NFL Week 7 may well have been the best week we have seen this season. The Patriots’ woes continued, we witnessed a wealth of drama in several games, and now there is just one undefeated team remaining in Pittsburgh, writes Matthew Carolan.
Three losses on the bounce for New England
This is an unfamiliar sight. New England are 2-4 and have lost three games in a row. Ordinarily, when a Patriots team loses, there is a resounding thought that it is a blip, and that normality will resume the following week. But what if this is normality for New England now? Are they officially a ‘bad’ team?
The Patriots now rank 22nd in DVOA and have a -4.7 point differential (24th in the league). Whatever excuses could be conjured up to pardon them for three losses in a row are outweighed by the statistical evidence - they are not a good team this season.
The aforementioned excuses are there to be found though. After all, they looked OK earlier this season. At 2-1, they had beaten Miami and Las Vegas with ease and only lost to Seattle because of some high octane Seattle offensive magic. Since then, their losses have come against Kansas City (Super Bowl champions), Denver (when Cam was just back from his COVID absence) and San Francisco, who possess one of the best offensive minds in the game in Kyle Shanahan.
Each loss could be chalked up as understandable with relatively sound logic, but the reality is that Bill Belichick does not lose three games in a row very often, excuses or not. There was a time when the NFL world lambasted other franchises for not picking up Cam Newton; it was just a few weeks ago. Now, he is playing so poorly that any criticism has subsided. That does not mean that he is finished, but it is indicative of how much New England has slumped.
The Patriots could always bounce back. When Bill Belichick is your coach, there is always a chance, but the evidence is damning, and a trip to Buffalo next week may not be the antidote.
What has happened to the Saints’ defence?
Super Bowl windows are tight. They are windows of opportunity when teams have key players on the right contracts at the right age with balance throughout. For New Orleans, that window looks like it is closing.
There are a few reasons. The first is that their quarterback, Drew Brees, really struggles to throw the ball beyond 20 yards. Problematic though that is, Sean Payton is clever enough with his schemes to enable their offense to function to a decent level anyway. They have Alvin Kamara who is freakishly good and when Michael Thomas returns, they have the best receiver in the league.
The other reason why New Orleans' window is closing is because of their defense. That unit ranked 13th, 14th and 10th in their previous three seasons. In 2020, they have dropped back to become the 20th ranked defence. Thirteenth and 14th are not overly impressive on the surface, but they excelled in situational football where they do not now.
At 4-2, the Saints’ season is anything but over. The manner in which they are winning games is tight though. With the exception of their opening game win against Tampa Bay, every win has been by less than seven points and relatively high scoring, too. The defense is not shutting teams down to close out victories, the opposing offences are just running out of time.
The Saints’ defence has enough talent to be doing much, much better. Making that change is key to keeping that Super Bowl window open. Perhaps more so than Brees’ performances.
Sunday was the best day of the NFL we have had this season. The main reason for this was the amount of twists and turns, specifically in the early games.
The much-anticipated game between Pittsburgh and Tennessee seemed like it was over early. Pittsburgh took a commanding lead and any uncertainty about their defense underperforming was put to rest... or so it seemed. The Titans roared back into the game, and if not for a missed field goal at the end, they would have tied it and brought the game to overtime.
Simultaneously, the Saints faced off with Carolina in a closely contested affair. Unlike the Pittsburgh win, this one went back and forth with Bridgewater keeping the Panthers close against his old team throughout. And much like the other game, Carolina too missed a late field goal to tie the game and came up short.
The twists did not stop there. Another early game was the AFC North clash between Cleveland and Cincinnati, also known as ‘The Battle of Ohio’. The battle looked over when the number one draft pick, Joe Burrow, gave the Bengals the lead with just over a minute left. Not normally one for heroics, Baker Mayfield threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Cincinnati and managed to pull the win out of the bag. The Browns secured a much-needed late win and the drama of the early games continued to soar.
But that was not the end of it.
Perhaps the most notable ending was the game between Detroit and Atlanta. Atlanta, famed for their blown leads, stuck true to form and managed to give up a lead once again. In a game with truly horrific uniforms, there was a moment reminiscent of Super Bowl 46 between New York and New England, but with a different outcome. In February 2012, with the Giants trailing 17-15 and with 1:04 on the clock, Eli Manning handed the ball off to Ahmad Bradshaw on second and goal.
