Monday Morning Digest Week 7: Meet the NFL's Next Great Team
In this week's Digest:
- Giants practice squad receivers prove no match for the Legion of Boom. No surprise.
- Tyrod Taylor leads the Bills to a big win that he will get little credit for. No surprise.
6 Reasons to Climb Aboard the Rams Bandwagon
Attention, disaffected Los Angeles sports fans, Missourians who have gotten over their NFL abandonment issues, early adopters, unrepentant front-runners, millennials who like authority figures who could recognize the songs in their Spotify playlists and fans who just love watching an exciting young team develop into a contender:
It's time to jump on the Rams bandwagon. Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and the gang are the NFL's Next Great Team.
Before explaining why the Rams, now 5-2 and coming off a 33-0 trouncing of the Cardinals in England, have earned Next Great Team status, here are a disclaimer and a caveat.
DISCLAIMER: "Next Great Team" does not mean this year's Super Bowl champion. It means the next team to become a perennial playoff contender.
But right now, the Rams are the up-and-comers with all of the sizzle, style and substance. Here's why:
Jared Goff's good-not-great season stats (8 TDs, 4 interceptions, 1 rushing TD, a below-average 59.9 completion percentage) don't tell the full story of how much he has developed since escaping Jeff Fisher's Dickensian orphanage of an offensive system. Goff scans the field well, makes great decisions, distributes the ball efficiently, makes tough throws and generates big plays with his legs once in a while. Goff is like Kirk Cousins, except with the potential to go from "good enough" to "outstanding."
McVay's offense isn't full of gadgets and wrinkles, but it is balanced, and plays flow naturally from one another. The Rams run with purpose, get the most from Gurley as a rusher and receiver, mix in play-action and misdirection wisely, and find touches for a deep corps of skill-position players.
There are stars you have heard of: Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Lamarcus Joyner and Mark Barron. There are contributors you are less familiar with, such as Matt Longacre, who picked up his fourth sack of the year Sunday. Coordinator Wade Phillips has built a defense that is as multifaceted and fun to watch as the offense.
The Special Teams
Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker have been one of the league's best kicker-punter tandems for years. Now they can contribute to a winning effort. Throw in dangerous returners like Pharoh Cooper, and the Rams can win games on special teams. See last week's Jaguars victory for evidence.
The new Rams midcentury-chic white-horned helmet may not win them any games, but it's a joy to look at. The helmets don't quite match the gold-trimmed jerseys, but think of it as a power clash.
Seahawks fans may point to their team's 16-10 win over the Rams in Week 5 and claim they are still the best team in the division. But which team appears headed in the right direction to you? The young team averaging 30.3 points per game or the veteran team that struggled to beat the Giants practice squad and can't get through a victory without coach-versus-player sideline squabbles? Thought so. The Rams are in the process of claiming the NFC West. After that comes the conference, then the league.
So climb aboard the Rams bandwagon. Get to know the players, coaches and personalities. You'll see clever end-arounds, precision-blocked Gurley runs, smooth Goff progressions, bone-crushing sacks and 60-yard punts. You may even see Sammy Watkins if you look hard enough.
And when you see the Rams in the Super Bowl—not this year, but when McVay, Goff and others have a little more experience—you can claim that you were a huge fan from the start.
Sunday brought its share of surprising and potentially misleading results. Not sure who is "for real" and who is fool's gold among the Week 7 winners? Digest is here to sort things out.
Saints (4-2, beat Packers 26-17)
The Saints extended their four-game winning streak with the kind of bad-weather road victory they rarely achieved. Yes, Drew Brees looked shaky and the run defense was porous until it realized Brett Hundley was glorified Scott Tolzien and started stacking the box. But the Saints have a pair of winnable home games coming (Bears, Buccaneers) in a division full of very flawed teams. Real.
Jaguars (4-3, beat Colts 27-0)
The Jaguars of 2008-16 would have played down to their AFC Southlandia tee-ball buddies. But this team has a little bit of mettle. An honest-to-goodness defense and an offense that can win without Leonard Fournette make them wild-card fodder, if not true contenders (the Jaguars are in trouble if they need Blake Bortles or their special teams to make plays). By Jaguars standards, wild-card fodder means 100 percent USDA. Real.
