Monday Morning Digest: Gut Check Sunday Separates Pretenders from Contenders
We're one-quarter of the way through the NFL season, which means it's time for Digest to start writing reality checks! In this week's edition:
• Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers shock the league by playing like Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers
• The Dolphins come down with another case of the Screaming Foxborough Yips
• The Falcons, Eagles and Lions blunder into tough losses
• Rookie quarterbacks play like rookie quarterbacks
• Rookie running backs get sabotaged by their coaches
• Mitchell Trubisky goes Super Saiyan
...and much, much more!
Gut Check Week Offers Hard Lessons and a Few Surprises
You weren't really planning for a Dolphins-Buccaneers Super Bowl, were you?
Did you take the "Patriots are finished" bait for the sixth straight year? Or get too down on the Saints or Packers? Or too high on some team with a fluky early-season blowout (Jets, Lions, Bills) on its resume?
If you did, then Gut Check Sunday snapped you back to reality.
Not every early-season surprise fell back to earth on Sunday—the Titans and Bengals engineered thrilling late-game/overtime comebacks—but Week 4 took some of the helium out of September's dizziest storylines just in time for us to flip the proverbial calendars.
The standings may still be a little topsy-turvy in some divisions, but Gut Check Sunday provided plenty of clues about how the rest of the season will unfold.
You are what you are
Ryan Fitzpatrick did not morph into Brett Favre at age 35. The Buccaneers hid their defensive and rushing deficiencies with long bombs and opponents' mistakes for two weeks. But the smoke-and-mirrors routine is over, and the Buccaneers went from the NFC's hottest team to a franchise facing a quarterback conundrum that may not have a correct answer in just six days.
The Dolphins also didn't magically get better during one of their typical offseasons of wheel-spinning. It's one thing to manufacture close wins against the Jets and Raiders and another to show up in Foxborough and expect the Patriots to surrender to your vanilla game plan.
On the positive side, the Patriots remain the Patriots, Aaron Rodgers can still carry the Packers offense on his shoulders and pick up wins if he gets a bit of help, and that Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers is a rapidly fading Saints memory.
Good teams find multiple paths to victory and exhaust every avenue to get better. Bad teams play not to lose, and...we'll get to the Jets in a later segment.
The Bears are 3-1 because they dared to make the Khalil Mack trade days before the start of the season and don't let Mitchell Trubisky's moment-to-moment inconsistency keep them from being bold and creative when calling plays.
The Ravens dramatically upgraded their receiving corps, reintroduced downfield passing and added the Lamar Jackson Wildcat and funky formations to an offense that stagnated into three-yard dumpoffs for several years. Now they're 3-1 after a win against the Steelers, who save most of their aggressiveness these days for contract negotiations and locker-room intrigues.
The Titans upset the Eagles by being unpredictable on first downs and daring on fourth downs after throwing the kitchen sink at the Texans and playing Pop Warner-style to manufacture an upset of the Jaguars. No team has done more with less in the first quarter of the season than the Titans, who have been forced to juggle quarterbacks and compensate for multiple offensive line injuries.
The Saints—who could easily just shrug their shoulders and ask Drew Brees to throw 60 passes each week—have used fake punts and Taysom Hill Wildcat wrinkles to lift them past the Falcons and Giants.
Ugly wins still count
The Bengals, Chargers and Cowboys aren't great teams. But they all found ways to engineer comeback wins on Sunday. Playoff portfolios are often built from fourth-quarter miracles and grunt-it-out efforts against bad opponents.
The Packers didn't earn many style points in their shutout of the Bills, with Rodgers complaining that there was "no flow" to the offense. (Translation: Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin still call their plays off the limited tasting menu from a trendy bistro with only six tables.) But the Packers beat a team that crushed the Vikings, and common-opponent records could decide the NFC North standings.
The Seahawks have won two straight games that made you want to squirt lemon juice in your eyes instead of watching. They aren't good, but with the Cardinals and 49ers poised to crater, the Seahawks could ride wins like these into the wild-card picture.
