Gridiron Digest: Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey Heat Up an Epic MVP Race

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 7, 2019

Gridiron Digest: Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey Heat Up an Epic MVP Race

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    With Patrick Mahomes looking mortal Sunday night, the NFL MVP race is suddenly wide-open. Could Christian McCaffrey, Deshaun Watson or someone else lay claim to the title? Or perhaps the real MVP of the NFL didn't play Sunday at all. (Hmm, who could that be?)

    Also in this week's jam-packed Gridiron Digest:

    • The Ravens and Steelers almost achieve a double knockout;
    • The Jets, Bengals and other teams vie for the coveted title of Worse Than the Dolphins;
    • JuJu Smith-Schuster stops by for an interview, which ends up being about doggie doo-doo (let's hope that's not a metaphor for the Steelers season, though it might be); 
    • The Packers hold on for dear life against the Cowboys;
    • Kyle Allen, Gardner Minshew II and Chase Daniel lead us through the Six Stages of Backup Quarterback Evaluation

    ...and much, much more!

          

MVP Contenders Separate Themselves in Week 5

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Week 5 didn't tell us much about teams that we don't already know: The Patriots are great (and may someday face a real opponent again), the Jets stink, the whole NFC is a confusing mess that will take weeks to sort itself out, and so forth.

    On the other hand, Week 5 did help sort out the front-runners in this year's MVP race. Here's a look at how things shake out now that it's easier to separate the true MVP contenders from the guys who just looked great when they played the Dolphins.

         

    Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

    The stats: Even on an off night, Mahomes threw for 321 yards and one touchdown, giving him 1,831 yards, 11 touchdowns and (still) zero interceptions for the season.

    The case: Even while limping on a banged-up ankle in a sloppy, penalty-marred 19-13 loss to the Colts, Mahomes offered a few reminders that he's the NFL's best player, most notably on his dazzling 27-yard scramble and touchdown throw to Byron Pringle before the ankle injury deteriorated and the game came unglued.

    Sunday night's loss to the Colts also gave us a look at what the Chiefs are like when Mahomes is not at his best, and it wasn't very pretty. Few players in the league elevate their teams the way Mahomes elevates the Chiefs.

    Counterargument: Mahomes had a bad game. It may have been the first really bad game of his career, but it was still a bad game. Factor in an injury that has flared up in back-to-back weeks, and the door is wide-open for not only MVP challengers but for other AFC teams to push into the Super Bowl contender conversation (and, sigh, for the Patriots to pull away).

         

    Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

    The Numbers: McCaffrey rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the Jaguars, adding 6-61-1 as a receiver. McCaffrey now leads the NFL with 587 rushing yards, averages 5.6 yards per carry, leads the Panthers with 31 receptions and has scored seven touchdowns.

    The Case: The Panthers are 3-2 but could easily be 0-5 without McCaffrey providing 46.8 percent of their total offense. With Cam Newton injured, both the Panthers rushing and passing attacks flow through McCaffrey, who is generating lots of yards after contact and yards after the catch to make conservative game plans designed for backup quarterback Kyle Allen viable and productive.

    The Counterargument: The cool kids on Twitter think running backs don't matter.

         

    Michael Thomas, Saints

    The Numbers: Thomas caught 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-24 Saints victory over the Buccaneers, giving him 45-543-3 for the season.

    The Case: Teddy Bridgewater has been a great story, but let's be blunt: The Saints would not be 4-1 if Bridgewater didn't have Michael Thomas to beat coverage right off the line of scrimmage, catch his micro-tosses and turn them into productive gains.

    Thomas is leading the league in receptions and yards despite Drew Brees' absence. Imagine what he'll do when Brees returns. Or just watch last year's film, because that's what he's gonna do when Brees returns.

    The Counterargument: Alvin Kamara fans can claim that Thomas isn't even the best MVP candidate on the Saints. And they might have a point.

         

    Deshaun Watson, Texans

    The Numbers: A five-touchdown performance in a 53-32 victory over the Falcons on Sunday gives Watson 11 touchdowns and one interception for the season to go with a 69.2 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 115.9.

    The Case: If the MVP award is meant for the player doing the most with the least support from the rest of his organization, Watson belongs among the front-runners.

