Monday Morning Digest: Lovable Patriots, Bradford's Moxie and Injuries Galore

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 19, 2016

Monday Morning Digest: Lovable Patriots, Bradford's Moxie and Injuries Galore

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    Everything was going right for the Vikings on Sunday night. Then something went very, very wrong. 

    A potentially devastating knee injury to Adrian Peterson overshadowed a 17-14 victory over the Packers and quarterback Sam Bradford's encouraging Vikings debut. The sight of Peterson needing help to hobble to the locker room and walking on crutches during postgame interviews marked a downbeat ending to a Sunday of upsets, shootouts, comebacks and gutsy efforts by third-string quarterbacks.

    Digest is here to catch you up on as much of it as possible, including:

    • A sloppy, rainy Bengals-Steelers game, which is better than a sloppy, rainy Bengals-Steelers medieval poleax battle. Probably.
    • Bradford's gutsy effort and the Vikings' prospects without Peterson (they aren't good).
    • The Patriots' sudden rebranding as the NFL's plucky, lovable overachievers.
    • A Giants free-agent acquisition paying actual dividends.
    • The Rams winning the only way they know how: ugly, against the Seahawks, with MVP-caliber punting.

    And much, much more.

The Front Page: Jacoby Brissett and the Lovable Underdog Patriots

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    Oh, that clever Roger Goodell.

    Inadvertently, irresponsibly and completely despite himself, the commissioner created a compelling early-season drama when he pursued Tom Brady to the ends of the earth to punish the future Hall of Famer for whatever Goodell thinks Brady did in the playoffs roughly a year-and-a-half ago.

    If Brady weren't suspended, last Sunday's Cardinals game certainly would have been exciting, though the result would not have been surprising. The Patriots would then have beaten the Dolphins 56-10 on Sunday, making them heavy favorites Thursday night against their minor league affiliate in Houston. Patriots fans would be thrilled. The rest of us would be snoozing.

    But that crafty Goodell, playing the part of the pro wrestling-style heel/boss, took Brady out of the equation for a month. That gave us an entire July and August of Jimmy Garoppolo speculation. Then an underdog upset victory against the Cardinals instead of another season-opening Patriots coronation.

    Garoppolo suffered a shoulder injury Sunday with the Patriots cruising against the Dolphins. Enter third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins narrowed the gap, but they have the killer instinct of a Labradoodle, so they also allowed Brissett to lead a few late drives to ensure a 31-24 Patriots victory.

    The Patriots are once again 2-0, but they are a different kind of 2-0. They're 2-0 as plucky, resilient, overachieving underdogs, not conquering giants. Deflategate made the Patriots interesting and, for everyone south of Interstate 84, kind of likable again.

    Early reports from NFL.com's Mike Garafalo indicate that Garoppolo injured the AC joint in his shoulder. He is likely to miss Thursday night's game. He may miss the next one as well. After that...well, the outlook gets much brighter for the Patriots.

    It's a bummer for Garoppolo, though the body of work he put up in 1.5 games all but guarantees him a lucrative future. This is a great opportunity for Brissett, a big guy with a live arm who will probably spend Thursday night force-feeding handoffs to LeGarrette Blount.

    If the Patriots beat the Texans, they once again demonstrate their organizational brilliance, their "Do Your Job" perseverance, and all of those other virtues we love for great teams but sometimes take for granted (or, for the "Cheatriots" crowd, flat-out deny) with the Patriots.

    If they lose, the Brady Revenge Narrative commences in three weeks.

    Either way, fans win, because we crave new stories. The Patriots organization wins a little newfound admiration for doing something aside from winding Brady up and plopping him down on the field. And the NFL wins, generating intrigue and anticipation from what looked like an 18-month self-inflicted headache.

    Even when Goodell's wins look like losses, they are really wins.

    We should all be so lucky.

Digestible Nuggets

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    This week's Digestible Nuggets (they are like hot takes, without the queasy feeling) focus on teams enduring either 0-2 sadness or 2-0 euphoria. If your team is undefeated or winless but not mentioned, look for them spotlighted on another slide.

