
Game Spotlight: Steelers 19, Chiefs 13
After a snap sailed over Alex Smith's head for a safety and Antonio Brown forgot the punt after a safety is actually a kickoff, the Royals led the Pirates 3-2, and it wasn't pretty.
Le'Veon Bell then took over with 99 first-half yards en route to a 179-yard rushing day.
But the Steelers still clung to a 12-3 lead when the Chiefs drove to the 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter. On 4th-and-goal, Andy Reid eschewed the field goal that would make it a one-score game, took Kareem Hunt (both the Chiefs' best player and their best goal-line option) off the field and called a doomed catastrophe of a pass play from a three tight end spread formation.
The Chiefs later closed the gap with a deep De'Anthony Thomas touchdown, but an apparent Ben Roethlisberger interception bounced off defender Phillip Gaines' hands, allowing Brown to swipe it one-handed from the air and run for a game-sealing score.
What It Means
Andy Reid giveth, and Andy Reid taketh away. Longtime Reid watchers know that the clever game plans and the general readiness of the entire roster comes with a price. Usually, that price is two spent timeouts early in the third quarter. But sometimes it is too-clever-by-half play calls in critical situations.
As for the Steelers: Everything's fine, right? Don't worry for a moment about Roethlisberger throwing gopher balls, the stalled drives, the one-dimensional offense or how most of the non-Bell highlights from Sunday were Chiefs unforced errors.
Actually, the Steelers still have real problems that Sunday did not solve. Considering NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported after the game that Martavis Bryant wants out of Pittsburgh, even Sunday's win may not keep the Steelers from sniping at each other.
It's all about the division matchups: The Chiefs can reassert themselves against the reeling Raiders and Broncos, while a visit from the Bengals comes at the perfect time for a Steelers team overcoming a mini-identity crisis.
Player Spotlight: Mitchell Trubisky
What He Did
Trubisky went 8-of-16 for 113 yards and one touchdown as John Fox dusted off a 1974 high school offense and ran the ball 54 times (including some Trubisky scrambles) in a 27-24 overtime Bears win.
The Bears handed off on both first and second down a total of 18 times as Fox tried to either protect or smother his rookie quarterback. At one point, back-to-back handoffs to Tarik Cohen left Trubisky in 3rd-and-23. Other runs resulted in fumbles and third-down stuffs. A tackle-breaking 53-yard Jordan Howard run to set up the winning field goal in overtime was evidence that a strategy can succeed despite itself.
It was a lot like the old fable about the king who was suffocated by his own bodyguards, or like a young couple who baby-proofs their house so overzealously that their children become allergic to gravity.
What It Means
In what little we have seen of Trubisky besides handoffs, he looks a little like this year's Carson Wentz. The attributes of a fine quarterback are there, and the offensive line is solid. But the lack of playmakers at wide receiver will hold him back this season, and rookie mistakes (including holding the ball too long and suffering sack-fumbles) will take time to eradicate.
The difference is that Wentz was coached by a bunch of former quarterbacks who have always made a strong commitment to developing him, while Trubisky is coached by Fox, who appears to just want everyone to know how hard it is for him to have to endure being forced to start a rookie.
Trubisky will have to throw to grow. And he'll have to throw more than just one play-action surprise per quarter and a bunch of screens on 3rd-and-23.
You don't beat the Panthers by handing off 50 times.
Battle for Legitimacy Digest: Rams 27, Jaguars 17
Pharoh Cooper returned the opening kickoff for a Rams touchdown. Leonard Fournette answered with a 75-yard Jaguars touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. You could almost hear both teams shouting: "THIS IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL RAMS-JAGUARS GAME. WE ARE GOOD NOW. WELL...WE ARE OK NOW. PAY ATTENTION TO US."
Things settled down after the opening scores, with the Jaguars defense holding Jared Goff to 124 yards and a shovel-pass touchdown that looked like an NBA give-and-go, while the Jaguars passing game got in its own way as usual. Special teams ultimately spelled the difference between the "for real" 4-2 Rams and the middling 3-3 Jaguars. Cory Littleton blocked a Jaguars punt that Malcolm Brown returned for a touchdown, while Jaguars kicker Jason Myers missed a pair of 54-yard field goals.
What It Means
The Rams may not be "for real" in the sense of "Super Bowl contenders," but this was a valuable stepping-stone victory. They ran the ball well, generated a pass rush and beat a decent opponent on the East Coast, which is a mini-milestone West Coast teams must reach if they hope to do more than become the Chargers.
The Jaguars survived an injury scare when Fournette limped off the field with an ankle injury late in the game. Even with Fournette healthy, they are an all-defense team with a predictable offense and unreliable special teams. That's still better than what they usually are, but Sunday's loss erased nearly all of the enthusiasm the Jaguars built up after their upset of the Steelers in Week 5.