There are plenty of other gut checks and lessons to come in this edition of Digest. We may not know who is "for real" yet, but we have a pretty good idea of who isn't—and which early-season storylines are already ancient history.
Blame Game Digest
Several teams were kicking themselves after squandering opportunities to pick up wins in the early games. Digest spends a little time giving credit to the winners of those games and, because NEGATIVITY SELLS, a lot more time assigning blame to the losers:
Bengals 37, Falcons 36
Credit: The Bengals offense was unstoppable in the first half. Andy Dalton was The Little Engine Who Could late in the fourth quarter, overcoming several of his own mistakes before leading a final drive.
Blame: The Falcons got stopped on 4th-and-5 early in the game. They got the ball on the 8-yard line after a third-quarter blocked punt but settled for a field goal after one of their vintage red-zone odysseys. No team gets less support from its play-callers, relative to the quality of the players themselves, than the Falcons.
Titans 26, Eagles 23 (OT)
Credit: Corey Davis (nine catches for 161 yards and a touchdown) had a fantastic game. The Titans defense played fast and aggressive, and the offense fought for every available yard.
Blame: The Eagles dropped at least six passes, with Nelson Agholor looking like he time-warped back to the Chip Kelly days. They also committed eight penalties for 77 yards, including two on the Titans' game-winning drive. Davis isn't Jerry Rice, but Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills (and others) made him look like it.
Cowboys 26, Lions 24
Credit: Ezekiel Elliott generated 240 scrimmage yards, generously leaving 174 yards for the rest of his teammates combined.
Blame: Matt Patricia left middle linebacker Jarrad Davis isolated in man coverage against Elliott on the final drive, an obvious mismatch that led to the catch that set up the game-winning field goal. The Lions committed eight penalties, many of them pre-snap. Kerryon Johnson rushed nine times for 55 yards, while LeGarrette Blount rushed seven times for just 12 yards, but they continued to share what little carries were available in the second half. Basically, Patricia was outcoached by Jason Garrett, which is just...ugh.
Texans 37, Colts 34 (OT)
Credit: J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney combined for four sacks. The Texans offense showed up before the fourth quarter, which was a welcome change from their first three games.
Blame: The Colts are a talent-starved team who came back from a 28-10 deficit to force overtime, so it's hard to find a lot of fault with their effort. Frank Reich went for a fourth down in the waning seconds of overtime when he could have punted and played for a tie. Let's not blame him for that. (Oops, too late.)
Game Spotlight: Ravens 26, Steelers 14
The Ravens were solid, balanced, relatively disciplined and (as has been the case all year) more dynamic on offense than the three-clouds-of-dust-and-a-56-yard-field-goal Ravens of yore. The Steelers, as they have done all season, tried to string together a bunch of NFL Blitz-style sizzle plays into a victory.
The Ravens threatened to take a 21-3 lead after a Joe Flacco-to-John Brown bomb in the second quarter, but an Alex Collins goal-line fumble allowed the Steelers to tie the game 14-14 at halftime. The Steelers failed to carry any momentum into the second half, though. Their offense stalled repeatedly, while the Ravens controlled the clock with three straight 11-to-14-play field-goal drives, plus a fourth to ice the game.
What it means
Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV give Flacco (who threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns Sunday) a real home run threat, a contested-catch specialist and someone who can make little checkdowns productive, respectively. Give a quarterback one extra long completion, one extra tough catch in traffic and a few more yards after underneath receptions each week, and it will do wonders for both his reputation and the offense.
Factor in a tough defense and Justin Tucker's reliability with a freshly watchable offense, and the Ravens are back in 2010 to '14 mode, which means they should not be overlooked as potential Super Bowl contenders.
The Steelers now have two conference losses and a divisional loss and a tie. They were sloppy in Monday night's win at Tampa and even sloppier on Sunday night. They miss Le'Veon Bell (James Conner rushed for just 19 yards on nine carries) and now live and die by Ben Roethlisberger improvisations and defensive turnovers. If they don't find some semblance of consistency, they will lose to all of the best teams on the late-season schedule (Jaguars, Patriots, Saints) while coughing up enough upcoming games to mid-tier teams to leave them on the outside of the playoff picture.
