Monday Morning Digest: Who Can Stop the Eagles' Wentz Wagon?
In the Week 9 edition of Monday Morning Digest:
- Brock Osweiler is king in the land of terrible starting quarterbacks.
- A new contender quietly makes his Offensive Rookie of the Year bid.
- Kirk Cousins out-Seahawks the Seahawks with his own brand of fourth-quarter heroics.
- And much more, from WWE takedowns to 3rd-and-33 touchdowns.
So climb aboard Digest now, and we'll be sure to save you a seat on the Wentz Wagon.
Eagles Face Few Challengers as the NFC's Team to Beat
The Eagles dropped 51 points on the allegedly great Broncos defense Sunday. They did it without the services of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, who is out for the year, and tight end/leading receiver Zach Ertz, who was sidelined with a minor hamstring injury.
The Eagles have the best record in the NFL right now and should be even better after their Week 10 bye. Ertz and cornerback Ronald Darby will be back, newcomer Jay Ajayi (who galloped for a 46-yard touchdown Sunday) will have more than one week of practice under his belt, and so on.
It's already time to think about fun things like the playoffs and home-field advantage in Philly.
Can anyone stop the Wentz Wagon? To keep things simple and spare everyone the Patriots are battle-tested proven champions auto-text portion of this rundown, let's limit our discussion to the other NFC contenders.
Jared Goff and Co. have matched the Eagles blowout for blowout and early-season upset for early-season upset for most of the year. Like the Eagles, the Rams boast a rising-star second-year quarterback, a dynamic offense and a tough defense, plus a few secret weapons like the league's best kicker/punter tandem.
As good as Goff and the Rams have been, however, both Wentz and the Eagles appear further along on the developmental curve. A Week 14 battle in the Coliseum will tell us more—and it could determine home-field advantage for the postseason, too.
The Cowboys notched an impressive win over the Chiefs on Sunday and are playing well on both sides of the ball. They are usually left out of the NFC conversation, however, because a) their 2-3 season start created a false sense that they were underachieving; and b) the lawyers in the Ezekiel Elliott case have finally tired themselves out, so Elliott is about to be re-re-re-re-suspended.
Circle Weeks 11 and Week 17 (New Year's Eve) as the days the Cowboys get a chance to flip the script in a division where you can always expect the unexpected. My counsel tells me Elliott will probably be unavailable in the first game and raring to go in the second.
We'll get to the latest chapter in the Seahawks' Season Without Logic a little later. Suffice it to say, the Seahawks are a half-dozen superstars masquerading as a real team, but that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous.
The Seahawks can take any opponent down to a last-second Hail Mary in Seattle, and they will get a chance to prove it to the Eagles in Week 13. If there's a playoff game in Philly, however, the Eagles will beat them by two touchdowns.
Like the Seahawks, the Saints have an exaggerated home-road split when they reach the playoffs. Unlike the Seahawks, they are actually a solid, well-balanced team instead of a random highlight generation system. The Eagles are the better team, but they want to avoid the Superdome.
They won't be in the playoff picture by the time Aaron Rodgers is ready to return.
Yes, the Vikings, Panthers or some other team can still muscle its way into the conversation. But none of them pose as much of a threat to the Eagles as attrition itself. As well as they have played, the Eagles are still relative upstarts with a second-year coach and quarterback, and the second half of the season is all about overcoming injuries, fatigue and heightened expectations. Teams like the Patriots and Seahawks have proven they can do that; the Eagles have not.
But great teams have to start somewhere, and the Eagles have already overcome some tough obstacles this season. They're the team to beat for a reason. And the time to doubt them (and their MVP-candidate quarterback) has long passed.
Player Spotlight: The Broncos' Quarterback Catastrophe
The Broncos tried to halt a three-game losing streak by replacing Trevor Siemian with Brock Osweiler, the quarterback the Texans paid the Browns to get rid of and the Browns are paying to play for the Broncos.
Given Osweiler's pedigree, it's no surprise that he threw for just 208 yards and a pair of interceptions in Sunday's 51-23 loss to the Eagles. Osweiler's lone touchdown was a garbage-time toss to Demaryius Thomas. He was also strip-sacked once and threw numerous passes that were nearly picked off.