The Titans, on the other hand, needed overtime to beat the Browns six days after a scare at the hands of the Colts. Yes, Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray and Delanie Walker were all playing hurt Sunday. A real contender would only have needed one of them to beat the Browns. Not real.
Bears (3-4, beat Panthers 17-3)
The Bears are the NFL's most entertainingly boring spoilers: They show up, hand off and wait for you to beat yourself. They are like the Ravens, except they are trending upward and are far less excruciating to watch. But while they are the NFL's toughest out, they are not real, because real teams complete more than four passes per week.
Vikings (5-2, beat Ravens 24-16)
The Vikings excel at manufacturing wins with sacks, takeaways and special teams. They face the Browns next week and then have a bye week to figure out when/if any of their injured quarterbacks will get healthy. The Vikings ain't pretty, but they are definitely real.
Seahawks (4-2, beat Giants 24-7)
The Seahawks are the Seahawks: All-Decade defense, make-it-up-as-they-go-along offense and mall-security offensive line. That formula, so quasi-successful in recent years, makes them the second-best team in the NFC West and about the fourth-to-seventh best team in the NFC. Technically, that's real, though not as real as the Seahawks think they are.
Foggy Rematch Spotlight: Patriots 23, Falcons 7
It was the Super Bowl rematch, also known as traumatic immersion therapy for the Falcons, who responded with all of the composure of my dog during a thunderstorm on the Fourth of July.
After a scoreless first quarter of the Super Bowl rematch (if NBC could keep dwelling on it, so can we), the Patriots blocked a field goal and embarked on a 74-yard drive which culminated in a Brandin Cooks shovel-pass touchdown. Soon it was 17-0, as the Falcons picked up where they left off in the second half against the Dolphins while Tom Brady overcame spotty pass protection to spread the ball among Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and James White.
Then a dense fog enveloped Gillette Stadium. Like a burial shroud. Like the mists upon a haunted cove. Like a metaphor for the Falcons' mental state. Yes, the Falcons were fogbound like some phantom schooner, doomed to ply the waves endlessly, with field goals doinking off uprights and fourth-down passes falling incomplete in the end zone, forever reliving the shame of their Super Bowl collapse, eternal, endless suffering...at least until they replace offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian with someone who knows what he is doing.
What It Means
The Falcons have a bad offensive coordinator and bad juju, and sacrificing Sarkisian to the football gods is starting to look like a way to solve both problems. For Sark to save his job, he needs to find a way to get Julio Jones involved earlier (much of Jones' 9-99-1 production came when the Patriots were in command) and fix a red-zone offense that has been dysfunctional for a month.
The Patriots defense still looks vulnerable when the opponent isn't battling its own demons and the on-field visibility isn't approximately Scottish moors at dawn. But the early-season gloom is slowly evaporating (as it so often does for the Patriots). It's hard to find three more losses on the upcoming schedule.
The Falcons spend the week breathing into a paper bag before visiting the Jets. The Patriots try to cook up a new weather phenomenon (thundersnow, rain of toads, Pugnado) to help them beat the Chargers.
Player Spotlight: Brett Hundley
Brett Hundley has spent over two years getting nurtured in the subtleties and nuances of the Packers system. So naturally, he executed the kind of game plan in Sunday's 26-17 loss to the Saints that teams normally use when Thaddeus Lewis gets forced into the game 72 hours after signing as a free agent.
Hundley generated a few big plays on rugged scrambles and designed runs. But he completed just 12 of 25 passes for 87 yards and one interception. His rare downfield passes were either up-for-grabs heaves or came nowhere near their targets.
What It Means
Hundley's discount-rack Tim Tebow wannabe performance is a major variable in the delicate calculus of a possible late-December Aaron Rodgers return. If the Packers somehow remain in the playoff race—a surprising running game, some big defensive plays and rainy weather kept them in the lead for much of Sunday's loss—Rodgers gives them their only hope of accomplishing anything in the postseason.
It's more likely, based on both Hundley's performance and Mike McCarthy's obvious discomfort with removing the offensive baby-proofing, that the Packers will swirl down the drain now that one of the league's best passing games is suddenly one of the league's worst.
Perhaps this is an overreaction to one bad game. But it was the game Hundley has spent three years preparing for, at home against a traditionally bad defense. He'll have to get a lot better to be adequate.