    The Texans did not really repair the offensive line in front of him by trading for Laremy Tunsil; they just bought the most expensive duct tape on Earth to patch over the biggest holes. Watson still takes a pounding in most games, and while Will Fuller is finally coming around as a No. 2 receiver after several years as the captain of the injured reserve, Watson still doesn't have a worthy complement of weapons beyond DeAndre Hopkins. And yet the Texans are 3-2 in a division that could be won by a 9-7 team.

    The Counterargument: Looking good against the Falcons defense is like looking good in a walkthrough against traffic cones and pylons.

         

    Russell Wilson, Seahawks

    The Numbers: Wilson threw for 268 yards and four touchdowns in Thursday night's victory over the Rams, giving him 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions on the season, plus a 73.1 percent completion rate, two rushing touchdowns and other acts of heroism we take for granted from Wilson.

    The Case: Thursday night's performance looked like a whole season's worth of old Randall Cunningham highlights crammed into one game. Wilson has done the near-impossible and kept the Seahawks functional despite minimal help (and occasional hinderance) from the rest of the organization for years. Wilson is doing even more with somewhat less this season. 

    The Counterargument: He's not Patrick Mahomes.

         

    Others worth mentioning

    Lamar Jackson, Ravens, and Dak Prescott, Cowboys

    The early-September favorites are falling off the pace now that they are facing real opposition.

         

    Tom Brady, Patriots

    Brady is operating on autopilot against opposition that's softer than a kitten's belly, but Patriots fans get mad if we don't include him in every MVP discussion.

         

    Dalvin Cook, Vikings

    He's Kirk Cousins' financial advisor's MVP.

         

    Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers

    The unheralded defensive end leads the NFL with nine sacks, plus three forced fumbles and an interception. He's a worthy Defensive Player of the Year contender. We included him in this MVP roundup because Gridiron Digest is thirsty for street cred.

Game Spotlight: Packers 34, Cowboys 24

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Packers took a 31-3 lead with the help of four Aaron Jones rushing touchdowns, the Cowboys offense got exposed as Fraudzilla for the second time in two weeks, and we now understand the balance of power in the NFC.

    No, wait. The Cowboys came back to make things close on a mix of pinpoint throws by Dak Prescott and Packers mistakes on both sides of the ball, looking every bit like the team that blew opponents away during a 3-0 start. If they completed the comeback—Prescott's interception and a missed Brett Maher field goal doomed them—the Cowboys would be hailed as Super Bowl contenders, while Aaron Rodgers would produce enough passive aggression during the week to power the entire Great Lakes Region.

    So maybe we don't quite understand the NFC balance of power just yet. 

       

    What it means

    The Packers have outscored opponents 42-3 in the first quarter of games this year but have been outscored 90-77 in the other three quarters. They're 4-1 by virtue of their hot starts, and they must figure out how to sustain what they do right early in games and eliminate the penalties, defensive lapses and general sloppiness that cost them in their loss to the Eagles and nearly caused a catastrophe Sunday. 

    Whatever the Packers' problems are on both sides of the ball—it looks like a mix of game-planning mistakes and focus lapses, but that's admittedly pretty darn vague—they can be shocking to watch. The Packers appear to be cruising to victory, and suddenly a switch flips and it's like the opponent got a team-wide video game power boost.

    The Cowboys remain a playoff contender, but the last two weeks have proved just how misleading their early-season Giants-Redskins-Dolphins slate of victories really was. The NFL's bad teams are so terrible this year that they can skew our perceptions of their opponents, even if we try to take the results with a grain of salt. That said, the teams that get multiple games against soup cans (including the Cowboys, the division-rival Eagles and the Patriots) will reap the benefits when inflated win totals ease their paths to the playoffs.

    One final Cowboys note: Right tackle La'el Collins, who was having a fine season, left Sunday's game with an apparent knee injury. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith will also be out for a few more weeks. Things are going to be tougher than usual for Prescott and the Cowboys offense for a while.

       

    What's next

    Or maybe they won't be so tough. Speaking of soup cans on the schedule, the Cowboys enjoy the improv comedy stylings of the Jets next week. The Packers host the Lions, who will be coming off a bye.