More Wild Games Digest
So many wild things happened Sunday that it's impossible to thoroughly cover them all in one Digest. But that doesn't mean we can't offer quick thoughts, hot takes and expressions of awe and bewilderment:
Dolphins 20, Falcons 17
The Falcons built a 17-0 lead and started having Super Bowl flashbacks (again), while Jay Cutler reached a new peak efficiency: He threw an interception into the arms of a defensive tackle, but it was negated by a roughing the passer penalty to set up the touchdown that started the Falcons' tailspin.
You know that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 where Baby Groot wants to push the "destroy the galaxy" (or whatever) button no matter how many ways Rocket tells him not to do it? The Falcons organization is a talking baby tree that wants to push buttons right now. Someone had better find some duct tape.
Saints 52, Lions 38
The over/under in this game was 50. Are the sportsbooks hiring people who have never watched Saints games before?
This was a classic Saints game from the days when they were contenders and their NBA-style shootouts lasted four-and-a-half hours. To give you a sense of the madness, there were two pick-sixes by a lineman at the offense's goal line in the fourth quarter alone.
It's too early to crown the Saints as anything but a team that beats up on gimpy quarterbacks and Cutlers just yet. But the Lions have run out of magical comeback power-ups and ways to manufacture wins, which means they now need to do conventional stuff like run the ball and play pass defense.
Redskins 26, 49ers 24
Kirk Cousins (330 yards, two TDs, one INT, one rushing TD) played like someone who shows up at the interview uncertain of whether he really wants the job. The 49ers, meanwhile, didn't want to look too desperate to impress Cousins, so they benched Brian Hoyer to attend the big dance with the neighbor's grandkid, aka C.J. Beathard.
Beathard showed some basic competence, and the 49ers came within a late offensive pass interference penalty of getting into range for a game-winning field goal.
What happens next at quarterback for these teams feels like one huge dare of the football fates: Do the 49ers bank their future on Beathard? Do they pursue Cousins despite his playing a game that looked better on the stat sheet than the field? Will this be the moment that historians point to when asked at what point quarterback economics spiraled beyond all sense of reason?
Chargers 17, Raiders 16
Over the past two weeks, the Chargers discovered the key to victory: hang around and wait for paper contenders like the Giants and Raiders to beat themselves.
The Raiders tried to protect banged-up quarterback Derek Carr with six-lineman formations, super-short passes, lots of handoffs and one goofy hook-and-lateral play on 3rd-and-long. It almost worked, but the awful Raiders secondary stopped covering receivers on the final drive.
If the Raiders aren't careful, they will ruin Carr, Amari Cooper and everything else they spent years building as they try to shoot their way out of this slump.
Giants 23, Broncos 10
With most of their best players either injured or off the grid, the Giants finally moved Justin Pugh to right tackle, juggled the rest of the line, started feeding Orleans Darkwa the ball instead of pretending to be the 1999 Rams and let their defense tee off on Trevor Siemian in a sloppy game that featured blocked field goals, goal-line stands, pick-sixes and a Brock Osweiler sighting.
At least the Giants know they have bottomed out. The Broncos have averaged just 14 points per game since blowing out the Cowboys in Week 2, but they're wary of pulling the pin in their three-man quarterback controversy grenade with a three-game road trip (including the Chiefs and Eagles) and a visit from the Patriots on the upcoming schedule. It's going to get worse before it gets better, Broncos fans.
Inside the Numbers
Kevin Hogan, QB, Browns (20-of-37, 140 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT, 4 sacks)
Hogan committed intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety and was strip-sacked late in the game. His longest completion of the day spanned 20 yards, and his lone touchdown came in the final moments of a 33-17 loss.
The Browns now have a very Browns-tastic quarterback controversy: They can stick with Hogan, who is horrendous and has zero upside but is totally expendable, or turn back to DeShone Kizer, who has tremendous upside but is pretty bad and could get ruined by playing for the Browns.
Chris Thompson, RB, Redskins (16 carries for 33 yards, 4 catches for 105 yards)
Jay Gruden heard us clamoring for Thompson to play more of a featured role and gave him the second carry of the game. Thompson fumbled, but teammate Trent Williams pounced on it. Thompson gained 48, 23, 20 and 13 yards on his short receptions but consistently got stuffed on first downs when Washington tried to run out the clock. So Gruden was right about Thompson being more of a specialist. Sorry for doubting you, Coach.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs (9 carries for 21 yards, 5 catches for 89 yards)
In the first half, Hunt carried just four times for seven yards and caught one one-yard pass, because the Chiefs only had the football for eight minutes and 19 seconds. Hunt then broke a tackle over the middle for a 37-yard third-quarter catch and raced up the seam for a 29-yarder in the fourth quarter, which made his absence from the field on the Chiefs' crucial 4th-and-goal failure all the more strange.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Vikings (3 catches for 51 yards)
The Amazing Invisible First-Round Pick was highly visible Sunday. He looked almost Odell Beckham-like with a one-handed 25-yard catch, poked the football away from Clay Matthews to end a long fumble return and cost the Vikings 15 yards before halftime on an illegal crack-back block.