    Baltimore Ravens (2-0): If any franchise in NFL history were ever destined to start a season with wins over a team looking for an excuse to fire its offensive coordinator (Bills) and one that may be trying to lose (Browns)—only beating the second team by returning a blocked extra point for two points to spark a comeback when trailing by 20—it's the Baltimore Freakin' Ravens. They are also the most likely franchise on earth to somehow keep doing this until they are 10-6.

    Buffalo Bills (0-2): Blame season came early to upstate New York.

    Cleveland Browns (0-2): They aren't really trying to lose. It just comes easily for them.

    Denver Broncos (2-0): The defense scored two touchdowns and allowed 253 yards of offense at 3.8 yards per play. Wade Phillips will probably make them do burpees Monday. At this rate, they will need a major contribution from their quarterback somewhere around the AFC Championship Game.

    Indianapolis Colts (0-2): They Kept It Close for Most of the Game is the working title of the Chuck Pagano biopic.

    Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2): You should always store your Jaguars optimism with your beach towels and pool supplies. That way, you will remember to put it away on Labor Day.

    Miami Dolphins: (0-2): They're the best team in the NFL from midway through the third quarter to midway through the fourth quarter and one of the two or three worst teams in the NFL for the other 45 minutes.

    New Orleans Saints (0-2): Two close losses on late-game heroics by their opponents would be nothing to worry much about if the Saints hadn't been losing games like that consistently for three years.

    New York Giants (2-0): Probably not "for real," but as real as a team has to be to win the NFC East.

    Washington Redskins: (0-2): It's time to stop worrying about which side of the field Josh Norman lines up on. It's time to start worrying about Kirk Cousins overthrowing open receivers and serving up easy interceptions over the middle of the field. 

Game Spotlight: Rams 9, Seahawks 3

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    What Happened: The Rams celebrated their return to Los Angeles by upsetting the Seahawks for the fourth time in their last five meetings. While past upsets were surprisingly high-scoring games (usually buoyed by defensive and special teams touchdowns), Sunday's game was everything you would expect from a Rams-Seahawks game: 19 penalties, 13 punts and a highlight reel full of field goals.

    Rams punter Johnny Hekker proved to be the Rams' secret weapon, which is a step up from the many weeks when he is the Rams' only weapon. Hekker nailed six punts inside the 20-yard line. The Seahawks' average starting position was their own 17-yard line, and a noticeably gimpy Russell Wilson couldn't generate any long drives while getting the usual non-support from his offensive line.

    The Seahawks' final drive started on their own 12-yard line after a facemask penalty on what would have been a field position-changing sack gave the Rams free yardage and a launching point for one last Hekker assault. Wilson drove the Seahawks downfield, but a Christine Michael fumble after a reception effectively ended the game.

    What It Means: This is Rams football, Angelenos. They beat the Seahawks regularly, win a few other games with sacks and punts, and finish the season 7-9 like it's the key to happiness. Their first touchdown of the season will probably arrive before October, and it will be all the sweeter when it comes.

    Not to repeat what we said last week, or have been saying since last September, but the Seahawks offensive line is dreadful. With Wilson hobbled by a sprained ankle, he cannot escape danger and produce miraculous big plays. Until Wilson heals or the offensive line improves, the Seahawks will struggle to cross the 14-point barrier. And it's not clear how Wilson can heal if the offensive line doesn't improve.

    What's Next: The Seahawks face the feisty 49ers. The Rams will officially announce Jeff Fisher's contract extension now that they won't be laughed out of professional sports for doing it after a 28-0 shutout. Then they'll prepare for the Buccaneers.

Player Spotlight: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

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    What He Did: Hopkins caught seven passes for 113 yards and one touchdown in the Texans' 19-12 win over the Chiefs, dueling for most of the afternoon with Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters.

