Monday Morning Digest: Cowboys in Crisis Mode, Patriots in Peak Form
In this week's Digest ...
- The Patriots give Tom Brady a special teams boost.
- The Saints treat the Bills the way a garbage disposal treats a moldy meatball.
- The Jaguars try to cough up a big game in the fourth quarter but cannot out-choke the Chargers.
- The Steelers limbo even lower than usual to play down to another opponent.
- Another fluky touchback robs the Bears and the NFL of a little bit more fun and fairness.
- Strip-Sack Savage rides again for the Texans
...and much more.
The reigning NFC champion Falcons also notched their biggest win of the season Sunday. So naturally, we kick off Digest by obsessing over the team they beat: the Cowboys.
Cowboys Face a Confidence Crisis Without Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott's absence Sunday was not the Cowboys' biggest problem in their 27-7 loss to the Falcons.
Yes, backup Alfred Morris rushed six times for just eight yards in the first half, leaving the Cowboys incapable of sustaining drives or playing their brand of football. But they had an even bigger problem.
Left tackle Tyron Smith's absence contributed to a loss that put the Cowboys at 5-4. But that was not the Cowboys' biggest problem.
Yes, backup Chaz Green moves like his cleats weigh 75 pounds each, and Falcons edge-rusher Adrian Clayborn sacked Dak Prescott a half-dozen times. But the Cowboys had an even bigger problem.
The Cowboys' biggest problem wasn't that Dez Bryant was playing hurt or Sean Lee was injured again; that Prescott isn't ready to win games Russell Wilson-style; that kicker Mike Nugent is no Dan Bailey; or even that Jerry Jones is too busy leading an owners revolution to do his usual meddling.
The Cowboys' biggest problem is that they don't handle adversity well, and they lack a Plan B when things go wrong.
The Cowboys had two months to prepare for Elliott's suspension, and they employ a pair of veteran backups in Morris and Darren McFadden. Their line still features two All-Pros on the interior. There's no excuse for their inability to run the ball Sunday.
Lots of teams have lost left tackles this season, including the Eagles, who now have a three-game lead in the NFC East. Only the weakest of those teams lost all offensive functionality the moment they lost their left tackle, and only the Cowboys turned an average edge-rusher into Lawrence Taylor for a day.
The Cowboys are a great team when everything is clicking, but Elliott won't be back for another five games. Smith (suffering from a lingering groin injury) should be back sooner, but a loss to the Eagles next week would essentially put the division title out of reach, while losses to the Rams, Packers and now Falcons may confound the Cowboys' wild-card possibilities.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett must get smarter about Prescott's protection and more patient and creative with the Zeke-less running game. Prescott must get used to defenses that aren't stacked to stop the run. And the whole organization must adapt to less than ideal circumstances. Fast, too.
The Cowboys' biggest problem in Sunday's loss was a crisis of confidence. If they can't find a way to overcome a few bad breaks, they'll need to take a long look in the mirror once they are knocked out of playoff contention.
Game Digest: Patriots 41, Broncos 16
- Jacob Hollister recovered a muffed punt to set up a Rex Burkhead touchdown. Burkhead blocked a punt to set up a field goal. Dion Lewis sandwiched a kickoff-return touchdown in between.
- Martellus Bennett miraculously recovered from the shoulder injury that led to bad feelings and a sudden release from the Packers to catch three passes for 38 yards. Bennett apparently had a bad case of not wanting to play with a second-rate quarterback.
- Brock Osweiler threw a pass 15 yards out of bounds that drilled some unsuspecting sideline employee in the head. A Broncos special teamer shoved a Patriots player into umpire Jeff Rice, who slammed his head into the turf and had to be carted (jovially) off the field.
- The Broncos kept things close for most of the game, but when you spot Tom Brady 14 points on special teams early in the game, everything else is just an exhibition.
What it means
This was the Patriots' most impressive win since their 36-20 victory over the Saints in Week 2. After weeks of squeaking past so-so opponents, they played real Patriots football. Brady got solid protection against a tough pass rush and distributed the ball to all of his targets, the special teams unit flexed its muscles and the defense enjoyed the Osweiler Experience.
Winning in Denver is never easy, even for the Patriots. It's impressive they made it look easy.
As has been noted in previous Digests, Osweiler is comically awful, the Broncos offense has almost no firepower and the defense has grown sloppy and brittle from defending too many short fields. The Jaguars are now the team the Broncos thought they were.