The Broncos looked ready to quit on both sides of the ball before halftime, a sure sign that the veterans have zero faith in either Osweiler or the turnover-prone thirsty try-hard he replaced.
What it means
So...is it finally Paxton Lynch time in Denver?
Lynch, who has been recovering from a shoulder injury since late in the preseason, could be healthy enough to play next week, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The question is not whether he can be better than Osweiler or late-October Siemian—Gary Kubiak could return from the personnel department to play quarterback and outperform the other two Broncos options—but whether Lynch can be good enough to get the 3-5 Broncos back in the playoff conversation.
Lynch flunked his preseason audition, and the incredibly marginal Siemian marginally outperformed him in their offseason competition. While he has the most upside of the Broncos' three-headed monstrosity, it's hard to imagine him morphing immediately into Wentz/Goff/Prescott after one year on scholarship and two months in injury rehab.
These Broncos are a not great team with bad quarterbacks. Instead, they're an overrated, average-at-best team with awful quarterbacks. The Eagles and other opponents have exposed cracks in their worn-out defense. They have no offensive playmakers other than Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Juggling quarterbacks won't help unless one of them is Tom Brady, or at least some dynamic scrambler type who can make things happen on his own like...nah, let's not go there right now.
Inserting Lynch won't save this season, but it at least will let the Broncos start planning for the future.
What happens next
Some poor soul draws the short straw against the Patriots. And we start talking seriously about Jim Kelly's nephew by about Week 14.
Quarterback Desperation Digest
Brock Osweiler may have been the worst desperation starter at quarterback in Week 9, but he was far from the only one. The following four quarterbacks all have two things in common: None of them should be starting in the NFL, yet no one worries about what effect their ineffective/unwatchable play might have on television ratings or take-out restaurant revenues.
Drew Stanton, Cardinals
Stanton, a veteran journeyman who is a clear notch above the others on this list, threw a 52-yard pass on the first play of the game and added a pair of touchdowns in a 20-10 Cardinals win. He went just 15-of-30 on the day, but to the credit of him and head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals are willing to take downfield chances with Stanton instead of resorting to two-yard completions on 3rd-and-15 because a backup is in the game. It isn't great, but it's refreshing.
Jacoby Brissett, Colts
Brissett delivered another gutsy performance, completing five passes for 175 yards to T.Y. Hilton alone, including an 80-yarder in which Hilton dove past the fingertips of a would-be tackler, leapt to his feet and kept running. The rest of the Colts offense didn't do much, and Brissett gave up a strip-six touchdown after a wallop from blitzing safety Eddie Pleasant. But on this list, the ability to hook up with a No. 1 receiver consistently makes Brissett look like Johnny Unitas.
C.J. Beathard, 49ers
Beathard is capable of exactly one long bomb to Marquise Goodwin per week; the rest is all sacks and futility. But either Beathard thinks he is Cam Newton or head coach Kyle Shanahan thinks he is Cam Newton, because Beathard runs a lot near the goal line even though he runs like a puppy chasing a laser pointer. There's no way Shanny keeps Jimmy Garoppolo in bubble wrap for the whole season; Beathard will be lucky to survive another week or two.
Tom Savage, Texans
Savage got strip-sacked twice by the Colts, including on the game's final play, when a goal-to-go touchdown would have resulted in a comeback Texans victory. Savage has fumbled four times and lost three in six quarters of football, and an offense that dropped 38 points on the Legion of Boom in Seattle with Deshaun Watson at the helm produced exactly one highlight against the Colts—a pretty TD pass late to DeAndre Hopkins. But look on the bright side: The Texans could still trick the Browns into taking Savage off their hands and leasing him out to the Broncos for them.
Game Spotlight: Redskins 17, Seahawks 14
Most of the Redskins' offensive linemen are injured. Most of the Seahawks' offensive linemen (despite the arrival of Duane Brown from the Texans) are terrible. So the first half went the way Seahawks first halves often do: a safety, three missed field goals and minimal offense for either team.
Seahawks games are like college basketball games—they only get interesting in the last few minutes.
Russell Wilson led a 71-yard, 48-second drive to give the Seahawks 17-14 lead with 1:34 to play. But Kirk Cousins then threw two of the best passes of his career: a 31-yard teardrop against a heavy blitz to Brian Quick, followed by a 38-yard strike along the left sideline to Josh Doctson to set up a go-ahead touchdown run by Rob Kelley.