Cupcake Wars

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    Corey Perrine/Getty Images

    With the Dolphins on bye, Gridiron Digest decided to try to answer a question fans around the league pondered all week: Is there some team in the NFL that's even worse than the Dolphins?

    With all apologies to the Falcons, we'll only focus on teams that entered Sunday without a victory. 

    Arizona Cardinals

    What watching their games is like: The Cardinals are actually a lot of fun to watch. Coach Kliff Kingsbury empties the backfield, strews receivers all over the field and lets Kyler Murray do the stuff that worked for Kingsbury's teams (sort of) in the Big 12. Murray spends most fourth quarters buried under piles of defenders, but at least the Cardinals are trying something different.

    Sunday's result: Cardinals 26, Bengals 23

    Playing without several starting receivers in what is supposed to be a four-receiver offense, Murray relied on David Johnson (156 total yards) as both a rusher and slot receiver while rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown himself on a mix of scrambles and options. About a third of Kingsbury's offensive wrinkles are really working at this point in the year, but that's still the highest success ratio of any team on this list, and it has produced both a win and a tie so far.

    Are they worse than the Dolphins? Heck no. The Cardinals might even be good sooner than you think. 

      

    Cincinnati Bengals

    What watching their games is like: Bengals games are a time capsule to 2015. Familiar faces like Andy Dalton, Gio Bernard, Tyler Eifert and (looking frustrated on the sideline) A.J. Green are still going through the motions and getting hammered against the Steelers in prime-time games. It's like visiting your great aunt and seeing the same tin of butter cookies on the table that was put out for Thanksgiving dinner four years ago.

    Sunday's result: Cardinals 26, Bengals 23

    See the Cardinals blurb for the details.

    Are they worse than the Dolphins? The Bengals aren't even good at being a truly bad team: they aren't as hilarious as the Jets, spunky as the Cardinals, mismanaged as the Skins or delusional as the Broncos. They'd be better off attempting some sort of youth movement right now, but they lack the vision to do so. So while they are probably better than the Dolphins in the literal sense, they are far worse in the existential sense.  

      

    Denver Broncos

    What watching their games is like: If your father-in-law built a team around the organizing philosophies of his Facebook rants, they would look a lot like the Denver Broncos.

    Sunday's result: Broncos 20, Chargers 13

    This was the sort of game John Elway fantasizes about. The Broncos ran for 191 yards. Joe Flacco threw just 20 passes. The defense produced three takeaways and a bunch of three-and-outs. The Broncos' problem is that Elway is so focused on building a team that wins 12-16 games like this per season that he keeps building a team that loses double-digit games per year when it falls just short of Ball Control Nirvana.

    Are they worse than the Dolphins? Not at all. The Broncos are just mediocre and dull by design.  

      

    New York Jets

    What watching their games is like: Some coaches would respond to having to rely on a third-string quarterback by being as daring, creative and surprising as possible. Adam Gase is not one of those coaches.

    Gase, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, gave Sam Darnold all the first-team reps this week because Gase is not just an offensive guru but also a world-class spleenologist who just assumed Darnold would be cleared to return from his bout of mono. That left third-stringer Luke Falk to face the Eagles defense unprepared. And it showed.

    Sunday's result: Eagles 31, Jets 6.

    Falk threw a pick-six on a short rollout toss, had the ball ripped from his hands by Orlando Scandrick for a second Eagles defensive touchdown and performed several other feats that made the Mark Sanchez Butt Fumble look like the Immaculate Reception.

    Are they worse than the Dolphins? The Falk-led Jets are worse than an SEC scout team. The Darnold-led Jets will surely be better. But if the Dolphins really wanted to tank this year, they should have retained Gase as their head coach and just told him to do his best. 

      

    Washington Redskins

    What watching their games is like: Watching the Dolphins is like watching a team that gutted its roster for Moneyball reasons trying its absolute hardest to maintain dignity. Watching Washington is like watching a team that doesn't really care anymore and wants everyone to know it.

