Monday Morning Digest: Patriots Are Bad, but Opponents Won't Stop Being Worse

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 30, 2017

Monday Morning Digest: Patriots Are Bad, but Opponents Won't Stop Being Worse

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    In this week's edition of Monday Morning Digest: 

    • The Texans cap a weekend of controversy with an afternoon of fireworks, but it's not enough to overcome the Seahawks.
    • The Eagles, Bills and Cowboys come out Swingin' in the Rain.
    • Teams around the league do their best to survive the Left Tackle Apocalypse.
    • Case Keenum proves third-string quarterbacks are people too.

    And much more.

    The Patriots also won on Sunday. But they sure don't make Patriots victories the way they used to.

A Bad Patriots Team Might Still Be Good Enough

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    If they were any other team, we would call the Patriots flukes, frauds or pretenders.

    Those are the terms we use for 6-2 teams that barely beat bad teams and win thanks to charitable calls, unforced opponent errors and weather oddities.

    We don't say that about the Patriots, because they are proven champions and therefore find ways to win and blah blah blah. But if not for those five trophies in their display case, we'd be anticipating a harsh reality check for a smoke-and-mirrors contender.

    The Patriots beat the Chargers 21-13 on Sunday, but it was yet another in a string of unimpressive wins.

    The Patriots spent the afternoon watching the Chargers commit self-inflicted blunders: Returning a punt into their own end zone for a safety, running out of bounds to nullify an apparent touchdown, committing offensive pass interference to nullify another, missing field goals, and fumbling without being touched.

    Every once in a while Brady tossed a few passes to a running back to set up Stephen Gostkowski for field-goal attempts, some of which were successful.

    Sunday's win came on the heels of Fog Bowl II (Falcons scare themselves into submission Scooby Doo style), the Jets Phantom Touchback game and a narrow victory against Tampa's Team With No Personality, which came down to the last play.

    That's four narrow wins against very iffy opponents; with injuries mounting, shaky pass protection and a take-your-time pass rush, the Patriots have not looked anything like THE PATRIOTS since their Week 2 win against the Saints.

    Bill Belichick doesn't want to hear it, of course, and he cowed a reporter who dared point out the obvious in the postgame presser.

    And Belichick has a point. It's not a question of whether these Patriots would get crushed by their 2015, 2013 or 2007 counterparts (they would). The question is: Who can beat them in 2017, when all of the traditional contenders look vulnerable and most upstarts look at least a year away?

    The Patriots embark on a two-game road trip to face the Broncos and Raiders after their bye. Let's pencil in a loss in one of those games.

    Both Bills matchups are coming. Let's assume a split. The Steelers host the Patriots in Week 14. Right now, that feels like a pretty secure Patriots loss.

    That's that. The AFC East is weak (with the Dolphins already in surrender mode), so this imposter of a Patriots team will go 11-5, at worst. And who do you like against them in the playoffs? The Steelers or Chiefs, perhaps, especially if the Patriots are on the road. No one else.

    So the Patriots are living mostly off reputation and mojo this year. Yet they are still very likely to reach the Super Bowl.

    That's because they've built up some powerful mojo over the last two years. And even at their worst, they're still a pretty good team.

Rainy Day Digest

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Heavy rains turned the Northeast into one big kitchen sponge on Sunday. Here's a rundown of the soggy results.

         

    Cowboys 33, Redskins 19

    When forced to play in typhoon conditions on one of the NFL's playing surfaces that most resembles an abandoned construction site, it's best to have an outstanding line, a great running back and an offense built for four-wheel-drive towing. Having an injury report shorter than Pixar credits also helps.

          

    Eagles 33, 49ers 10

    The conditions were the only thing that slowed the Eagles down. Apart from one brief third-quarter series (an Ahkello Witherspoon interception followed by a nifty shovel-pass touchdown to Matt Breida), the 49ers highlight reel is nothing but missed Eagles extra points.

          

    Falcons 25, Jets 20

    The Falcons finally rediscovered Julio Jones, their running game and a shred of dignity after playing down to both their opponent and their worst critics. The hard rain probably didn't wash away their bad mojo; they  ran into a Jets team that plays just well enough to lose.