Maybe Hundley will learn things during the bye that he didn't master during three training camps. After that, a Lions-at Bears-Ravens-at Steelers run will decide whether the Rodgers-less Packers tread water or go belly-up.
Game Spotlight: Dolphins 31, Jets 28
The Jets did what they always do lately—show up, act professional, try their darnedest and hope it's enough to eek out a win. Meanwhile, the Dolphins arrived unprepared to stop screen passes or off-tackle runs on defense and trying to move the ball exclusively on roughing penalties on offense.
The Jets took a 28-14 second-half lead on simple execution and Dolphins blunders. But Jay Cutler suffered a third-quarter chest injury, looking almost as disappointed to leave the field as he usually looks to be on the field. After some early hiccups, Matt Moore added new dimensions to the Dolphins offense—downfield passing, smart decision-making, caring what happens.
Moore led two touchdown drives to tie the game. Then Josh McCown—who was at his Game Manager of the Year best for about 58 minutes—coughed up an ugly interception in Jets territory in the waning moments to set up a game-winning Cody Parkey field goal.
What It Means
- The Jets are playing the best football they probably can with their expansion-caliber roster, and it bodes well for the team's ability to build something positive in the future, particularly on defense. It would be easier to be enthusiastic about their rebuilding potential on offense if their two best players Sunday (McCown and Matt Forte) weren't old enough to be Cardinals backups.
- Jay Cutler has held the Dolphins back this season with his shrugging 3rd-and-long checkdowns and general Cutlerosity. Moore should be the starter going forward, regardless of Cutler's health status.
- No matter who starts for the Dolphins or how hard the Jets try, the Bills are the second-best team in the AFC East.
Player Spotlight: Tyrod Taylor
What Happened: Weird Anti-Tyrod Narrative Version
Tyrod Taylor again made a few plays with his legs, relied heavily on LeSean McCoy and got really lucky to lead the Bills to a 30-27 win over the Buccaneers, even though Taylor cannot locate open receivers and is not a Tom Brady-like pocket passer and is therefore totally useless and yucky.
What Happened: Unbiased Report from Planet Earth Version
Taylor threw for 268 yards and one touchdown despite a receiving corps full of injured players, veteran fourth-receiver types, converted quarterbacks and Senior Bowl heroes. He added 53 rushing yards and led a fourth-quarter comeback when the Bills defense abandoned them.
What It Means
Taylor has thrown just two interceptions this season for an offense built on ball control (hater interpretation: He plays it too safe) and manufacturing offense out of players like Deonte Thompson, Logan Thomas and Nick O'Leary (hater interpretation: He needs to get weapons like rookie Zay Jones and broken-thumbed Jordan Matthews more involved!).
Watch Taylor elude pass-rushers, keep drives alive with his legs and find open receivers during scrambles, and it becomes clear that his talent is about the only thing keeping the Bills offense from turning into the Ravens or 49ers offense (hater interpretation: Gosh, why won't he just stay in the pocket like a traditional quarterback?).
The Bills are now 4-2 with some impressive wins, and while their defense has a lot to do with it, it's hard to criticize Taylor unless you deliberately set out to do it.
What Happens Next
The Bills host the Raiders. If Taylor throws for three touchdowns, it will be exclusively because of the porous Raiders secondary.
Struggling Young Quarterback Digest
Digest keeps you up to date on how the NFL's many unestablished young quarterbacks fared in Week 7.
Jacoby Brissett, Colts (200 passing yards in a shutout loss to the Jaguars)
It was fun to speculate about Brissett as a future starter during the first half of the Monday night Colts-Titans game, when he was playing pretty well. To his credit, Brissett's Johnny-on-the-spot starts for the Patriots last year and Colts this year should keep him in the NFL until he's Josh McCown, because being ready and adequate on short notice is a valuable skill. And maybe Brissett can be more. But he has run every Colts play he knows five times now, and opponents have caught up.
Trevor Siemian, Broncos (207 yards, 1 interception in a shutout loss to the Chargers)
Siemian's greatest talent has always been that he is not disappointing, which goes a long way on the Broncos quarterback depth chart full of talent-and-opportunity squanderers. Speaking of which: Paxton Lynch is reportedly not close to returning from the shoulder injury he suffered in late August, according to Jon Heath of Broncos Wire, and Chad Kelly just started throwing again, per Mike Klis of KUSA-TV. So Siemian gets hazard duty against the Chiefs next week while everyone else takes advantage of their medical redshirts.
