NFL Week 6 was meant to be box office stuff. Cleveland were playing Pittsburgh in a promising divisional matchup and Aaron Rodgers was taking on Tom Brady for just the third time in their respective careers, writes Matthew Carolan.
It should have been glorious, but it was not glorious. Instead, we were shocked by two blowouts.
Big game blowouts
It is not always easy for a game to live up to big expectations. There are so many variables; will the quarterback play well? Can the offensive line deal with a pass rush? Will the coach get his scheme right? The list goes on.
With respect to each one of those questions, both Green Bay and Cleveland failed on Sunday.
Starting in Pittsburgh, the clash between the Browns and Steelers was never close. Any promise or optimism that Stefanski’s men may have held pre-game was quickly brushed aside in a game that was reminiscent of Cleveland’s Week 1 collapse against Baltimore. Suffice to say, when they come up against a Super Bowl contender, they are far off the pace.
This does not mean that Cleveland are a poor team or that they cannot make it to the playoffs, but any suggestion of them being a legitimate contender has taken a serious knock in their divisional no-shows. As for Pittsburgh, their defence may well be rich in big names and talent, but they did not live up to that in weeks gone by. Against Cleveland, they did. The 38-7 scoreline says it all.
It was not all rosy in defense for the Steelers though. Where Minkah Fitzpatrick reminded everyone why Pittsburgh traded for him in 2019 with a pick six, they also lost Devin Bush to an ACL injury, which could mean he misses the rest of the season. Still, one has to think this unit has enough to keep them relevant and in contention for months to come.
Down in Tampa Bay, things started off differently. Green Bay went up 10-0 early on and their offense looked like it has so far this season - a well-oiled machine. But it did not take long for things to change. Rodgers threw a pick six (just the third of his career, by the way), to make it 10-7, and on the following series threw another interception (albeit the blame lay more with his receiver this time around), which led to another Buccaneers score. The score, 14-10 Bucs.
From there, much can be credited to Tampa Bay for running away with the game, but in truth, they never needed to be great. Brady never needed to play to an elite level, and they never needed to extend themselves far beyond playing reasonably well.
Green Bay could not get out of their own way. Just before the half, Rodgers threw it to the sidelines for Jones to step out of bounds. Jones could not hold onto it properly (within the peculiar rules of the NFL) when he was hit, and that summed it up for the Packers.
Even when they did make a play, something went wrong. It almost felt like they were content to chalk it up as a bad day and move on. It is potentially worrying because this happened on occasion in 2019, too. When this Packers team lose, they lose badly.
The end result, of course, is that the two biggest games of Sunday turned out to be shockingly poor.
New England are stuck in a rut
The Patriots, notoriously successful though they are, are capable of losing back-to-back games. In fact, it has happened in both their 2018 and 2019 seasons. Normally, when they lose, it is against a good team or it is a strange divisional game against a rival. They do not normally lose against a team of Denver’s calibre, and they certainly do not normally lose at home against such a team.
But there could be reasonable logic applied to how and why they lost. Cam Newton had missed time due to his COVID diagnosis and their offensive line was stitched together due to injury. The result was a pretty stagnant-looking offense and two interceptions for Cam. It was never more clear that the offense was underprepared than when Edelman received multiple opportunities to throw the ball instead. It seemed desperate, not innovative.
New England have their first losing record through five games since 2001. They now have games against San Francisco and Buffalo, and while the Niners may not seem like the team they were in 2019, they did show on Sunday night that they are capable of putting in good performances and have enough pieces to challenge most teams. Buffalo are, of course, a perennial challenge for everyone this year.
More teams will suffer from COVID outbreaks. It is inevitable. How they bounce back from them will be paramount to their season’s outcome. We have seen Tennessee shut down their facility only to emerge from it with two wins. New England will probably be relevant or at least in the hunt in December, but right now, they are in a rut and they need to wake up fast.
Somehow Chicago are 5-1
It feels like groundhog day with Chicago. They keep winning and the world keeps expecting them to lose. So what do you say about a team that is joint-first in their division and second overall in their conference? Can it be entirely down to luck?
Well, to an extent, yes.
The Bears have beaten Detroit, New York, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and now Carolina. Four of those teams will not be in the playoffs (unless Carolina sneaks in), and they beat Tampa Bay who have not been exceptional yet. But beyond their schedule being relatively easy so far, they have largely won close, low scoring games, and that tells us one thing; their defense is good.
That defensive unit ranks top 10 in three key areas: points per game, pass yards per game and total yards per game. They need more balance, but if this trend continues then they will always be close in games.
As the old saying goes, “offense wins games; defense wins championships.” Well right now, their defense is winning them games and that might be enough to get them into the NFC playoffs. Oddly, if their defense continues to play well and their offense decides to show up in the playoffs, the old saying could be flipped on its head. But that is highly unlikely… for now.