Wilson still had 59 seconds to work with, but a late sack took the Seahawks out of field-goal range, and a final Wilson Hail Mary fell incomplete for once.
What it means
If there was any doubt after this week's Jimmy Garoppolo-49ers trade that Cousins would rewrite the NFL's economic model with his next contract, he erased it with his late-game performance. The Redskins are so injury-ravaged that they had no business still being in the game in those final minutes. But Cousins demonstrated his ability to elevate a team with inferior talent. The Broncos, Jets, Browns and other quarterback-needy teams should take notice. So should the Redskins, who are 4-4 and could claw back into the playoff picture if they get 10 or 15 of their regulars back.
Wilson is having an MVP season, but the Seahawks give him no help and give themselves no margin for error. Sunday's game hinged on lots of little things: an apparent Cousins fumble that was reviewed and reversed, a pair of failed two-point conversions, the missed field goals, the third-down stops that led to those field goals, 16 Seahawks penalties for 138 yards.
Maybe the Seahawks can squeeze into the postseason with their all-highlights-and-miracles, no-attention-to-details formula despite Sunday's home loss to a team they should have crushed. But think about how much better the Seahawks could be if they finally figure out they don't have to win that way.
What happens next
The last time the Seahawks visited the Cardinals, they played to a 6-6 tie. That had better not happen again (gives both organizations the stink eye). Meanwhile, the few remaining healthy Redskins and Vikings players likely will be injured after they face each other.
Game Digest: Panthers 20, Falcons 17
Team Crippling Self Doubt took a 10-0 lead but couldn't capitalize further on a pair of Jonathan Stewart fumbles because it ran out of confidence and good offensive ideas.
Team Mighty Mood Swings roared back using its new post-Kelvin Benjamin offensive strategy—making Cam Newton do everything. Newton ran for 86 yards and one touchdown and flipped a basketball assist to Christian McCaffrey on the wing for a second one.
Team Crippling Self Doubt responded as only it can: Julio Jones got open by five yards and dropped a potential game-changing touchdown bomb.
A late touchdown gave Matt Ryan one last chance, but he threw a flat pass for a loss of three followed by three straight incompletions, because the Falcons are now too insecure and self-loathing even to make their last-ditch drives look interesting.
What it means
- The Saints are the best team in the NFC South, and it isn't close.
- The Panthers will be fine until Newton suffers a series of minor injuries while running for all of their positive plays, at which time they will go on an epic losing streak which will be blamed on Newton's lack of leadership.
- If the Falcons were any deeper in their own traumatized heads, they would be sitting in a rocking chair next to Eleven's mama muttering about rainbows and sunflowers. (Um...is it too late to say "Stranger Things spoilers?")
- The Buccaneers are too sad to even make fun of.
The Falcons battle their demons again next week; the Cowboys will also be involved. The Panthers host the Dolphins in a matchup that may be less interesting than the postgame quarterback press conferences.
Player Spotlight: Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints
Alvin Kamara continued to make a strong bid for Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration, rushing 10 times for 68 yards and one touchdown while catching six passes for 84 yards and a weaving, tackle-breaking 33-yard second touchdown.
Kamara also fumbled while trying to hurdle for a third-down conversion early in the game, but the bad far outweighed the good in a 30-10 Saints victory over the Buccaneers that wasn't as close as the score suggests.
What it means
Kamara arrived in New Orleans looking like a perfect fit for the offensive niche Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles used to occupy—the short-pass and yards-after-the-catch machine out of the backfield who also runs some draw plays and makes an impact as a return man.
Kamara is second on the Saints with 37 receptions, but he has also been effective as a traditional running back, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and thriving in a change-up role for Mark Ingram now that Adrian Peterson's wasted touches have been erased from Saints game plans.
Kamara is a big reason why the Saints are 6-2 despite a depleted receiving corps. (Yes, the resurgent defense also deserves a great deal of that credit). As for the Rookie of the Year: Deshaun Watson was phenomenal before getting injured, but the award will go to someone who was available to help his team win after Halloween. Right now, Kamara is as worthy a candidate as any.
What happens next
The Saints visit a Bills team whose run defense got exposed by the Jets on Thursday night.