    Hopkins muscled Peters aside early in the game for a 27-yard touchdown; Peters was reduced to flapping his arms like an angry goose in search of an offensive pass interference flag. Peters got payback late in the game when an off-target Brock Osweiler pass bounced off Hopkins' hands and into his for an interception.

    Hopkins also had a near-touchdown overturned by the fine print of the catch rule (CBS posted a graphic of the exact rulebook language being applied; it looked like a page from The Brothers Karamazov torn from a Norton's Anthology), got into a fourth-quarter shoving match with Peters that resulted in an offensive penalty, and caught a 16-yard pass late in the fourth quarter to set up the field goal that put a too-close game just out of reach of the Chiefs. He also blocked two defenders on one screen pass to Jonathan Grimes.

    It was a busy day.

    What It Means: Hopkins is heir to Calvin Johnson's nullified touchdown throne, losing one to the rulebook for every one that counts. There are catches only he can make. There are also catches that he cannot really make but can make look really, really good.

    The only thing that can slow Hopkins down—besides high-def slow-motion replays and inscrutable rulebook arcana—is Osweiler's aerosol accuracy. Hopkins is getting better quarterbacking than he got last year, and thanks to speedy rookie Will Fuller, he is also seeing fewer double-teams. But he still spends too much time twisting and leaping to catch passes that aren't quite on the money.

    What Happens Next: The Texans face the Patriots on Thursday night. Hopkins will be catching passes from the best quarterback on the field.

Game Spotlight: Steelers 24, Bengals 16

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    What Happened: Maybe it was the heavy rain, or the understanding that the NFL would hand out fines like cider samples at the farmers market if guys started whaling on each other. Either way, Steelers-Bengals was more like traditional trench warfare than the food riot in an ancient Roman province we were expecting. There were hard hits, but no roughing penalties or extracurriculars.

    It must have been raining petroleum jelly. Footballs left both Ben Roethlisberger's and Andy Dalton's hands like they had been stored in barrels of lard. Passes that wobbled downfield with any accuracy often skittered off receivers' hands. At one point, Roethlisberger slipped on a moist patch of turf and recovered in time to float a pass to a wide-open Antonio Brown, who promptly dropped it. It was that kind of game.

    The Bengals settled for three field goals from inside the red zone, choosing not to review a possible touchdown catch from the 3-yard line in the third quarter. A late drive to tie the game ended with a Tyler Boyd fumble. Boyd's knee appeared to be down, but the replay official upheld the call.

    What It Means: The Steelers got productive games from Sammie Coates (2-97-0) and tight end Jesse James (3-29-1), taking pressure off Brown and DeAngelo Williams to provide every yard of offense in Le'Veon Bell's absence.

    The Steelers secondary also played well, with rookie Artie Burns breaking up a pass to A.J. Green in the end zone and William Gay and Ross Cockrell each breaking up two passes. The Steelers secondary was racked with injuries in the preseason, so Burns' return is a huge plus. The less reliant the Steelers are on their handful of marquee names on both sides of the ball, the more they look like a Super Bowl team.

    Most importantly, these two archenemies were able to compete passionately without descending into bitterness and rage. Maybe there is hope for all of us in these contentious times.

    What Happens Next: The Bengals-Steelers rematch is on Dec. 18. They're so chummy now that they might exchange Christmas presents. But don't count on it.

Player Spotlight: Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings

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    What He Did: Bradford completed 22-of-31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-14 Vikings victory over the Packers. Just as importantly, Bradford provided hope that the Vikings could overcome yet another potentially devastating injury. Adrian Peterson suffered what appeared to be a severe injury to his right knee in the third quarter.

    Bradford connected with Stefon Diggs for nine receptions, 182 yards and a razor-sharp 25-yard touchdown, which came after Peterson's injury. Bradford rifled several precise downfield passes and showed command of a playbook he opened for the first time during Labor Day Weekend. And don't forget the moxie: Bradford endured four sacks and stayed in the game despite a nasty-looking injury to his non-throwing hand.