Speaking of mid-tier teams, the Steelers host the Falcons next week before traveling to Cincinnati in a pair of games that could combine to go over 150 points.
The Ravens face the Browns next week; for once, we don't have the urge to take a sledgehammer to the television to avoid watching it.
Player Spotlight: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears
Mitchell Trubisky threw for 354 yards and six touchdowns in a 48-10 victory over the Buccaneers.
Yeah, there's a sentence that would have made us laugh out loud two weeks ago.
Trubisky added 53 yards on three rushes, but he did most of his damage finding wide-open receivers, backs and tight ends streaking up the sideline. It was the most touchdown passes by a Bears quarterback in a single game since Sid Luckman threw seven in 1943.
Luckman was facing a Giants team full of military 4-Fs. Trubisky faced a Buccaneers team who upset the Saints and Eagles to start the season but played on Sunday like it was on the road coming off a Monday night loss and facing a quarterback controversy—and also may never have stepped on a football field before.
What it means
The Bears have a talent-laiden offense—five different players caught touchdowns from Trubisky on Sunday—plus a scheme closely related to the one that made Nick Foles look like Joe Montana in the Super Bowl and has turned Patrick Mahomes into one of the Avengers in Kansas City. But in the Bears' first three games, Trubisky had looked like a cross between Blake Bortles and Rex Grossman.
After Sunday's explosion, his 2018 season stats average out to 236.25 passing yards and two touchdowns per game, plus 2.5 sacks (often his fault) and 1.25 turnovers on interceptions or fumbles. That sounds like reasonable production to expect for even an up-and-down quarterback for the rest of the season in this offense.
With Khalil Mack forcing one turnover per game and the NFC North in a general state of chaos, the Bears could easily reach the playoffs with a quarterback who throws for 236 yards and two touchdowns per game, so long as he limits the misadventures.
What happens next
A bye so the offense can catch its breath and then a trip to Miami to face another early-season surprise.
Game Spotlight: Patriots 38, Dolphins 7
The Patriots offense played like a pretty good tribute-band version of the Patriots offense. It established the run early and then picked its shot with a 55-yard Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown pass from Tom Brady on a coverage breakdown to take a second-quarter 10-0 lead. From there, the Patriots simply controlled the clock (40 carries, 175 rushing yards) while the Dolphins fumbled snaps and played like they disbelieved their 3-0 start as much as everyone else did.
What it means
AFC East opponents still come down with the bubonic yips the moment they set foot in Gillette Stadium, and judging from Sunday's early-game action, the Dolphins may be the only AFC East team other than the Patriots capable of beating an opponent that isn't looking past them. So the Patriots can pencil in a 5-1 divisional record, at worst, which means it doesn't matter if they're short on offensive weapons or a step slow on defense; they'll still win the division.
The Dolphins are this year's version of the 2017 Bills: the so-so AFC East team that stumbles into a wild-card berth by winning a few close tiebreaker-important games (like the opener against the Titans) and feasting on the divisional cellar-dwellers.
The Patriots host Andrew Luck and the Colts for the first time since the DeflateGate game. Maybe we should write long DeflateGate retrospectives this week! Or maybe we should jam a power drill against our temples and crank it to max setting instead?
The Dolphins face the Bengals in another future wild-card tiebreaker showdown.
Rookie Quarterback Digest
It's hard to be a rookie quarterback in the NFL. Just how hard, you ask? With four of the five first-round rookies in the starting lineup this week, let's roll the tape and find out.
Josh Allen, Bills
Allen was Wile E. Coyote. The Bills offense was a pair of ACME rocket skates. The phrase "comically inept" doesn't do Allen's two-interception, seven-sack performance in a 22-0 loss to the Packers justice. You have to see Allen's up-for-grabs wobblers into the middle of the field and his stumbling/bumbling attempts to escape the pocket to truly appreciate them.
Allen played much better when the Bills defense kept handing him the ball in scoring position against the Vikings last week. Most quarterbacks look OK when they keep getting the ball in scoring position. Allen got no help from the rest of the Bills on Sunday and hasn't looked this bad since...um...about half of his 2017 college games.