The Patriots will hang around the Air Force Academy this week so they can train at high altitude to face the Raiders in Mexico City. That sounds awesome—Bill Belichick giving some pointers to military commanders, Tom Brady framed by a mountain backdrop, Rob Gronkowski in close proximity to fighter jets...um, maybe that last part isn't so great.
Also, the Broncos and Bengals will try not to disappoint each other. (They'll fail.)
Early Game Recap Digest
Sunday's 1 p.m. games felt a little like late December college bowl games—competitive and mildly fun in a lowered expectations sort of way. Here's a recap of some games you might have missed:
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Bowl: Packers 23, Bears 16
Anyone expecting 1950s high school junior varsity tactics when Brett "Handoffs" Hundley faced Mitchell "Training Wheels" Trubisky in a steady downpour was disappointed. Trubisky scattered 297 passing yards among a series of drives ending in field goals and apparent touchdowns ruled touchback fumbles (more on that later in Digest), while Mike McCarthy ran out of running backs and finally allowed Hundley to throw more than screens and slants.
Before spinning a Pack Is Back narrative out of Hundley's handful of highlights and a stout defensive performance, you may want to wait until the Packers beat a good team in normal conditions without fluky calls.
AFC Playoff Also-Ran Changing of the Guard Bowl: Titans 24, Bengals 20
The Titans appear poised to reach the playoffs by winning a bunch of Sunday early games while looking unimpressive the moment a national audience starts paying attention to them. But the Bengals weren't giving up that niche in the AFC ecosystem without a fight.
Andy Dalton threw an early bomb to Brandon LaFell and a late one to A.J. Green, doubling the usual Bengals quota for offensive excitement. The Titans slowly marched up and down while settling for missed field goals and a (sigh) fumble touchback before a tooth-pulling fourth-quarter drive led to a diving DeMarco Murray go-ahead touchdown (pictured).
The 6-3 Titans have now earned the right to be crowned the New Bengals by getting the snot beaten out of them by the Steelers on national television Thursday.
Resource Allocation Bowl: Lions 38, Browns 24
The Browns defense controlled the line of scrimmage early, allowing DeShone Kizer and the offense to take a 10-0 lead on a pair of short drives.
Matthew Stafford then went into John Wick single-handedly-beat-up-everyone mode while the Browns did Browns stuff: dropped passes, fumbles, mind-boggling clock management blunders, a Kizer rib injury, a Kizer return despite the game getting out of hand in his absence. (Browns head coach Hue Jackson decides whether Kizer is a precious future building block or a crash-test dummy on a drive-by-drive basis.)
The moral of the story: It's better to spend lots of money on a Stafford than to spend none and get exactly what you pay for.
Ancient Journeyman Backup Quarterback Bowl: Buccaneers 15, Jets 10
This was not a Josh McCown revenge game against the Buccaneers nor a Ryan Fitzpatrick revenge game against the Jets. It was dual vengeance upon the sanity of viewers everywhere.
McCown and Fitzpatrick were a combined 12-of-28 passing for 144 yards and two interceptions in a 3-3 first half. The Buccaneers finally broke things open with a 15-play, 81-yard, seven-minute-plus fourth-quarter drive capped by a Charles Sims...OMG, this is soooo boring.
The bad team that is supposed to be good with the old quarterback barely beat the bad team that is supposed to be horrible with the old quarterback. End of story.
Game Spotlight: Saints 47, Bills 10
The Saints laid waste to everything the Bills have been trying to accomplish this year in what was supposed to be the marquee matchup of the early games.
Mark Ingram (pictured) and Alvin Kamara each rushed for over 100 yards. Tyrod Taylor threw for just 56 yards and was benched late in the game for Nathan Peterman. It looked like a September SEC vs. Community College showdown, only not as competitive.
What it means
Good teams win close games. Great teams win blowouts. Conversely, any team can lose, but when a team gets outgained 482-198 at home like the Bills were Sunday, it can (and probably should) cause an identity crisis.
The Saints have now beaten their last two opponents by a 77-20 margin, Tellingly, the former dome lilies have been clobbering opponents on the road and in London. A lot of new teams are kicking butt on the NFC playoff scene, but the Saints are the only one with Drew Brees.
The Bills have now lost their past two games by an 81-31 margin. They cannot run or stop the run, and they are one more hapless offensive game from talking themselves into a quarterback controversy that will end poorly for all parties.