Bradshaw, conscious of the time remaining on the clock, and the fact that Tom Brady was going to be the one with the ball, decided not to fall into the end zone, but his momentum carried him in anyway. The Giants went up 21-17 and thankfully, if you are a Giants fan, the Patriots did not come back to win it.
On Sunday, trailing 16-14 with 1:12 left on the clock, Matt Ryan handed the ball off to Todd Gurley. Gurley had the same idea as Bradshaw, and the same execution too. He accidentally fell on the goal line and the touchdown was given. The Falcons led 22-16 with 1:04 left on the clock.
Unlike Tom Brady, Matt Stafford did manage to come back and get Detroit the win. Atlanta blew another lead, Detroit moved to 3-3, and the NFL world got another late twist. One of the better early slate of games you will likely see this season.
Watch Ger Gilroy, Cian Fahey and Ronan Mullen on the latest episode of The Snap:
Maybe McCarthy is actually quite bad
Reports emerged last week of player dissatisfaction with the coaching in Dallas. This should not be surprising as the Cowboys have been awful so far this season. Sure, they were good on offense, but this was largely due to the performances of Dak Prescott, who is now out for the rest of the season. Unsurprisingly, Andy Dalton has not carried the baton to the same standard.
Quarterback play aside, the Cowboys’ defence has been the worst in the league and inevitably, players have started to question the coaching. This is a talented roster in a division populated by a team plagued with injuries, a team without an official name, and a team with a quarterback who gets tripped up by a light breeze. Dallas should not be this bad.
But they are this bad, and the issues start at the top. Mike McCarthy took over a talented roster and has done a worse job than Jason Garrett.
The reports criticising Dallas’ coaching stated that the coaches were "unprepared" and that they "just aren't good at their jobs." After the loss to Washington on Sunday, McCarthy responded to the reports by sayingm "I think like a lot of things, when you hit a part of your season or any challenge where there is negativity out there, where it comes from and who it comes from, that's something I've never chased. I think you do have to recognise it… I think it's important to handle things as men; if you do have something to say publicly that is of most importance, I think it's important to say it to the individual.”
So in essence, the situation is dire and McCarthy is telling his players that if they have a problem with him, they should talk to him. This has not started well and it may not end well for McCarthy in Dallas.
The Redzone balancing act
The early slate was phenomenal on Sunday. Spectacular. Some of the best endings you will see this season. The later games were not.
Where Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New Orleans edged out close nail-biting victories earlier in the day, Kansas City, San Francisco and Tampa Bay brushed aside opponents with ease later on. On paper, the quality of the games later on were not bad. Tampa Bay v. Las Vegas should have been good. The Patriots should have played better and given us a close game with the 49ers. The issue is not with which games are when, rather that there could be more in the later tranche or an equal amount at each timeslot.
Week 7 was not the worst week in that respect either. There can often be 10 games at 6pm and then three at 9:25pm. The issue arises when the ‘good’ games turn into blowouts (San Francisco, Tampa Bay winning), and we are left to watch Jacksonville v. LA because that game is the one with the greatest chance to go either way.
That is not a huge criticism of watching Justin Herbert by the way - that was not a bad game to watch. But when there are more options at once, you get the best of the Redzone experience. When three games are blowout victories and you only have one game between two teams who will not be in the playoffs, it defeats the beneficial purpose of Redzone.
Just once it would be nice to see five games early and five games later.
The return of Antonio Brown
Remember Antonio Brown? The former Steelers/Raiders/Patriots receiver is back, and he is moving to Tampa Bay to link up with Brady once more.
When we learnt that Brady was going to be a Buccaneer and that he was bringing Gronkowski out of retirement too, there was a feeling that the outcome would be better on paper than it would be in reality. Seven weeks in, that has often been true, but they are getting better with each passing week.
Now, as we reach the halfway mark of the season, the band is bringing back more members with Antonio Brown signing a one-year Tampa Bay deal.
Signing Antonio Brown brings up mixed emotions for many. On one hand, Brown was one of the best receivers in the league and watching him play every weekend makes the league an even more watchable product. On the other hand, the reasons why he has been out of the league should be taken seriously and he should be made an example.
But off-field controversies have never really stopped the NFL before.
Written by Matthew Carolan.
Read last week's Shocked, Not Shocked here.