From the trade wire to the sociopolitical front, it was a stranger-than-usual week of NFL news. Here's a quick recap of just some of the developing stories off the field:
Kyle Shanahan states Jimmy Garoppolo may not play for the 49ers this season.
How to use the Shanahan Family Lie Detector Test: If a Shanahan is a) at a press conference; b) speaking; c) about a quarterback, there's about a 99 percent chance he is lying. Garoppolo will start for the 49ers against the Seahawks in Week 12, after the Niners' Week 11 bye. The more Shanny claims otherwise, the safer that prediction becomes.
If he wins the grievance, it becomes much easier for the Browns to bungle their offseason effort to sign him.
Browns increase Joe Thomas' 2017 and 2018 salary despite his season-ending triceps injury.
Now we know why the Browns didn't file their paperwork for the McCarron trade on time: They were duct-taping the Orthodox Moneyballers in the front office to their chairs so they couldn't object to giving extra money to an injured 32-year-old.
Sure hope Spike Lee is getting royalties for this real-time reenactment of Do the Right Thing.
Despite ratings dip/sponsor concerns, CBS executive calls the NFL "the best thing on TV."
Industry insiders do say there is some buzz around the network's latest programming projects: a Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman reboot and Fetal Sheldon.
Inside the Numbers
Andy Dalton: 10-of-18 for 136 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 2 sacks
Seventy-nine of Dalton's passing yards (58 percent) came on a pair of broken-tackle runs by tight end Tyler Kroft. Dalton threw just 18 passes despite the Bengals trailing for most of the game because the Jaguars controlled the ball for 40 minutes and 14 seconds. Dalton's Bengals were 1-of-8 on third downs. The Bengals ran 14 plays for minus-10 yards on their final five possessions.
The moral of the story: If A.J. Green isn't on the field—he was ejected for attempting an RKO on Jalen Ramsey—Dalton might as well hit the showers, too.
Adrian Peterson: 37 carries for 159 yards, 2 catches for 8 yards
Peterson rushed 20 times in the second half as the Cardinals nursed a modest lead. He had seven touches for 30 yards on one field-goal drive (which started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth) and had six touches for 15 yards on a later one. Yes, diminishing returns were kicking in and change-up back Kerwynn Williams should get more than two carries per game. But if AP is having fun, we're having fun.
Kareem Hunt: 9 carries for 37 yards, 4 catches for 24 yards
Hunt in his last four games: 58 carries, 191 yards, 0 TDs, 47.75 yards per game, just 3.3 yards per carry, 16-165-0 as a receiver. The Eric Dickerson Express has slowed considerably for Hunt after his historic start, which is why it's time to start including players like Alvin Kamara in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
Credit the underrated Cowboys defense for doing a fine job corralling Hunt and the Chiefs. But also keep an eye on Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who has a history of abandoning a productive running game for weeks/months/years at a time.
Terrance Williams: 9 catches on 9 targets for 141 yards
Williams was on the back end of the Cowboys' biggest play of the afternoon, a 56-yard bomb after Dak Prescott scrambled the Chiefs defense out of position. Williams also turned a short curl into a 27-yard gain to set up the Cowboys' first touchdown, and he added several other productive receptions against the Chiefs' leaky pass defense.
Dez Bryant suffered a sprained ankle late in the Cowboys' victory, and Ezekiel Elliott has exhausted the world's supply of lawyers and likely will begin serving his suspension soon. That leaves the Cowboys in need of playmakers.
Williams had four catches for 50 yards on nine targets in the three games before Sunday's victory. Heading into Sunday, he had averaged just 2.8 receptions and 42.4 yards per game in five seasons as one of the league's least productive starting wide receivers.
Williams must do more in the weeks to come. Sunday was an encouraging start.
King-Sized Awards Digest Spectacular!
Offensive Line of the Week
The Eagles rushed for 197 yards and allowed just two sacks against the almost-as-good-as-advertised Broncos defense. But giving them the award would require me to type the name of their left tackle, so the award goes to the Seahawks. Kidding! Let's hear it for (CTRL-C, CTRL-V) Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Stefen Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson and Isaac Seumalo, who replaced Johnson for part of the game. What a spelling nightmare.