    Sunday's result: Patriots 33, Washington 7

    Jay Gruden started Colt McCoy at quarterback because a) Gruden has a longstanding fixation with McCoy and b) the organization is having one of its vintage squabbles about whether anyone truly supports (or ever supported) Dwayne Haskins as the team's quarterback of the future. McCoy threw for 119 yards—75 net yards if you subtract six Patriots sacks. What's important isn't the results, but who is ultimately assigned blame for them.

    Are they worse than the Dolphins? Washington has more talent than the Dolphins but is the most grossly mismanaged organization in the NFL. The Skins and Dolphins face off next week, and while the Skins may win that game, they remain hopelessly lost. 

Game Spotlight: Ravens 26, Steelers 23

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    What happened

    Situations change, new faces replace old familiar ones, and yet Ravens-Steelers games remain the same: sloppy, unpredictable and violent enough to earn an NC-17 rating and never decided until the final field goal.

    The Ravens took a 17-7 early lead on some typical Lamar Jackson dual-threat magic and an ill-advised Wildcat interception thrown by the Steelers. Jackson then threw a pair of rainy-day interceptions that helped the Steelers close the deficit to 17-13.

    Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph took a brutal hit from Earl Thomas early in the third quarter. Rudolph laid motionless on the field for several terrifying moments, then was forced to hobble off the field with the help of teammates after the motorized cart that was supposed to transport him off the field stalled. 

    Enter undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, who manufactured a touchdown drive out of penalties, a weird play on which Diontae Johnson appeared to drop a pass but was awarded a completion and an out-of-bounds fumble instead and a one-yard James Conner plunge. The two teams then traded field goals, penalties and injuries as they often do, with Justin Tucker forcing overtime on a 48-yarder just before the end of regulation.

    The Steelers won the toss and elected to kick, with team captain Cam Heyward looking as confused after announcing the decision as most Steelers fans were. The tactic appeared to work when the Steelers forced a punt, but JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled a short completion after the change of possession, allowing Tucker to nail a 46-yard game-winner.

         

    What it means

    The Ravens needed a win after a pair of losses to tough conference foes, but this victory raises as many questions as it answers.

    Jackson was erratic, and the Ravens offense was too reliant on his scrambling for the third consecutive week. Some of the Ravens play calls—including a pair of pass attempts from their own 1-yard line, followed by a run that nearly resulted in a safety—betrayed a lack of offensive identity. And safety Tony Jefferson will lead what may be a long and worrisome injury report.

    On the other side, all of the optimism generated by the Steelers' convincing Monday night win over the Bengals evaporated during Rudolph's slow, solemn march off the field. Hodges is an obscure blank slate, and the Wildcat tactics that helped spur Monday night's win went from delightful to embarrassing as soon as a good defense got a chance to prepare for them.

    The Steelers season is even more finished now than it was when Ben Roethlisberger got injured.

    As for the coin toss: The Steelers were playing for a field goal with their third-string quarterback on a messy day during which their defense was playing well. It was a smart move, and it would have worked if not for the fumble.  

       

    What happens next

    The Ravens host the Bengals. The Steelers dust off the single-wing offense or something as they visit the Chargers. Whoever is in charge of that motorized cart orders some spark plugs and hopes he doesn't get fired. 

Gridiron Digest Backup Quarterback Bonanza

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Whenever a backup quarterback replaces an established starter, it initiates a predictable cycle of behaviors and feelings among fans. With so many teams around the NFL relying on their backups right now, Gridiron Digest decided to play armchair psychiatrist to help fans sort things out by seeing where each backup falls on the Six Stages of Backup Quarterback Evaluation.

    Stage 1: Enthusiasm

    The young quarterback performs well in his first appearances or starts, possibly with some impressive stats, probably in relief of an unpopular starter. Maybe he's pretty good. Maybe he's special. Maybe a portion of the fanbase would root for a scarecrow if it wore a different jersey number than the starter.

    Example: Kyle Allen has led the Panthers to three straight victories, including Sunday's 34-27 victory over the Jaguars. Allen looks like a worthy replacement for Cam Newton, so long as Christian McCaffrey provides 237 total yards and three touchdowns on runs, screens and somersaults, the defense provides three takeaways, teammates pounce on his fumbles for him, the opponents aren't that good, etc.