So there was some good and some bad, but at least Treadwell was involved and playing hard. Sunday's 51 yards nearly doubled his career total—Treadwell entered the game with 57 receiving yards on six catches since the start of the 2016 season.
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders (5 catches for 28 yards on 6 targets)
Cooper lost 31- and 19-yard completions to penalties as the Raiders seemed to think that the best way to win with an injured Derek Carr was to play as sloppily as possible. (It didn't work.)
Cooper's receptions that counted included a five-yard catch on 2nd-and-16 and a three-yarder on 2nd-and-7. Do you get the sinking feeling that the Cooper saga in Oakland ends with them getting fed up and moving him to the Patriots, Randy Moss-style?
Offensive Line of the Week
The 52-point Saints total is misleading—the Saints defense scored 21 points via a fumble recovery and two pick-sixes—but the offensive line still helped Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and others rush for 193 yards and two touchdowns while holding the Lions defense without a sack. So this week's award goes to Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford and rookie Ryan Ramczyk.
Defender of the Week
You know it was a wild week when a Saints defender wins this award. But Cameron Jordan dunked this week's award over the goal post with two sacks, three passes defensed (Jordan is a lineman, remember) and a pick-six. Jordan was also penalized for dunking over the goal post, because apparently that's illegal now. Whatever, NFL.
Special Teamer of the Week
Pharoh Cooper's Twitter handle is @KingTutt_chdown. His role on the Rams is to replace Tavon Austin, the overpriced slot specialist with a bad case of the mega-muffs, as the primary return man. He went the distance on the opening kickoff return to establish the Rams' special teams dominance against the Jaguars. Keep your eye on the Pharoh, folks.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
With Julio Jones healthy and Mohamed Sanu injured against a Miami team that only bothers to show up about once per month, the Falcons' top receiver looked like a reliable source of fantasy points. So of course, Matt Ryan uncorked a 40-yard TD bomb to...undrafted rookie receiver Marvin Hall.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Tarik Cohen's option-pass touchdown for Chicago wasn't the prettiest trick play of the week. That honor goes to the Saints. On fourth down, Drew Brees handed off to fullback Zach Line, who veered off tackle before pitching to Alvin Kamara in a play that looked like it belonged in Rugby Sevens. Imagine if Adrian Peterson was asked to take a handoff and pitch to a rookie. His head would have erupted like a supervolcano. The Saints may have traded him just so they could run this play.
Not to End a Fun NFL Week on a Downer, But...
Week 6 was a blast, from an exciting Thursday night game between two strong teams to a Sunday of controversial calls, breathtaking highlights and fourth-down bafflement to a Sunday night upset surprise.
Enjoy the thrills while you can Monday, because here's what is looming on the horizon for this week.
The Ezekiel Elliott Ruling
He's probably suspended again. Unless there is another ruling, or a reversal or something. I got lost in the legal mumbo jumbo weeks ago. The only certainty is that there will continue to be zero winners in this protracted legal saga which long ago ceased to have anything to do with domestic violence.
The Fall Owners Meetings
Anthem protests top the agenda, which means POTUS tweets, mealy-mouthed statements from the league, possibly a Jerry Jones ultimatum or two to pour some gasoline on the tire fire and maybe even some mention of the racial injustice and criminal justice abuses the players are protesting about.
Life Without Aaron Rodgers
The Packers offense is built entirely around Rodgers' irreplaceable skills as a pinpoint passer, playmaker and decision-maker. There will be little joy in watching the team try to operate around Brett Hundley.
Jameis Winston Speculation
The Buccaneers stink, Jameis Winston injured his shoulder, and Ryan Fitzpatrick (pictured) had one of those relief performances that looks great if you throw out the turnovers, ignore the garbage-time production and grade on the "He's Great Copy!" curve.
The NFL has too many gritty journeymen. It needs its rising-star quarterbacks. In fact, the only thing that could cause a more throbbing headache than another round of fawning over the NFL's favorite hipster intellectual is...
The Colin Kaepernick Grievance
Whatever your opinion on Kaepernick and the complex, important issues surrounding his unemployment, we can all agree: This case is going to feel like a pair of sledgehammers wailing on our temples for months and months to come.