Sam Darnold, Jets
Darnold's biggest problem right now is that Todd Bowles alternates between placing too much trust in the Jets offense (Quincy Enunwa couldn't quite haul in an early 4th-and-1 bomb that could have changed the complexion of the game) and too little (playing for a field goal while trailing 25-3, punting in the fourth quarter with a comeback still possible, etc.).
Darnold finished with 167 yards and one touchdown in a 31-12 loss against the vicious Jaguars defense. He and the Jets probably didn't have an upset in them on Sunday no matter what the coaches called. But Bowles has to stop coaching every game like it's an extended preseason and he's just trying to get Darnold some work.
Baker Mayfield, Browns
Mayfield threw a first-quarter pick-six, settled down enough to lead the Browns (with huge assists from the defense and Nick Chubb) to a 28-14 lead, turned the ball over three times in the second half (two fumbles and an interception on a last-second bomb) and proved to be out of power-ups and surprises in a 45-42 Raiders win. It was quite a journey.
Mayfield (21-of-41, 295 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) looks more like an erratic veteran starter in the Andy Dalton/Blake Bortles category—mixing great plays with zany mistakes—than your typical rookie. That's high praise, folks, because a rookie who challenges defenses is more likely to learn from his mistakes than one who is taught to not lose the game (gives Todd Bowles the stink eye).
Josh Rosen, Cardinals
Rosen threw for just 50 yards in the first half but maintained enough composure against the Seahawks pass rush to thread some needles to 1970s singer-songwriter Ricky Seals-Jones and others in a late rally. Rosen's 180-yard, one-touchdown afternoon wasn't pretty, but his Cardinals would have come away with a win instead of a 20-17 loss if not for two missed field goals, a dropped would-be touchdown by J.J. Nelson and other unforced errors by his teammates.
But that's the fundamental problem faced by most rookie quarterbacks: The best of them usually end up with the worst teams.
Inside the Numbers: Rookie Running Back Special Edition
First the quarterbacks, now the running backs: Digest has rookies on the brain! So many rookie rushers put up strange stat lines that Digest just had to go down for a deep analytical dive.
Saquon Barkley (10 carries for 44 yards and one touchdown, with six catches for 56 yards on eight targets): Barkley caught three passes for 32 yards and rushed twice for two yards and a touchdown after the Saints took a 26-10 fourth-quarter lead—which means Barkley touched the ball just 11 times when it mattered. Why didn't the Giants run more often when the game was close? Why did Wayne Gallman get five touches, including a fumble to set up a Saints field goal? These are Giants mysteries. Until they are solved, fantasy gamers can count on Barkley getting plenty of garbage catches and carries in blowouts.
Nick Chubb (three rushes for 105 yards, two TDs): Chubb rumbled for 63- and 41-yard touchdowns on two-thirds of his opportunities. A less-visionary coach than Hue Jackson might have given him a fourth carry instead of running Carlos Hyde up the middle three times before punting and failing to kill the fourth-quarter clock, or would have at least gotten him on the field in overtime. But Jackson and Todd Haley are just too creative to do something obvious like feed the ball to a guy who is playing like Jim Brown, so Hyde rushed 22 times for 82 yards and the Browns lost.
Nyheim Hines (four carries for 10 yards, nine catches for 63 yards and 2 TDs receiving): Jordan Wilkins started at running back for the Colts but touched the ball just once in the first half. Hines, a speedy slot type, got all four of his carries and three catches for four yards in the first half, but he caught 14- and nine-yard touchdowns during the Colts' second-half comeback, adding a 13-yard conversion on 3rd-and-10 in overtime. Hines now leads the Colts with 22 receptions this year, but for just 119 yards (5.4 yards per catch). Hines is a useful player, but the Colts may want to experiment with finding a traditional running back and a downfield passing game.