    What It Means: Bradford is still Bradford, with a 26-37-1 lifetime record and a troubling injury history. He may have used up most of the playbook pages he knew Sunday night. It's hard to prepare for a quarterback making his first start, and the Vikings needed multiple big plays on defense to pull out a victory.

    But Bradford is also the Vikings' only hope if Peterson's injury is as severe as it looked when he was all but carried to the locker room. It's almost impossible to imagine the Vikings mounting a playoff charge with Bradford, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata in the backfield. But it is impossible to imagine with Shaun Hill at quarterback. 

    Maybe Bradford is ready to morph into Jim Plunkett, who suddenly turned his career around in his third NFL stop. Maybe the Vikings defense is good enough to impersonate the 2015 Broncos defense. The odds aren't great, but the Vikings are 2-0, and success in the NFL is often about finding a way to survive.

    What's Next: A trip to Carolina will tell us just how fit to survive Bradford and the (almost certainly) Peterson-less Vikings really are.

Unsung Hero: Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants

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    What He Did: Jenkins made the highlight reel by returning a blocked kick for a touchdown in the Giants' 16-13 win over the Saints. But he made an even bigger contribution by not making the highlight reel.

    Jenkins finished the game with two passes defensed, one a third-down stop. He also tackled receiver Tommylee Lewis (whose parents had to be big Motley Crue and '50s rock fans) in the backfield for a third-down stop and kept elusive Willie Snead in front of him for minimal gains on several catches. Throw in a few run tackles, and Jenkins was a major reason the Giants held the Saints to just 288 yards of offense.

    What It Means: The Giants finished last in the league in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed last season. They couldn't have held the Saints to 288 yards if you stopped the game at halftime.

    Jenkins is part of an expensive defensive overhaul. He arrived with a reputation as a risk-taker who will mix big plays with penalties and touchdowns allowed. If he has grown into a steadier defender, and can still outrun everyone on the field with a blocked kick in his hands, the Giants have more than they bargained for.

    What Happens Next: All eyes will be on that Jenkins-DeSean Jackson matchup when the Giants face the Redskins. Yep, that's the cornerback-receiver matchup on everyone's minds in that game.

Fantasy Digest

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    Winner: Kelvin Benjamin caught seven passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Cam Newton looks to Benjamin in the end zone from around the 10-yard line and deep down the middle on third downs. Newton isn't afraid to throw into tight windows, and Benjamin has the size (6'5", 245 lbs) to shield defenders from the ball and haul in lasers. Look for massive production all year long.

    Loser: Doug Martin suffered a hamstring injury in the Buccaneers' blowout loss to the Cardinals. Martin was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry before the injury. Watch the injury (and Charles Sims' productivity) carefully; you won't win your league by starting a Pulled Muscle Hamster.

    Committee: Keep a close eye on the Cowboys' running back situation. Ezekiel Elliott went 21-83-1 but fumbled twice, losing one of them. Alfred Morris replaced him and scored an important fourth-quarter touchdown. The guy who decides the running back rotations in Dallas (Jerry Jones) has a well-established obsession with "roles" and may decide he wants the reliable veteran Morris to get the red-zone touches.

    Fluke: Danny Amendola caught 4-50-2 against the Dolphins. Amendola has always been good for about two massive games per year. However, there may be no one to get him the football Thursday night. After that, it won't be long before the Patriots no longer need him to be anything but their "other" shifty slot guy.

    Leech: Xavier Grimble sounds like the villain in a children's Christmas cartoon:

    And so it was that Xavier Grimble threw a cursed candy cane into the gears of the clock tower that was supposed to tell Santa that the villagers had learned the true meaning of Christmas. "Grimble-Dee Dee, Grimble-Dee Doo!" he cackled, "What will those silly clock mice do?"

    Anyway, Grimble caught a touchdown from Ben Roethlisberger. It spoiled Sunday for Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams owners and possibly spoiled Christmas early for the Bengals instead of spoiling New Years for them like the Steelers usually do.