          

    Bills 34, Raiders 14

    LeSean McCoy contributed 173 of the Bills' 331 offensive yards. Most of the rest came on scramble drills by Tyrod Taylor. In other words, drizzly conditions did not affect the Bills offense much.

    The Bills enjoyed a four-turnover defensive performance after trading Marcell Dareus, continuing their magic trick of getting better while getting rid of their biggest-name players.

    Sean McDermott is either creating the winningest culture ever or assembling a roster of thirsty try-hards who will fade badly as soon as the new-coach smell wears off. But as long as they don't try that addition-by-subtraction trick with McCoy, the Bills should be fine.

          

    Patriots 21, Chargers 13

    As mentioned earlier, bad weather just makes Foxborough more Foxborough.

Game Spotlight: Seahawks 41, Texans 38

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    What happened

    It was supposed to be the 2017 Hostility Bowl, a meeting of two teams angrier at themselves than each other.

    The Texans are coming off a week in which team owner Bob McNair poured accelerant on the anthem controversy by tossing prison metaphors around (and offered an "explanation" for his words that would embarrass a seventh-grader caught with a pack of smokes in the boys' room).

    The Seahawks are one week removed from a sideline dustup between Doug Baldwin and line coach Tom Cable, and are known for handling internal disagreements like they are superhero team-ups: first an overheated fight over something dumb, then a last-second triumph over their foes.

    But instead of a grinding trench war between two distracted teams, the Texans and Seahawks delivered a sandlot masterpiece.

    Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson combined for 854 passing yards and eight touchdowns (plus 97 rushing yards). Four receivers gained over 100 yards. There were four fourth-quarter lead changes and seven different plays or returns that netted at least 48 yards. 

    The lightning-rod game of the neverending national anthem saga turned out to be the best game of the year.

        

    What it means

    The Seahawks are on a four-game winning streak and appear to have honed both their highlights-only offense and live-for-the-drama personality to near perfection. Seattle remains one of the two toughest places in the NFL to play, and the Eagles and Rams will both have to prove their mettle as contenders by beating the Seahawks at CenturyLink.

    The Texans dealt a blow to the theory that protests are "distractions" that will tear teams apart. If anything, the Texans (who typically falter against tough road opponents) looked more united and focused than ever on Sunday. Whether they are protesting racial injustice or just to preserve their dignity against employers who casually belittle them, NFL players are professionals. And of course, they deserve to be treated and talked about as such.

         

    What's next

    Texans host the Colts. Seahawks host the Redskins. NFL owners try to go seven days without saying anything stupid.

Game Spotlight: Steelers 20, Lions 15

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Lions kept marching inside the Steelers' 10-yard line and stopping, as if they watched the Chargers gift-wrap a win for the Patriots and wanted to do their part to maintain the AFC hegemony.

    JuJu Smith-Schuster (pictured) raced 97 yards for a touchdown after one Lions goal-line stall and then wrapped a chain around a sideline exercise bike because Smith-Schuster's brand is "dude who got his bike stolen once." (It's better than Martavis Bryant's "dude who can't even get traded" self-identification.)

    The Lions responded with two drives to the red zone for three points and a Golden Tate fumble (untouched by defenders) after a long reception.

    The Steelers got silly late in the game by throwing incomplete passes deep in their own territory with a five-point lead, but Darius Slay obligingly committed pass interference so the Steelers could run the clock out properly, and everyone celebrated with a brief Ndamukong Suh Memorial Brawl at midfield as the Steelers killed the clock.

    All that was missing from the perfect Lions close loss was a touchdown nullified by some obscure rule interpretation.

         

    What it means

    According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers were the NFL's best team entering Week 8. That's not crazy: They beat strong teams like the Chiefs and Vikings, that thumping by the Jaguars is starting to look like an aberration (and the Jaguars look pretty good), and the league isn't exactly loaded with powerhouses right now.

    But the Steelers looked nothing like the NFL's best team Sunday night.

    Matthew Stafford carved up their defense the way your neighbor carves stencils of minions into pumpkins. (Show-off.) The Steelers defense managed just two sacks against a pair of practice-squad starting tackles. And take away the Smith-Schuster heroics and Ben Roethlisberger had yet another wobbly night.