C.J. Beathard, 49ers (235 yards, 5 sacks in a 40-10 loss to the Cowboys)
Beathard lost two fumbles and got most of his production on one deep pass to Marquise Goodwin and some garbage-time tomfoolery. Really, it's best that mid-round try-hards like Beathard get walloped in their first starts. It keeps coaches from growing infatuated with them and deciding they don't need real quarterbacks.
Mitchell Trubisky, Bears (107 yards in 17-3 win over the Panthers)
He made all seven of his attempts count, for what it's worth. What's worrisome is that John Fox is getting rewarded with victories for his extreme helicopter parenting of Trubisky and may dust off the 1939 Notre Dame box offense next week.
DeShone Kizer, Browns (114 yards, 2 interceptions in 12-9 loss to Titans)
Kizer was benched in favor of (rolls 20-sided die on "Random Encounter with Browns Quarterback" chart) Cody Kessler and then offered some no-comment comments regarding (rolls 20-sided die on "Random Controversy Surrounding Browns Rookie Quarterback" chart) being out too late at a club this weekend. But don't worry, Browns fans: They will spend their zillion draft picks on other positions and hand the keys to next year's offense to (rolls 20-sided die on "Browns' Horrendous Quarterback Decision" chart) Jacoby Brissett.
Defender of the Week
Bears rookie safety Eddie Jackson may simply have been in the right place at the right time when he recovered an errant option pitch for a 75-yard touchdown and then corralled a deflected interception for a 76-yard touchdown. But safety play is all about being in the right place at the right time, and two defensive touchdowns for a team that doesn't really want to play offense are nothing to sneeze at. Also, how about that Bears rookie class?
Offensive Line of the Week
The Cowboys finally win this week after not living up to their reputation for most of the season. Tyron Smith, Jonathan Cooper, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and La'el Collins helped Ezekiel Elliott and Co. rack up 265 rushing yards at 6.2 yards per carry.
Special Teamer of the Week
Vikings kicker Kai Forbath's six field goals against the Ravens included 52- and 51-yarders.
Non-Kicker Special Teamer of the Week
Who knew Travis Benjamin's 65-yard punt return touchdown would be all the scoring the Chargers would need to beat the Broncos? Benjamin's return was upstaged by Drew Kaser's 69-yard rocket of a punt later in the game, which bounced obediently at the Broncos one-yard line until the Chargers could down it.
Mystery Touch of the Week I
Steelers safety Robert Golden both put the Bengals away and rubbed lemon juice in all of their wounds with a 44-yard fake punt pass to Darius Heyward-Bey in the fourth quarter.
Mystery Touch of the Week II
Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith wound up with the ball during the team's desperation-playground-lateral play as time expired. Smith rumbled forward five yards and looked like he was going to run to daylight for a brief moment before remembering he is a 338-pound lineman and wisely pitching to Cameron Brate.
Smith's brief foray into ball-handling proves that, no matter the situation, the Bucs are incapable of working DeSean Jackson into their offense properly.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
Logan Thomas may not be a true leech, but he's a former Virginia Tech, Cardinals, Dolphins, Giants and Lions quarterback who converted to tight end in one of those moves that screams "it's either this or Saskatchewan." So even fantasy owners counting on LeSean McCoy had to smile when Thomas got wide open for the Bills on a rub-'n'-wheel route for a touchdown.
The touchdown illustrates that the Bills can find roles in their pop-gun passing game for reclamation projects, yet the Buccaneers still can't work Jackson into their offense properly.
Inside the Numbers
Joe Flacco: 27-of-39, 186 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 5 sacks
Major media careers were built from mercilessly slagging Flacco back when he was effective, so it is tricky to recalibrate the conversation to describe just how terrible he has been for most of this season. Flacco fumbled three times. He threw for just 66 yards in the first half. His touchdown and 65 of his passing yards came on a meaningless game-ending drive.
The Ravens offense is now mostly end-arounds and long Justin Tucker field goals, making it slightly worse than the traditional Ravens offense of off-tackle runs and long Justin Tucker field goals.