Kerryon Johnson (nine carries for 55 yards, one TD): Johnson started the game with a 32-yard run on the first play. Then coordinator Jim Bob Cooter alternated between randomly rotating his running backs and forgetting about the running game altogether until halftime. Johnson later plowed through defenders for an eight-yard touchdown to help cut the Lions' deficit to 20-17. Ultimately, Cooter and Matt Patricia didn't have to answer many questions about their inability to get Johnson more touches because Patricia was too busy explaining why he left his base defense in the game during a Cowboys two-minute drill.
Sony Michel (25 carries for 112 yards and one TD): Michel rushed 15 times for 80 yards in the first half, so this was not your classic Patriots "run out the blowout" situation. Michel rushed five times for 38 yards on New England's opening drive. The Patriots then stuck with what worked, alternating Michel and James White to take pressure off their depleted receiving corps. That's right, Browns and Lions: You can keep giving the ball to a running back who plays well early in the game!
Offensive line of the week: It was a tough call between the Patriots, Cowboys and Saints this week. But the Saints get the nod because the Giants defense barely touched Drew Brees while Alvin Kamara led a running game that rushed for 170 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. (Also, the Giants showed up to play, unlike the Dolphins.) Let's hear it for some Awards Digest regulars: Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk.
Defensive player(s) of the week: J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney combined for four sacks, two forced fumbles and a recovery for a touchdown. Unlike last week against the Giants, the pass-rushing dominance was enough to (eventually and with great difficulty) spur a Texans victory.
Special teamer of the week: Adam Vinatieri gets a Lifetime Achievement Award this week for breaking Morten Andersen's all-time field-goal record with his 566th and 567th career field goals. Three fun Vinatieri facts: He has more career field goals than Stephen Gostkowski (346) and Justin Tucker (211) combined, 17 more postseason field goals than any player in history and has been around so long that he kicked his first field goal in a loss to a Dolphins team quarterbacked by Dan Marino.
Mystery touch of the week: The legend of Taysom Hill grows! Hill threw a 10-yard pass on a fake punt, attempted another pass, rushed four times for 28 yards on Wildcats and misdirection plays, caught a pass (for a loss of four) and returned kicks. But this is all just gimmickry with no business in the NFL that will soon be exposed and stymied, so why bother even trying it once in a while? (The preceding message was paid for by the Keep Hiring Brian Schottenheimer and Marty Mornhinweg Foundation.)
Hallucinogenic play of the week I: The Patriots ran a Wildcat with James White as the shotgun quarterback and Tom Brady at wide receiver. Yes, Tom Brady at wide receiver. Brady went in motion before the snap, took a handoff, surveyed the field, wondered who resents him enough to force him to run Wildcat plays, remembered, "Oh yeah, the rest of the organization," and then dumped the ball back to White for a modest gain on the old basketball give-and-go. A 5,000-word oral history of this play will blow up the news cycle in mid-December.
Hallucinogenic play of the week II: The Bears lined both Mitchell Trubisky and Chase Daniel up in shotgun near the goal line against the Buccaneers. Both quarterbacks even called for the snap, with Trubisky taking the real thing and throwing one of his six touchdown passes. Look for the Buccaneers to line Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston up in some two-quarterback formations this season so they can confirm that they are not really happy with either of them.
Meaningless fantasy touchdown of the week: Frank Gore rewarded fantasy gamers who have kept him in the lineup since the late 1980s with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch. Unfortunately for anyone hoping Ryan Tannehill would duplicate Blake Bortles' four-touchdown masterpiece against the Patriots defense, Gore caught that touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler.
Backdoor cover lovers
Boy howdy, the Dolphins sure looked like tasty road dogs this week at +6.5, didn't they? Well, the Patriots are now 31-14-2 against the spread as home favorites since 2013 after Sunday's blowout. The Patriots are also just 15-14-2 ATS in divisional games since 2013, so it's not a bad idea to test their mojo against a divisional foe. But Sunday should be the only warning you need to only try it on the road.
The 49ers at +10 looked like a great play Sunday morning—the public always over-corrects when a backup quarterback like C.J. Beathard makes his first start of the season—and looked even better when they led 17-6 midway through the second quarter. Those 10 points turned out to be juussssst enough breathing room as the Chargers threatened to score a late touchdown in their 29-27 win. (They knelt in the red zone instead.)