    The Lions have not recorded a sack in two games and haven't topped 3.5 yards per rush since Week 3. They are wasting MVP-caliber play from Stafford.

         

    What's next

    The Steelers lock up their bikes for the bye. The Lions prep for a Monday night opportunity in Green Bay to prove they are still playoff-worthy.

Player Spotlight: Vikings Quarterback Case Keenum

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    What Happened

    America’s Greatest Third String Quarterback manufactured another Vikings win, on Sunday morning in London.

    Keenum needed help from Browns missed kicks, Browns offensive futility, a late Browns defensive-penalty spree and general Browns Brownsy-ness. But he also threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-16 win, generating enough big plays to prove that teams don’t have to resort to two-yard passes on 3rd-and-15 just because their starting quarterback is hurt.

             

    What it means

    Teddy Bridgewater may be available after the Vikings bye. (Sam Bradford, meanwhile, is once again trapped in the Upside Down.) But the Vikings should not replace Keenum until they have to.

    Keenum demonstrated again Sunday that he does a lot of little things well. He runs the no-huddle efficiently, makes hard counts and adjustments at the line and moves well in the pocket. He also actually throws downfield, a rarity among backup quarterbacks, who all seem to play as if they know they will keep getting contracts as long as they keep their quarterback ratings spiffy with high completion percentages and low interception rates.

    Bridgewater, meanwhile, hasn’t played since before last year’s presidential debates. He's going to be rusty, and a lot has changed about the Vikings offense since his injury.

    If nothing else, Bridgewater should be spared from playing on the ACL-eating FedEx Field surface in his first game back from a devastating injury. That's exactly the kind of job America's Greatest Third String Quarterback is suited for.

           

    What's next

    The Vikings stay in the playoff chase, regardless of the quarterback. And Keenum plays in the NFL until he is 40.

Game Spotlight: Saints 20, Bears 12

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Saints took a 14-3 halftime lead and fell asleep, figuring that the Bears had no chance of catching up because of their 1930s high school offense.

    So John Fox was forced to give Mitchell Trubisky more passing opportunities, and the rookie didn't drive the Bears offense through the neighbors' privacy fence and into their swimming pool.

    Trubisky led a field-goal drive (an apparent touchdown pass was ruled incomplete), then scrambled 46 yards to set up a touchdown to cut the Saints lead to 17-12. Meanwhile, Mark Ingram lost a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles to keep the Bears close. But the Saints defense stopped the Bears on a pair of late fourth-quarter drives to preserve the win.

    Also, Drew Brees threw his 6,000th career completion. To put that in perspective: It's more than Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford combined. It's more than Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman combined. It's more than...you get the idea.

            

    What it means

    It's hard to tell if the Saints defense is finally playoff-caliber again after three years of allowing opponents to play fun-'n'-gun college basketball against them. They've beaten Training Wheels Trubisky and Handoffs Hundley in the last two weeks, and that Dolphins shutout looks less impressive every time there's another Dolphins shutout.

    But it's clear that the Saints defense is better than it has been since the dark days after Bountygate, and "better" may be good enough in an NFC South with no runaway team this year. The Saints aren't suffering from Falcons Super Bowl trauma, Panthers mood swings or whatever the heck is wrong with the Bucs. They are just winning football games in a variety of ways. Which is better than the old Saints teams that could only win if Brees threw 6,000 completions.

            

    What's next

    A win over the Bucs in the Big Easy will lift the Saints to 6-2. You can pencil it in now.

Blindsided Digest

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    A rash of left tackle injuries has left many NFL teams without their most important offensive linemen. Here's a rundown on how they coped with the losses.

         

    Eagles without Jason Peters

    The whole Eagles offensive line played so poorly in the first quarter that it was as if Peters had been the starter at three positions. The pass protection settled down as the game progressed, and replacement Big V (don't make me type it...OK, Halapoulivaati Vaitai) got manhandled a few times but wasn't a disaster.

         

    Lions without Taylor Decker, Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner

    Converted defensive lineman Brian Mihalik started at left tackle, undrafted rookie Dan Skipper on the right side. Both played adequately, thanks in part to a scheme that doesn't ask its tackles to be Orlando Pace and Anthony Munoz. The Lions couldn't punch touchdowns in from the goal line, but that's never been their strong suit.