      

    Stage 2: Optimism

    The backup quarterback's success continues to the point where even folks who don't loathe the starter admit he's doing something right.

    Example: Teddy Bridgewater is no ordinary backup quarterback, but he played like one in his first few starts in relief of Drew Brees, throwing itsy-bitsy passes underneath and counting on Alvin Kamara and others to provide enough YAC to fuel the offense. But Bridgewater and the Saints opened things up this week with a few more downfield passes in a 31-24 win over the Bucs. 

    The Bridgewater we saw in Week 3 against the Cowboys was a stopgap. The one who threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday was Brees' heir apparent, or perhaps a future starter on some other quarterback-needy team. 

         

    Stage 3: Hysteria

    The backup quarterback wins several games or creeps onto the league leaderboard in some stats or looks like the pizza delivery guy in that video you found in your stepfather's sock drawer when you were 12. It may be too early to polish a Hall of Fame bust just yet, but purchasing Super Bowl airfare and hotels is totally justified.

    Example: Minshew Mania (it's like Tebow Mania reimagined as the plot of a Seth Rogen movie) might have reached epidemic levels if Gardner Minshew II completed any of the three Hail Mary attempts the Panthers spotted him on late-game defensive miscues. 

    Minshew coughed up three fumbles in the Jaguars' loss to the Panthers, including a clumsy one during one of his lovable slow-guy scrambles. But he didn't play badly, and his raw numbers (374 yards, two touchdowns) will keep him popular among the box-score scouts, wishful thinkers and Internet meme-makers. 

      

    Stage 4: Rationalization

    The backup quarterback takes the kind of loss that makes it appear opponents have figured him out. But hey, he still finds a way to win. And he's a plucky underdog, not like Mr. Zillionaire Overrated Starter. 

    Example: Daniel Jones threw for just 182 yards, one touchdown and an interception while incurring four sacks in a 28-10 loss to the Vikings. It was the kind of game Eli Manning would get ripped for, though it's fair to say Manning would deserve far more criticism for playing that way in his 233rd start than Jones deserves in his third. 

    At any rate, the Giants ran into a buzzsaw. Never bet against Kirk Cousins when he's facing a bad defense in a low-stakes game. 

      

    Stage 5: Denial

    When is the offensive coordinator going to open things up for the new guy? Why can't the front office find him better weapons? And, I dunno, maybe it's time to give the third-stringer a look.

    Example: The Bears offense under Mitch Trubisky is bad, but at least it brings a wild garage-band energy to each game that can catch defenses off-guard. Under Chase Daniel during their 24-21 loss to the Raiders in London, the Bears offense was more like a bad classic rock cover band: competent for long stretches but very predictable and off-key at the worst possible moments. 

       

    Stage 6: Acceptance

    You find the backup quarterback's jersey that you bought in the throes of Stage 3 at the bottom of a dresser drawer three years from now and wear it while cleaning out your parents' garage.

    Example: The only person who believes Colt McCoy is a starting quarterback at this point is Jay Gruden. And it looks like Gruden will have plenty of time on his hands for the foreseeable future. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster Talks Steelers, Wildcat, and Boujee's Dark Side

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    Tom Puskar/Associated Press

    This has been a big week for Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, both here at Bleacher Report and, you know, out there in the real world.

    Smith-Schuster and the Steelers picked up their first win of the season with a dominating performance against the Bengals on Monday Night FootballBleacher Report's Ty Dunne profiled him midweek, showing us the "bad" side of the rising star/internet celebrity. And Smith-Schuster also took a few minutes midweek to talk to Gridiron Digest about the Monday night victory, the new atmosphere in Pittsburgh and other topics. 

    Since Smith-Schuster was making the media rounds on behalf of Tide detergent, we also asked about cleaning up behind Boujee, the NFL's most famous doggo. And we got a little more than we bargained for. 

    (Note: Smith-Schuster spoke to us before Sunday's loss to the Ravens, when the Steelers' outlook for this season was much rosier than it may be now.)

       

    Gridiron Digest: You were mic'd up for Monday Night Football. Did knowing you had a microphone on you change how you talked to teammates or acted on the sidelines?