First-year head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane made a lot of moves to bring in "their guys" and change the team culture. They enjoyed some short-term dividends, but the new-coach smell has worn off, and it remains to be seen whether these new Bills are any better than the old ones.
Anthony Lynn was the Bills interim coach last year and was a front-runner to keep the job before ownership veered toward McDermott. Lynn's Chargers will host the Bills next Sunday, while the Saints welcome Washington's picked-over carcass.
Players Spotlight: Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, Steelers
What they did
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 236 yards, two short second-half touchdowns, one ugly first-quarter interception and a wide variety of batted passes and throws at his receivers' feet.
Bell ran 26 times for 80 yards, with most of that grinding production coming in the second half.
Brown dropped a would-be touchdown bomb after two Colts defenders crashed into each other to leave him wide-open, got called for offensive pass interference to kill a late drive and caught just two passes for 15 yards before finally providing a 32-yard catch-and-run on the final drive that gave the Steelers a too-close 20-17 win over the Colts.
What it means
Sunday's win was hardly an emphatic statement by the Steelers, who were coming off their bye and playing against a sputtering opponent. The Colts outplayed the Steelers on both sides of the ball for two-and-a-half quarters, but the talent-and-leadership-starved Colts only have about 35 minutes of good football in them per week.
The Steelers offense keeps playing down to its opponents. Roethlisberger has been somewhere between inconsistent and ordinary all year, except against the Jaguars, when he was terrible. Brown hasn't cracked 100 receiving yards since Week 6. Bell is averaging 3.0 yards per rush in his last two games; after 118 rushes in the last four games, diminishing returns are setting in.
Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown should be the league's best "Triplets," but the Steelers don't have a playoff-caliber offense right now.
The Steelers play four straight prime-time games, against the Titans, Packers, Bengals and Ravens. Backup quarterbacks and Titans-Bengals big-game stage fright might get the Steelers through this gauntlet. But better play from their best players would make things a heck of a lot easier.
Game Spotlight: Jaguars 20, Chargers 17
For three quarters, this was a vintage Jaguars-Chargers game. In other words, it was utterly forgettable save for a Jaguars fake-punt touchdown and some heroics by third-generation Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead-knockoff Austin Ekeler, who turned a pair of short receptions into Chargers touchdowns.
All hell broke loose when Tre Boston intercepted a Blake Bortles pass at the two-minute warning with the Chargers leading 17-14. Ekeler fumbled the ball back while trying to run out the clock—maybe he has a little Ryan Mathews in him, too—but an apparent Jaguars touchdown return of the fumble was called back because Tashaun Gipson was ruled down by contact.
The Jaguars got knocked out of game-tying field-goal range when Marqise Lee taunted his defender with a "Nyah-Nyah" dance after a roughness flag that the referees decided to pick up. Bortles threw another interception, but the Jaguars used their timeouts wisely and got the ball back after a short punt. A short drive and a Josh Lambo field goal led to overtime.
A.J. Bouye (pictured) intercepted a deep Rivers pass and ran it back to the 2-yard line. After another taunting penalty—seriously, Jaguars—Lambo booted a short field goal to end the madness.
What it means
If you cannot wrap your brain around the concept of the Jaguars as a playoff team, just slide them into the mental compartment the Broncos have occupied for several years. They are the defense-and-ball-control team trying to talk themselves into believing in their quarterback.
With 17 takeaways and 35 sacks on the season, that defense will keep the Jaguars competitive through the playoff race.
But don't pencil them in as Patriots challengers just yet. Bortles still makes too many iffy decisions and gets too cute with sidearm shortstop tosses when he's not just handing off with a secure lead. And whatever drill-instructor stuff Tom Coughlin did to Leonard Fournette behind the scenes last week did not rub off on a team that doesn't know when and how to appropriately celebrate.
As for the Chargers, they remain the NFL's reigning champions of fourth-quarter heartbreak, non-Super Bowl division.
A trip to Cleveland should elevate the Jaguars to 7-3. No one cares about the Chargers.
What's Destroying the NFL This Week?
It appears that protests during the national anthem, political figures having fits over the protests, team owners experiencing Freudian slippage over the protests and sponsors rattling pizza boxes over the protests have died down, at least until someone powerful needs a politically expedient scapegoat or distraction.
And while the NFL loses roughly one superstar per Sunday nowadays (with a bonus loss on Thursday night), fans have gotten used to the attrition and learned to root for whoever can still walk.