          

    49ers without Joe Staley

    Staley got hurt in the second quarter against the Eagles, and C.J. Beathard was a wounded guppie in a shark tank for the rest of the game. Staley was the closest thing to left tackle trade bait on the market, so his injury hurts the other teams on this list almost as much as it hurts Beathard. But not quite, because Beathard took a real beating. 

         

    Browns without Joe Thomas

    The Browns offense is better without Thomas! He even admitted it on Twitter after Cleveland took a brief early-morning lead. There are no takesy-backsies on the internet. There is definitely no good-natured self-effacing humor on the internet. Thomas has clearly been the primary force holding the Browns back for the last two decades.

    Well actually, Thomas has been a boulder in the middle of Class 5 rapids for nearly his entire career. He's a force of nature, but the water just flows around him.

    Spencer Drango played well in relief, but as Thomas knows too well, it's hard to make an impact at left tackle when nothing else in the franchise works.

            

    Redskins without Trent Williams and everyone else

    The Redskins began the game without three regular starters on their offensive line, and without Ty Nsekhe, one of the NFL's few decent backup left tackles. Linemen Shawn Lauvao and T.J. Clemmings were injured during the Cowboys game, as were tight ends Jordan Reed and Niles Paul.

    The Redskins may have called the Hogs out of retirement to mop up the fourth quarter; no one can say for sure, because the entire world was watching the end of Texans-Seahawks.

    Long story short: The Redskins are now in near-historic injury trouble on the line, and anyone who comes away healthy from a game at FedEx Field in the rain should get a free "I Survived..." T-shirt.

Inside the Numbers

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Deshaun Watson: 19-of-30 for 402 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 5 sacks, 67 rushing yards

    Facing the Legion of Boom in Seattle, Watson completed passes of 72, 59, 36, 34, 27, 24, 23, 22, 20 and 20 yards among his 19 completions. Only the 22-yarder was a short pass to a running back; the rest were downfield throws. One of the three interceptions was on the final desperate play of the game.

    Try to reconcile Watson's performance with Bill O'Brien's insistence throughout the offseason that Tom Savage (who would have been sacked twice leaving the team bus if forced to start in Seattle) was the Texans best option at quarterback. You'll only reach one conclusion: What most coaches consider "wisdom" is just plain stubbornness.

         

    Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls: 12 carries for minus-1 yards

    Lacy and Rawls each had a three-yard run as their longest run of the day. Rawls was targeted with one pass, which was not completed. The Seahawks as a team rushed 10 times for three yards in the first half. The Seahawks settled for two 21-yard field goals because of the uselessness of their goal-line running game.

    But what looks like a deficiency is really a kind of purity. The Seahawks are creating a new kind of football for the video-game generation in which breathtaking highlights are the only plays that count, and there is no place in their new vision for a boring old running game.

         

    Joe Mixon: 11 carries for 18 yards, 3 catches for 91 yards

    Mixon's 67-yard screen-and-run was one of the biggest plays in the Bengals' 24-23 win over the Colts, but he also lost a fumble after a catch, and the Bengals' inability to run the ball was a major reason the Colts were in position for a late-comeback victory.

    Add this game to Mixon's eight-carry, nine-yard debut in the season opener and his 17-carry, 29-yard effort against the Browns, and Mixon would be having a noticeably miserable rookie year if Christian McCaffrey wasn't getting fed to the wolves and Dalvin Cook wasn't hurt.

         

    The Falcons Red-Zone Offense: 13 plays, 2 touchdowns, 3 field goals

    In addition to touchdowns to Austin Hooper and Mohamed Sanu, Matt Ryan was sacked once, scrambled ineffectively once, botched a snap, targeted two incomplete passes each to Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, and scrambled once. Freeman got two carries and Tevin Coleman got one. Oh, and the Falcons fumbled on a two-point conversion attempt.

    No, there is no rhyme or rhythm to the Falcons play selection. And yes, it's OK to bang your head on your desk if you loaded up your fantasy team with Falcons players.