    JuJu Smith-Schuster: Not necessarily. I was just being myself. Toward the end of the game, knowing that we had the W, I just started asking, "What are you guys doing tonight?" But it was Monday night, so the guys were saying: "I gotta get home to my kids. My wife works tomorrow." So that was interesting.

       

    GD: It feels like the personality of the team is different now. How much of that is because you and the other young starters are making a point of taking on a leadership role?

    JSS: Back in 2017, when I came into the league, we had guys like Le'Veon Bell, Big Ben [Roethlisberger], AB [Antonio Brown]. Fast forward two years later, and it's James Conner, Mason Rudolph and JuJu: We're the young trio that's stepping up. We're all new, but we're all trying to be leaders. It's pretty cool. James Conner is being a role model. And I'm trying to be the role model that I can be.

       

    GD: An 0-3 record had to feel strange to you. How did you keep the team's slow start from bringing you down?

    JSS: It was tough. I've never been 0-3 in my life. I've always been on a dominant team. But we get put in situations where we have to deal with it, and it could be worse. Now we have some positive in the room and we have to keep on riding with that.

       

    GD: We saw a lot of Wildcat on Monday night. Without giving any future game plans away, is that something we're going to see more of?

    JSS: I don't know. I think it was a great game plan against the Bengals. We brought out the Wildcat, and I like it. I don't think we should shy away from it. It helped us a lot. James Conner dominated in the run game. And Jay[len] Samuels is a versatile guy. He can play running back. He can motion out and play wide receiver. He knows all of those roles. And he took control of the Wildcat.

       

    GD: You passed Randy Moss to become the youngest player ever to have 2,500 receiving yards. You aren't so young that you don't remember Moss' playing career, are you?

    JSS: Oh no, I have a lot of memories of Moss. I remember that he would put his hands up at about five yards and run a go route and they would just throw it up to him, and he would score on so many plays. He would run the slant, and his speed just dominated guys. So it was an honor to set that mark after him. 

       

    GD: Who was the guy you grew up watching and emulating?

    JJSS: We didn't have an NFL team, so I was a big fan of USC. My guy was Reggie Bush. I was trying to do everything he could do.

       

    GD: Turning to the detergent you're promoting, how old were you when you started doing your own laundry?

    JSS: I was about 20, when I first got to the NFL. I lived near USC, so in college I took it home every weekend.

       

    GD: Being a dog parent must have changed your laundry habits considerably, though. 

    JSS: Yeah, I've dealt with that over the past year. Now, he's amazing. He doesn't do that in the house anymore. When he was six or seven months he used to, like, all over my sheets. If he saw a pile of clothes he would go over and sit on it and then run into the kitchen. So he would pee and poop here and there. I was like, "Dog, what are you doing?" So, yup, on laundry nights: double the Tide. 

Awards Digest

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Offensive Line of the Week

    We can't give this week's award to the Bears organization for deciding to fly to London late in the week on an overnight flight, making the whole roster play like the Dramamine was still wearing off in the first half. But we can give it to the Raiders offensive line of Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Rodney Hudson, Denzelle Good and Trent Brown, who helped Josh Jacobs and others combine for 169 rushing yards and held the unstoppable-in-North America Bears defense without a sack. 

      

    Defender of the Week

    Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips welcomed Titans rookie guard Nate Davis to the NFL by recording three sacks in Buffalo's 14-7 win, bulldozing over and through the newcomer for most of the afternoon.

      

    Special Teamer of the Week

    Desmond King II's 68-yard punt return touchdown was one of the few things that went right for the Chargers on a dismal afternoon against the Broncos.

      

    Mystery Touch of the Week

    The Chargers have been sneaking Tyrod Taylor onto the field for Wildcat plays now and then throughout the season. They tried a little Taylor/Melvin Gordon zone-read near the goal line against the Broncos, but the play was easily stuffed. 

    Philip Rivers, split out as a make-believe wide receiver, stood motionless and watched the entire play unfold. Rivers looked like a cross between Jay Cutler and a Bills fan who still holds a grudge against Taylor. If the Rams let the Chargers have their own statues at the new Los Angeles stadium, that's what the Rivers statue should look like, so he can scowl in contempt at the rest of the organization forever. 