Watch Ger Gilroy, Cian Fahey and Ronan Mullen on the latest episode of The Snap:
Deshaun will always give you a shot
No matter how bad the Bill O’Brien reign was in Houston, towards the end there was always a sense of ‘anything is possible’, and not because of O’Brien. It was because of Deshaun Watson.
The quickest way to success in the NFL is with an elite quarterback and that is what Houston has in Deshaun Watson. No matter the situation - how big a deficit may be or good the opposition might be, he always gives you a shot. We saw this against Tennessee on Sunday as the Texans lost in overtime.
Without O’Brien, Houston has Romeo Crennel in charge, and he knows what he has in Watson - a game-changer. That manifested in two risque calls. One paid off with Houston pushing their lead out on fourth down with a touchdown, instead of taking the field goal. The second call backfired with the two-point conversion failing. Regardless, it represents the fact that Watson gives Houston their best chance at scoring at almost all times.
He might give them their best chance, yet the Houston Texans are 1-5. Their schedule is not one that will see them turn around to make a late push for the playoffs, but whoever the next full-time head coach is in Houston should know that with Watson under centre, they should be contending in most games.
Tennessee are a lot of fun
The upshot of Watson’s woes on Sunday was that the Titans remained undefeated by winning in overtime. Where Houston’s only ray of hope is their quarterback, Tennessee’s is just one example of the many things the Titans are doing right.
When the game did go to overtime on Sunday, Watson went up for the coin flip to determine which team would receive the ball first. Tennessee won and the wave of doom that washed over Deshaun Watson’s face at that moment was palpable. He knew what was next.
What was next was the human train, Derrick Henry. When Tennessee made their playoff push in 2019, a large part of their success was down to Henry’s ability to run through players like they were not even there. Josh Norman can attest to this from their encounter last week. When Henry is in form, they are very hard to stop.
But that is not all. Ryan Tannehill is reborn in Tennessee. If you were to have predicated who would and would not make the playoffs in 2020 before the season began, your opinion on Tennessee would have hinged on these two players. We knew that Tennessee knew how to use Henry, and that they could sustain that (barring any injuries), but we did not know whether Tannehill’s 2019 performances were a flash in the pan or something that would continue into this season.
As it turns out, it is the latter. Tannehill boasts a 69.9% completion percentage for 274 yards per game on average, with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He is incredibly efficient and now, after a tumultuous time in Miami, he is starting to show some confidence again. Their passing game is a lot of fun and it is hugely effective.
A great example of Tannehill finding his groove was seen late into the fourth quarter against Houston. Down 36-29 with seven seconds left on the clock, the Titans got the ball down to the seven-yard line with the time running down. It was second down and the team lined up as if to, we assumed, spike the ball. But they did not spike it. Tannehill went for it and threw it to AJ Brown (who is coming along nicely in his second season).
The play caught everyone by surprise and should go down as one of the smarter, more gutsy, calls of the season. That tied the game and brought it into overtime. So it is no wonder why Deshaun Watson breathed a sigh of inevitable misery when Tennessee won the coin toss. Between Henry and Tannehill, the Titans are strong in every aspect of their offence, and a lot of fun to watch.
The Jets are awful and Lawrence should try to avoid them
Since 1944, just five NFL teams have had winless seasons. The most recent of which was Cleveland in 2017. It should not need saying, but finishing 0-16 is not a good thing. Even if you do get the number one pick in the draft, it means your team has either given up on their coach or they have not got enough talent to win one game in 16 attempts. So you either have a significant cultural issue or a significant talent issue, or maybe both.
The New York Jets may have both.
If and when the Jets do finish 0-16, they will possess the number one pick in the 2021 NFL draft. If you are in any way interested in American football, then you will have heard of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is hotly tipped to be the best prospect in said draft. In some quarters, he is considered to be the best quarterback prospect we have seen in years.
If Trevor Lawrence wants to have a successful NFL career, then he should do everything in his powers to avoid going to the Jets. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that they would pick him, but between Sam Darnold’s time at the Jets coming up short and the fact that Joe Douglas is now their general manager (who did not pick Darnold), there is a pretty good chance that they will move on.
Some teams are just attracted to mediocrity, and it has been a long time since we could not say that about the Jets. In 2004, when Eli Manning was picked by the (then) San Diego Chargers, he maneuvered a way to play at New York. The Giants and the Chargers arranged a trade which saw Phillip Rivers go to San Diego and Eli Manning end up in New York.
Many would argue that Rivers turned out to be the better quarterback, but ultimately, it was Eli who won two super bowls. If Trevor Lawrence wants to win super bowls, he should strongly consider what Eli Manning did in 2004.
Written by Matthew Carolan.