         

    Week 8 Kickers: 9 missed FGs, 4 blocked FGs, 4 missed XPs, 1 blocked XP

    Eagles rookie kicker Jake Elliott missed two extra points. Jets kicker Chandler Catanzaro and Patriots kicker Steven Gostkowski missed two field goals each. Browns rookie Zane Gonzalez missed a field goal and an extra point. Blame it on the rain (and the choppy London playing surface in Gonzalez's case), and marvel at Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who was a perfect 4-of-4 on field goals while kicking in a car wash.

Awards Digest

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Offensive Line of the Week

    The Bills are one of the few teams left with a healthy offensive line, and they made the most of it with a sack-free, 166-rushing-yard afternoon against the Raiders. So let's hear it for Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, Vlad Ducasse and Jordan Mills. Great work, guys, and may all of the trade deadline offers for Glenn be generous.

         

    Defender of the Week

    Carlos Dunlap's fourth-quarter pick-six (pictured) averted a Bengals catastrophe, and Dunlap also recorded a sack against the Colts.

         

    Special Teamers of the Week

    Tyrone Crawford's blocked kick and Orlando Scandrick's 86-yard return set up the short Cowboys touchdown that turned the game around for Dallas.

    Honorable mention to Brandon King, the Patriots gunner who chased punt returner Travis Benjamin into the Chargers end zone for a safety. Even when an opponent is going out of its way to self-destruct, you still have to make plays.

         

    Fantasy Leech of the Week

    If you thought Marshawn Lynch's suspension would bring some clarity to the Raiders backfield committee, then you didn't count on fullback Jamize Olawale siphoning a touchdown away from DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard and the Raiders' many receivers.

         

    Mystery Touch of the Week

    Alshon Jeffery, who has been a minor-at-best factor as an Eagles receiver all season, switched to defense for an end-of-half Hail Mary and earned a pass defensed by leaping over the 49ers receiving corps and swatting the ball away with so much force that he was almost called for goaltending.

    The play must have woken Jeffery up, because he barrelled for a 53-yard touchdown to help the Eagles pull away in the second half. Maybe Terrelle Pryor, Kenny Britt, Martavis Bryant and all of the NFL's other invisible/discontented receivers should play a little free safety to snap out of their doldrums. 

Which NFL Team Is Most Like a Wrestling Jobber?

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    In wrasslin' parlance, a "jobber" is a wrestler assigned to lose on purpose to make his opponent look like more of a threat. Jobber is the likely origin of the insult "Jabroni." A dedicated chump is neither very good nor very good at hiding it.

    Awful teams like the Browns and 49ers barely qualify as jobbers because they don't put up enough of a fight to keep things interesting. And talent-laden but self-destructive teams like the Dolphins and Giants are more like colorful heels. 

    Here's a countdown of the NFL's truest Jabronis: teams that make a great show out of merely going through the motions.

         

    5. New York Jets

    The Jets get a few early licks in and then either run out of gas or lose on some WWE-caliber officiating nonsense at the end. Like the best jobbers, they make sure they are playing slightly worse than their opponent. So if the opposing quarterback keeps fumbling snaps, they make sure he lands on enough of them to ensure a win.

         

    4. Chicago Bears

    The Bears are more like "shooters" than jobbers. They think pro wrestling is real and waste 60 minutes grappling their opponents with classic Greco-Roman holds while the crowd yawns. Some opponents are caught off guard; most just suplex them when it matters.

         

    3. Arizona Cardinals

    The Cardinals are former superstars of the carnival barnstorming circuit now well past their prime. They are granted the courtesy of beating lesser jobbers to please their longtime fans, but against real competition they just try not to get permanently injured.

         

    2. Indianapolis Colts

    A classic jobber of the '70s and '80s was allowed one swift flurry of punches early in the bout against Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair. Then he would accidentally ram his own head into the turnbuckle and spend the next 10 minutes getting bodyslammed. This is a pretty accurate metaphor for Colts football.

         

    1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    But here's the thing about jobbers: Every viewer over six years old knows they aren't trying to win. They don't have any strategy, technique or signature moves. They are just big bodies collecting a paycheck.

    That's the Buccaneers: a team with no identity, no intensity, no hope and no real interest in pretending otherwise. Losing to them is just losing to yourself. Beating them is just inflating your record and keeping busy until the pay-per-view main event. And it's embarrassing, because the Bucs were supposed to be something more this year.

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