So, what's ruining the NFL this week? Funny you should ask:
The Bears lost an apparent touchdown when Benny Cunningham's dive over the pylon (pictured) after a long catch-and-run was inexplicably ruled a fumble and a touchback. The Titans also lost a touchdown to a touchback fumble, though theirs actually looked like a fumble.
The touchback may have made sense in the leather-helmet days, when the football squirted every which way through the mud, but it's ridiculous to constantly turn what look like great offensive plays into disastrous turnovers that defenses deserve zero credit for.
Make a fumble in the end zone a 15-yard penalty or something to prevent Holy Roller shenanigans, but let the offense keep the ball.
Touchbacks would not be as much of a problem if referees didn't feel the need to scratch every hard-to-reach interpretive itch in the rulebook, from fumbles that aren't really fumbles to not-a-catch rulings like the one that baffled us Thursday night. If a referee's technical interpretation of a rule contradicts both common sense and any sense of fairness—like: that 90-yard touchdown was really a fumble because of this complex wording and this single freeze-frame—then he should re-evaluate his interpretation.
One of the driving forces behind the ratings decrease over the last two years is fans not watching games for as long as they used to. And nothing gets fans to tune out early like a blowout.
The three late-afternoon games Sunday were decided by a combined 91-35 score, which no doubt led to a lot of leaf-raking and homework-finishing. Cowboys-Falcons was the only one that even looked good on the schedule.
There are too many non-competitive teams in the league right now, which results in several games each week that have little chance of being interesting.
Owner vs. Commissioner: Dawn of Injustice
There was more Sunday morning scuttlebutt about Jerry Jones' feud with Roger Goodell than there was about Sunday's matchups.
For a bunch of guys who talk a lot about "divisiveness" and "distractions," Jones and his peers sure aren't shy about hanging lots of dirty laundry in front of the shield. It isn't a huge concern, but all of the infighting reinforces the idea among casual fans that the NFL is spinning off the rails.
Banged-Up Backup Quarterbacks
Jacoby Brissett limped through the fourth quarter against the Steelers. Brett Hundley pulled a hamstring against the Packers. DeShone Kizer was in and out of the game for the Browns. Drew Stanton hobbled through the Cardinals' Thursday night loss. The only thing worse than watching all of these backups each week is watching them stagger around the field and knowing that the third-stringers behind them are somehow even more ineffective.
And the only thing worse than that is knowing a former Super Bowl quarterback can't get a job for political reasons. Which brings us full circle.
Inside the Numbers
Tom Savage: 18-of-36 for 221 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
"Strip-Sack" Savage also lost two more fumbles Sunday, bringing his season fumble total to five in 10 quarters as a starter.
Both Savage interceptions occurred in the red zone—the second in late-game garbage time, but the first (where Savage led four Rams defenders into the path of the throw with his eyes) when the Texans actually held a 7-6 lead before halftime.
At least Savage completed half of his passes, bringing his 2017 completion rate up to a Tebow-riffic 47.3 percent.
Jamaal Williams, Packers: 20 carries for 67 yards, 1 catch for 7 yards
All 20 of Williams' carries occurred after halftime. Aaron Jones (knee) and Ty Montgomery (ribs) were both injured during Sunday's victory over the Bears, forcing Williams to munch clock for the entire second half as the Packers played keepaway from both their opponent and their quarterback.
Williams' longest run netted just seven yards, but he grunted out enough three- and four-yarders to create manageable third downs for Brett Hundley and a few opportunities for Randall Cobb Wildcat sprint options. If Jones and Montgomery miss any additional time, the Packers offense is going to get really gnarly.
Kelvin Benjamin, Bills: 3 catches on 6 targets for 42 yards
Benjamin was active on the first Bills drive, with a 50-50 fade in the end zone falling just beyond his reach and Tyrod Taylor throwing behind him on the next play. Benjamin then essentially disappeared until he caught two passes for 33 yards from Nathan Peterman in fourth-quarter garbage time.
It remains unclear what Benjamin's role will be in the Bills offense. Or if the Bills still have an offense.
Martavis Bryant: 3 catches for 42 yards on 5 targets, 1 rush for minus-9 yards
Bryant was the target for Ben Roethlisberger's ugly first-quarter interception, and then he lost nine yards on a second-quarter reverse. It's a miracle he ever saw the field after that, but Bryant actually caught a 19-yard pass on third down during the Steelers' game-winning drive in addition to getting some work as the screen-pass guy.