      

    Kicker Failure of the Week

    Titans kicker Cairo Santos missed kicks of 50, 36 and 53 yards, and he had a 33-yarder partially blocked. If the Bills end up with a wild-card berth in three months—and they probably will—remember that Santos helped make it possible.

      

    Fantasy Leech of the Week

    Look, a Panthers running back is running for a touchdown! Christian McCaffrey is going to single-handedly win this week for you!

    No, that's not McCaffrey scoring for the fourth time. It must be his backup. C.J. Anderson? No, he's a free agent. Cameron Artis-Payne? Nope, he's not with the Panthers this year. That boxer's kid, what's-his-name, Adonis Creed? No, that's a fictional character. Oh, here we go: Reggie Bonnafon, a second-year rando from Louisville.

    When the FBI wants people in the witness protection program to really disappear, it puts them on the bench behind McCaffrey.  

      

    Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown of the Week

    This category is just Gridiron Digest's designated space to torment the Falcons and their fans, so, of course, this award goes to Tashaun Gipson Sr. and the Texans defense for Gipson's 79-yard touchdown in the final seconds of a 53-32 Texans victory.

    Falcons football. Tune in because you took the over; stay tuned because it's strangely fun to watch them fail. 

      

    Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight

    A pair of Buccaneers defenders added some delightful physical comedy to Michael Thomas' highlights. Vernon Hargreaves III was so totally juked by an inside-out move on Thomas' first touchdown that he was teleported about five yards away and slipped trying to recover. Rookie safety Mike Edwards was the defender who went for the kill shot over the middle on Thomas' second touchdown; Thomas shrugged Edwards off and scored anyway.

Inside the Numbers

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    This week's edition of Inside the Numbers focuses mostly on players who made news during the week.

    Josh Allen, Bills: 23-of-32, 219 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 10 rushes for 27 yards

    Allen cleared concussion protocol this week after getting knocked out of the loss to the Patriots in Week 4. His longest completion of the day was a shovel pass that Isaiah McKenzie turned into a 46-yard gain. Allen was sacked four times and was ineffective as a scrambler, though an unnecessary roughness foul against Jurrell Casey at the end of an Allen run gave the Bills a key first down, which set up the McKenzie shovel pass, which set up the game-winning touchdown pass to Duke Williams. It was Buffalo's most successful offensive sequence of the game. 

    Both the Bills and their fans will eventually run out of patience with performances like these. Right now, they're happy to be 4-1.

       

    Melvin Gordon, Chargers: 12 carries for 31 yards, 4 receptions for 7 yards

    The Chargers appeared to be trying to feature Gordon early in the game; he rushed four times for 12 yards and caught two passes for five yards. Then, they trailed the Broncos 14-0 and went back to feeding Austin Ekeler, who caught 15 passes for 86 yards but rushed just three times for seven yards. 

    Gordon is sure to have some better days in the games to come, but you probably don't want to invest too much of yourself, financially or emotionally, into waiting for them.

       

    Stefon Diggs, Vikings: 3 catches for 44 yards

    The discontented receiver got the start for the Vikings but had a quiet overall game. A 20-yard third-down conversion to help ice the 28-10 win in the fourth quarter was his lone real highlight. Adam Thielen (7-130-2) and Dalvin Cook (218 total yards) did most of the heavy lifting to make Kirk Cousins' statistics look great against a terrible Giants defense that didn't get any better just because the team switched quarterbacks.

       

    Mike Nugent, Patriots: 2-of-2 on field goals, 3-of-4 on extra points

    Nugent, the 37-year-old signed by the Patriots in the wake of Stephen Gostkowski's hip injury, missed his first extra point and then was perfect for the rest of the game, converting short 37- and 23-yard field goals.

    Kicker is the one position where the Patriots should not be able to outsmart the whole NFL; it's not like there's a secret supply of placekickers somewhere in the world only Bill Belichick knows about. The Bengals moved on from Nugent in 2016, and he has been an emergency kicker for hire ever since. So he should be a liability if the Patriots ever find themselves in a close game. 

    Watch him go 33-of-33 for the Patriots this year, with one missed extra point.