Defender of the Week
Titans safety Kevin Byard picked off Joe Flacco twice for his second multi-interception performance in two games. Byard intercepted three passes against the Browns before the Titans' bye two weeks ago.
Special Teamer of the Week
Undrafted rookie defensive back Justin Hardee set the tone for the Saints early in the game by blocking a Buccaneers punt and hauling it in without breaking stride for a touchdown.
Dubious Play Call of the Week
It wasn't all blocked punts and celebrations for the Saints special teams. Coordinator Brad Banta called a home run throwback-type of play on a Saints kickoff return, with Ted Ginn heaving a lateral across the field to Tommylee Lewis. Lewis went nowhere, and the Saints started their drive on the 7-yard line. They drove for a touchdown anyway. But if the opponent is so bad that they never get a chance to kick off, there is no reason to get cute.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger intercepted a Seahawks two-point conversion attempt and weaved to about the 40-yard line before lateraling to Josh Norman, who rumbled about 15 more yards before lateraling back to Swearinger, who was finally corralled by Tyler Lockett and Russell Wilson. Hey, rest of Redskins defense: Get down the field so Norman doesn't have to pitch to a guy who is already out of gas!
Business Decision of the Week
Kirk Cousins fielded a snap that flew high over his head and promptly handed the ball to Rob Kelley with Seahawks defenders converging. Kelley lost nine yards on the "carry." Hey, Cousins can't take any needless hits with a big 2018 payday on the way. Kelley is playing for the league minimum, but whatever.
Moment of Surrender of the Week
The Giants allowed a 52-yard touchdown on a receiver screen by Robert Woods after the Rams penalized themselves into a 3rd-and-33 situation. Head coach Ben McAdoo probably lost his car keys and wallet in addition to the locker room at that point.
WWE Move of the Week
Oddly enough, this one's a tie between Mike Evans clobbering Marshon Lattimore from behind during a scuffle with already-injured-and-helmetless Jameis Winston and A.J. Green applying what Gordon Solie used to call a "blatant choke hold" to Jalen Ramsey in the Jaguars-Bengals brawl. There was also a brawl in the Cardinals-49ers game. Steel cage matches are scheduled for next week.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown of the Week
There were many meaningless late touchdowns in this week's blowouts, but Joe Flacco's late toss to Mike Wallace wins the award because, well, the Titans won 23-20, and the over-under was 41. Not everything is about fantasy football, folks.
Lessons of Luck
Every NFL team must learn from the dysfunction, wishful thinking and sheer bumbling incompetence that defined the Luck Saga. Those who do not heed these Lessons of Luck are doomed to repeat them:
- Thou Shalt Always Have a Backup Plan. Scott Tolzien is the quarterback a team enters camp with when it hasn't taken self-scouting and roster management seriously. Whether the backup is a Jimmy Garoppolo draft-and develop youngster or a Fitzpatrick/McCown type with a little juice left, there must be someone behind your young franchise quarterback who can feasibly win a few spot starts, because…
- Thou Shalt Not Gamble With Thine Quarterback's Health. Young franchise quarterbacks Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston have already taken the field at less than 100 percent this season. That's exactly the kind of risk that leads to a recurring/chronic injury and a possible Luck scenario. If your backup quarterback can't be trusted to keep you competitive for a few starts, find one who can. If your general manager can't find a backup quarterback who can do the job, find a new GM.
- Honesty Must Be Thine Only Policy. The Colts not only were dishonest with fans this offseason, but with themselves. Incoming GM Chris Ballard was either part of the Luck disinformation campaign or purposely misled by others in the organization. Either way, his credibility and reputation have been undercut. Lying about a Luck-caliber quarterback's health doesn't make you a secretive Belichickian genius; it makes your organization look too dumb to recognize a crisis when it sees one.
- Thou Shalt Not Squander Thine Window of Opportunity. When a team has a Luck-caliber franchise quarterback in his prime, there must be no rebuilding periods or wait-and-see seasons for the coach and/or general manager. Teams like the Eagles, Cowboys and Rams must always be closing on a potential championship season while they have quarterbacks on the upswing. Waste a year re-evaluating, and that franchise quarterback might not be the same when you return.
- Cherish Thine Young Franchise Quarterback, Because He Is Thine Most Precious Possession. This is the Golden Rule; everything else is just clarification.