Bryant may not be thrilled with the new role—a Sunday night stakeout of his Instagram account proved inconclusive—but he should be happy even to have a role.
Giants defense: 474 net yards allowed, 31 points allowed, 186 rushing yards allowed, versus the 49ers
San Francisco rookie C.J. Beathard, a human pinata in his first two starts, threw just six incomplete passes and was not sacked against the Giants. The 49ers moved the ball easily all game; only their fascination with fullback Kyle Juszczyk (who fumbled and got stuffed on 4th-and-short to end two early drives) kept the 49ers from romping even more decisively.
Be sure to load up your fantasy lineup with anyone playing against the Giants until head coach Ben McAdoo gets fired. And yes, this advice may already be too late by the time you read this.
Defensive Line of the Week
Adrian Clayborn, Falcons: six sacks. Yes, Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith was injured. But even if Dallas replaced Smith with three traffic cones and a "Drive Like Your Children Live Here" sign, six sacks would be a monstrous performance.
Offensive Line of the Week
Saints running backs rushed for 298 yards against the Bills. Late in the game, it looked like Dalton Hilliard and Vaughn Dunbar came out of retirement to run for Saints touchdowns. So let's hear it for Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk. Remember, folks: Two weeks ago, we still thought the Bills defense was good.
Special Teamer of the Week
Corey Grant's 56-yard fake-punt touchdown was the closest thing the Jaguars had to an offensive highlight until late in the game against the Chargers.
Mystery Touch of the Week
After gaining just five yards on the Bears' 4th-and-10 last chance, Benny Cunningham lateraled to center Hroniss Grasu, who flopped forward for two yards, because Grasu lacks the balletic grace of leaping Raiders lineman Marshall Newhouse.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker attempted the 14th pass of his career, a six-yard fake punt that came up shy of a first down. Hekker's career passer rating is now 120.2, 16 points higher than Aaron Rodgers' rating, which tops the NFL all-time list. Hekker may not be the Rams' best passer anymore, but he could definitely start at quarterback for the Texans.
Terrible Browns Decision of the Week
With no timeouts left and the ball on Detroit's 2-yard line with 15 seconds left in the first half, Cleveland quarterback DeShone Kizer called an audible and executed a quarterback sneak. He got stuffed, and time ran out as the Browns tried to climb off the pile.
Maybe Kizer was being a good Orthodox Moneyballer and losing on purpose so the Browns could draft his replacement, because that makes sense and will work out for everyone involved in the long term.
How to Think About the Vikings' Quarterback Situation
Case Keenum threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Vikings to their fifth straight win, beating the Redskins 38-30 on Sunday. Keenum also threw a pair of interceptions after the Vikings built a healthy lead, but it was a strong overall performance for the career third-stringer.
The Vikings activated Teddy Bridgewater from the physically unable to perform list this week, 18 months after he suffered a devastating knee injury during training camp. The Vikings now have two quality quarterbacks in a league where many teams have zero. This may cause some confusion, cognitive dissonance or anxiety among fans conditioned to think of quarterback "controversies" in terms of Proven Bad Option A and Likely Worse Option B.
So here are some tips for coping with, thinking about or explaining to your children how it is possible for one team to have two real quarterbacks.
- Bridgewater is the better quarterback. He's a better athlete with a better pedigree and has more of a track record of success. But it's possible that Keenum is better for the Vikings right now because of the timing he has established with his receivers.
- Bridgewater has been gone for over a year. The Vikings have swapped out offensive coordinators, numerous starters and much of their offensive identity in his absence. It's understandable why they aren't rushing him back in the middle of a hot streak.
- Eventually, the Vikings will turn back to Bridgewater, because he gives them the best chance to win in the postseason. Keenum's late interceptions revealed the limitations that will soon catch up to him. But "eventually" might not happen for a while.
- It's OK to like both Bridgewater and Keenum. You can root for both. You can enjoy the ride. Quarterback situations don't always have to be like bitter divorces or Highlander battles.
- Great organizations make great quarterback situations. The Vikings drafted and developed Bridgewater (and waited through his rehab), signed Keenum, rebuilt their offensive line and created a system in which both could excel, even though neither has Aaron Rodgers-esque talent. That means any organization can end up with two real quarterbacks as long as they make smart decisions, nurture their talent and game-plan sensibly.
In other words, the only thing weird about having a pair of quarterbacks like Bridgewater and Keenum is that so few teams can figure out how to do it.