Gridiron Sportsbook

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Lines on the Move

    The Patriots opened as 14-point favorites in most books, but the line jumped to -16.5 upon news that Colt McCoy would start for Washington. Only the Skins can voluntarily make a quarterback decision that costs them nearly a field goal in Vegas, but that's neither here nor there. The Patriots covered easily with a 33-7 victory, making them 2-1 on the year against double-digit spreads. 

    Early spreads for next week's visit by the Giants are hovering around Patriots -15 or so. Based on how the Giants defense looked against the Vikings, the Patriots should be able to cover a big number. They're gonna be seeing a lot more of them this season. 

       

    Overwatch

    The Buccaneers have sailed past the over easily in their last three games, clearing 46.0 in a 31-24 loss to the Saints. The Buccaneers blend an explosive passing game with utter defensive inconsistency, which will make them a frustrating team to rely upon if the over-unders start creeping up in the weeks to come. Early numbers in the 47.5 range for next week's London matchup with the Panthers should be avoided as if they were Sam Darnold's old toothbrushes unless you want to risk money on transatlantic flight schedules (see: the Bears' jetlagged performance against the Raiders) and end up in the hole before noon. 

       

    Undertale

    The Chargers have now gone under in their last four games, culminating in Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Broncos, which didn't come close to the number (46). The Chargers are perceived by the public as an offensive powerhouse, but this year's version of the team is injury-plagued (that's nothing new), has kicker issues (also nothing new) and has gotten some shaky performances from Philip Rivers (ah, that's what's new).

    The Chargers-Steelers over-under is likely to be low based on the Steelers' quarterback issues (we're seeing numbers around 43.5). That still feels high for a team that casual bettors don't follow very closely.

       


    Monday Night Action: Browns (+5.0) at 49ers (47)

    The Browns lead the lifetime series against the 49ers 19-9 (counting the postseason), which is a reminder that these teams played each other more often in the days of Otto Graham than they do nowadays. Johnny Manziel (270 passing yards) and Isaiah Crowell (20-145-2 rushing) led the Browns to a 24-10 victory over Blaine Gabbert (9 sacks) and the 49ers in their last meeting in 2015. That was about two paradigm shifts ago for both organizations. 

    This is essentially a battle of two mystery teams. The Browns are still riding the emotional salt shaker. The 49ers are a blank slate after three wins against bad/mistake-prone/injury-ravaged opponents. This is a spread we would have expected to go the other way when the season started, when the Browns were darlings to win their division (if not the next five Super Bowls) and Jimmy Garoppolo was making news with training camp interceptions.

    The public may be overreacting to records and storylines—or the lack of a storyline, in the 49ers' case—and that makes the Browns a good value. That +190 Browns moneyline also looks pretty tasty.

Point-Counterpoint

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Toy company FOCO releases limited-edition Danny Dimes bobblehead, which features a replica Giants rookie Daniel Jones mounted atop a dime-shaped base.

    Point: The limited-edition Gardner Minshew II bobblehead is actually a vintage Kung-Fu Grip G.I. Joe mounted atop an original vinyl pressing of the Grateful Dead's Aoxomoxoa.

    Counterpoint: Dave Gettleman is gonna buy up all 364 of these things and have them all nodding at the media at his next press conference.

       

    Tom Brady joins TikTok.

    Point: I'm enjoying all the videos he posts that are carefully and professionally produced and edited to make him look like he's a regular guy just like the rest of us, only considerably better.

    Counterpoint: There's a The Picture of Dorian Gray thing happening here: Brady may appear ageless, but there's a forgotten MySpace account out there where he looks like Saruman the White.

        

    Videos of Jay Gruden behaving a bit oddly surface just days before Gruden's Monday morning firing.

    Point: Ah, it seems that Washington general manager Bruce Allen has also joined TikTok.

    Counterpoint: And we may have discovered which NFL coach regularly listens to Aoxomoxoa.

       

    Ben Roethlisberger fined $5,000 for wearing an Apple Watch on the sideline during a Monday Night Football game for which he was inactive.

    Point: This is the sideline-fine equivalent of convicting Al Capone of tax evasion.

    Counterpoint: Bet the NFL employee whose job it is to scrutinize injured players along the sidelines to see if anyone is violating some obscure league policy gets invited to all of the best parties.