Awards Digest

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    Defensive Player of the Week: Casey Hayward picked off Blake Bortles twice in the Chargers' victory over the Jaguars. Both interceptions were beauties. Hayward undercut Marqise Lee on a crossing route to bat the ball into his own arms on the first one. On the second, Hayward peeled off Hurns on a deep route to intercept a ball intended for Rashad Greene. Hayward got into such good position that it looked like Bortles threw it right to him.

    Offensive Line of the Week: The Cardinals held the Buccaneers to just one sack in a 40-7 rout. So this week's award goes to (left to right): Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis and D.J. Humphries.

    Special Teamer of the Week: Anthony Levine (the blocker) and Tavon Young (the returner) share this award for scoring only the second two-point conversion on a blocked extra point in NFL history. Rams punter Johnny Hekker would also be a fine choice, but like Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, he's more worthy of a lifetime achievement award.

    Anemic Stat Line of the Week: Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls carried seven times for a loss of seven. His full rush tally: minus-two, minus-nine, zero, four, one, zero, and minus-one yards. He also caught three passes for 15 yards, giving him 10 touches for eight yards. When you are watching Jeff Fisher coach the Rams to a 28-0 loss in the 2024 season opener, REMEMBER WHAT THOMAS RAWLS DID SUNDAY TO HELP MAKE THAT POSSIBLE.

    Coaching Blunder of the Week: Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah appeared to have grazed the ground inbounds in the end zone with his knee after a catch on a play that was ruled an incomplete pass on the field. Marvin Lewis chose not to challenge the call, because there might be a more important situation to save that challenge flag for than a potential second-half touchdown when trailing a bitter rival during a steady downpour.

    Mystery Touch of the Week: Here's the official ruling on how the Raiders' end-of-game lateral play went in their 35-28 loss to the Falcons: David Carr to Amari Cooper for 17 yards; Cooper "fumbles," Jalen Richard recovers; Richard laterals to Seth Roberts; Roberts back to Carr; Carr to Michael Crabtree, who gains 11 yards before being tackled.

    Those lateral plays almost never work. But on an afternoon when the Falcons enjoyed two huge receptions off tips—Justin Hardy's touchdown and Levine Toilolo's third-down catch to set up another score—you couldn't blame the Raiders for trying.

Final Thoughts

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    Notes and observations from Week 2 that did not fit anywhere else:

    • The Browns unveiled a bronze sculpture of Jim Brown outside FirstEnergy Stadium, and it will probably look awesome when it's finished. Oh wait...it is finished? So "carved out of chicken salad" was what the artist was going for? Snark aside, sportswriters make terrible art critics, and any monument to Brown is a worthy monument to Brown. Hey, these are the Browns: They're lucky the sculptor didn't put down his chisel and look up to see a perfect likeness of Tim Couch.
    • Wes Welker wore the official Bleacher Report "Fake Brady" mask around Gillette Stadium on Sunday. There's no word on who Fake Brady will be Thursday night, or if the person wearing the mask will also be the Patriots' emergency quarterback.
    • LeGarrette Blount hurdled Byron Maxwell during a fourth-quarter Patriots drive. Maxwell also got stiff-armed aside by Martellus Bennett after a short boot pass during a third-quarter Patriots scoring drive that gave Jacoby Brissett breathing room. If there is a way to come up short in a big-game situation, Maxwell will find it, making him the ultimate Dolphins trade acquisition.
    • Cam Newton, Kelvin Benjamin and other Panthers unveiled a touchdown celebration so long and intricately choreographed that they were still dancing along the sideline while the officials were announcing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. If you're gonna draw the flag anyway, might as well boogie all day and all night.
    • A Redskins fan proposed to his girlfriend on the field during pregame stretches...wearing Redskins socks with sandals. That's a double fashion faux pas: socks with sandals and a Robert Griffin III homage in Washington in 2016. Anyway, plans to include actual players in the wedding itself hit a snag when the bride-to-be's family insisted that friends of the groom, including Josh Norman, sit on the right side of the chapel.
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