Digest should have listened to our instincts and taken the points instead of the yummy-looking +360 moneyline for a straight-up 49ers win. What were the odds that the Chargers would successfully kick three field goals?
Digest took the over at 52.5 in the Falcons-Bengals game and was sitting pretty by the middle of the third quarter as a result. The Bengals are 4-0 clearing the number this year, the Falcons 3-1. Both teams can score, and neither plays a lick of defense, so be on the lookout for an enticing play whenever the weather is good (always, in Atlanta) and the number is anywhere in the low 50s.
The Cardinals and Seahawks failed to clear the number (40) in a 20-17 Seahawks win. The Cardinals are now 0-4 reaching the over this season, the Seahawks 1-3. Beware of both teams: They are awful but conservative on offense (the Seahawks were 0-of-10 on third downs Sunday) yet ordinary on defense, a combination that's going to lead to even more low-scoring punt-fests.
Monday Night: Kansas City Chiefs (-3.5) at Denver Broncos
The Chiefs are 21-10 against the spread in divisional games in the Andy Reid era. The Broncos are 3-9-1 ATS in divisional games in the post-Super Bowl era. In other words, the Chiefs are usually who we think they are (pinball-machine offense, leaky defense), while the Broncos have a habit of fooling us with some early-season wins before fading. The Chiefs have also won five straight games (straight up) against the Broncos and three straight at Mile High. Don't overthink this one.
Distant early warning
The Rams opened in the -7 to -7.5 range at Seattle for Sunday night. The Rams are great, the Seahawks mediocre at best, and if you think the 12th Man can make that big of a difference, you just haven't watched this year's Rams.
Your weekly roundup of controversial issues and contradictory answers:
James Harrison suggests that Le'Veon Bell should fake an injury so he can miss games but still get paid by the Steelers.
Point: After a potential self-tattle like that one, someone should go back to check if Harrison's weight sled was full of feathers.
Counterpoint: The more current and former "leaders" in the Steelers locker room speak out, the more it sounds like the most sensible person in the building over the last five years was Todd Haley.
Todd Haley admits that he borrowed the trick play the Browns used on a two-point conversion from the Philly Special, days after Hue Jackson denied borrowing the Philly Special.
Point: Jackson doesn't want to be accused of studying successful teams and adapting their most effective tactics to make himself a better coach. Let's respect his wishes.
Counterpoint: Todd Haley may be the most sensible person in a lot of buildings.
Panthers hire Tish Guerin as director of player wellness, one of the first in-house psychological clinicians in the NFL, per the Charlotte Observer.
Point: Teams are taking steps to safeguard the emotional and psychological health of employees in a high-profile, high-risk, extreme-stress profession. It's great to finally see the league moving into the 20th century.
Counterpoint: There should have been a bidding war for Guerin's services between the Steelers and Browns.
Panthers sign Eric Reid, one of the NFL's more dedicated social justice protesters.
Point: Lookie there: The Panthers are making better decisions already!
Counterpoint: The expected national outcry over Reid's signing fizzled because Igor, the Vladivostok-based programmer of Twitter bots, doesn't know who Reid is.
Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer became the first female duo to call an NFL game, providing color and play-by-play for an Amazon Prime stream of Thursday Night Football.
Point: America's Nitwit Brother-in-Law community loaded Amazon Prime, took 10 tries to remember their passwords and then clicked a hard-to-find setting adjustment, just for the privilege of complaining on Facebook that they find Storm and Kremer's voices "annoying."
Counterpoint: Amazon is also launching a feature that allows you to hear Jason Witten yammering nonstop over episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Earl Thomas gives middle finger to Seahawks sideline after suffering likely season-ending injury.
Point: "What kind of role model is Thomas being to children?" asks a nation that must not ever turn on the nightly news or go outside anymore.
Counterpoint: Refusing to either trade or extend the contract of a future Hall of Famer while plunging the rest of the roster into extreme rebuilding mode is the real obscene gesture, folks.