Christian McCaffrey: 7 carries for 10 yards, 7 catches for 36 yards
McCaffrey also returned three punts for 17 yards. Cheesy fantasy PPR production aside, McCaffrey was an innocent bystander for two of the Panthers' dumbest turnovers of the afternoon: Cam Newton's failed option pitch to Curtis Samuel (McCaffrey was the "fullback" on the play because Mike Shula seemed determined to confound those of us watching the game) and Newton's fourth-quarter interception to Danny Trevathan, which was thrown somewhere in McCaffrey's vicinity.
McCaffrey did turn a desperation pass into a conversion on 3rd-and-13 with some nifty moves and made a one-handed grab of an errant slot screen pass. The phrase "errant slot screen pass" should be a hint that the problem is not McCaffrey, but a quarterback with no short accuracy and a coordinator who dreams up option plays after eating cold chili before bedtime.
Adrian Peterson: 11 carries for 21 yards, 1 catch on 4 targets for 12 yards
A lot of us effusively praised AP last week because we had a feeling this would happen. Peterson's longest run was just six yards. In fairness, his blocking was poor, and the Cardinals fell so far behind that Peterson got just three second-half carries. Expect more weeks like these, regardless of Carson Palmer's status.
Giants wide receivers: 5 catches on 15 targets for 45 yards
With all their receivers you have heard of and enjoy watching currently injured, the Giants faced the Legion of Boom with lovable undrafted rookie Travis Rudolph and bottom-of-the-bench hangers-on Tavarres King and Roger Lewis as their top wideouts. With the offensive line still in shambles, Eli Manning did his best to manufacture offense out of dinks to tight end Evan Engram, dunks to running backs and some Seahawks penalties and turnovers. Manning completed just one pass longer than 20 yards (to Engram), while six Giants possessions netted less than 10 yards.
Tune in after the Giants' bye when they open the game in a three-tight end formation and never leave it.
O.J. Howard: 6 catches on 6 targets for 98 yards, 2 TDs
Howard's receptions of 33, 21 and 19 yards were three of the Bucs' six longest plays in their loss to the Bills. Not only was it a breakout performance for a rookie tight end with All-Pro talent, but it solves the riddle of how Dirk Koetter assembles his game plans:
Howard: Big Plays, "Hail Marys" against the Patriots.
Cameron Brate: 3rd-and-medium (every single time. Seriously, watch the film).
Mike Evans: Up-for-grabs balls.
Adam Humphries: Slotty McSlotface.
DeSean Jackson: Expensive decoy.
Running game: Afterthought when the receivers need a breather.
Field goals: Heaven help us.
Last Call: Stealing the Dragon's Eggs in the End Zone
The Steelers' 29-14 win over the Bengals was reassuringly familiar. All the typical Steelers-Bengals stuff happened: Le'Veon Bell went HAM, Vontaze Burfict played dirty, the Bengals looked good early before melting into a pool of sacks and turnovers, etc. Everything happened as expected; not much to talk about.
The most unusual thing about the Steelers win was the game of hide 'n' seek the Steelers played in the end zone to celebrate JuJu Smith-Schuster's touchdown.
As mentioned in earlier Digests, NFL players have responded to the relaxed celebration rules not by turning the end zone into the world's hottest nightclub but by becoming one big improv troupe pantomiming their favorite moments from childhood.
So far this season, the Vikings have played Duck-Duck-Goose, the Bills have played video games and the Eagles have played baseball. Now add hide 'n' seek to the season-long salute to childhood innocence.
What will players come up with next? Digest has some suggestions ripped from the local daycare.
Double Dutch: Two teammates swing the imaginary ropes. The scorer shows off his footwork. Simple. Elegant.
Musical chairs: The "chairs" are linemen on all fours. The skill-position guys circle them and then scramble when the scorer "lifts the needle." Only slightly longer and more annoying than the typical 2015 Panthers celebration.
Trick or treat: Players line up and knock on an imaginary door. The scorer drops the football "treat" into a favorite teammate's sack. Perfect for next week.
Gaga: No, not the Lady, but the ballgame that is like dodge ball without the inherent bullying. Popular at day camps and guaranteed to puzzle anyone older than Sean McVay.
Story time: The scorer "reads" from the football to teammates who sit in a circle and then curl up and pretend to fall asleep. This celebration may work best during Thursday night's Dolphins-Ravens game, when most of the audience will already be asleep.