By: Madeleine Hudak (Twitter: @MaddyHudak_94)
The Tennessee Titans Are a Tuesday Team
Did anyone miss Thursday Night Football? Not in the slightest? Well, we had a weirder experience, on par with 2020 of course, with a Tuesday night matchup this year. One thing we quickly learned is that Buffalo is not a Tuesday team – much like most of our respective teams. Not only was it a jarring time of the week that threw off everyone’s practice trajectory, but it gave the Titans a really short week; quite reminiscent of the Thursday night slot everyone hates every week. Surprisingly, not only were the Titans lights out on Tuesday, but managed to sneak out an overtime win just five days later with only one major team injury to Jonnu Smith.
One of the primary arguments against TNF is the heightened risk of player injury; I always go back to the excellent think piece by Richard Sherman in The Players Tribune. The other thing is that they’re usually boring. Players are tired, it’s a weird day, it’s usually never a good matchup; the next week, the players are often lethargic and beat up. Instead, in Tennessee, they amassed 412 total yards and put up 42 points in a 42-36 overtime thriller against the surprisingly stubborn Houston Texans. The points came from a complete offensive performance both in the air and on the ground; Ryan Tannehill received a lot of heat for his years in Miami, and it’s officially time to cut him some slack and give credit where it’s due. Tannehill led three game-winning drives in the first three weeks of the season. He continued this trend with a late fourth-quarter surgical drive to take the game to overtime, completing eight of nine passes for 76 yards and a touchdown pass that tied the score with 0:04 remaining; this capped off a 364 yard day with four touchdowns and an interception. Then, there’s just the monster that is Derrick Henry:
Henry’s 94-yard rushing touchdown preceded Tannehill’s game-tying drive and made him the fifth player in NFL history with multiple 90+ yard touchdown runs. Nice medal to hang alongside ruining Josh Norman’s career this week. Their third-down defense continued to be troubling, but there’s been many a team with inept secondaries that have overcompensated with an all-around dominating offense. If the 5-0 Titans can continue to fire on all cylinders offensively, then they have an easy ride through the uncompetitive AFC South right to this year’s playoffs. Protocol pariahs aside.
The Cleveland Browns Remind Us Who They Truly Are
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
Or, alternatively, any longtime Cleveland Browns fan ever. Every year, my dad remains stubbornly nonplussed about any successful Browns start. Every year, I get it by Week 6. The 49-38 Week 4 showout was seemingly just a fluke. Then Baker Mayfield and the hapless Browns surprised everyone a second week in a row. Suddenly, the team who improved to over .500 for the first time since 2014, were on its first four-game winning streak since 2009, and were 4-1 for the first time since 1994, looked like it was finally the team Cleveland has been frankly waiting patiently for decades. And then, Sunday happens, and the Browns remind us why their fans refuse to have hopes and dreams.
Mayfield came into this game a bit battered and bruised; his o-line gave him absolutely no help with his ailments. The Steelers knew he was coming into this game a bit beat-up, and took full advantage of that. Resultantly, Mayfield had a season-worst and one of the worst games of his career. He was sacked 4 times on Sunday and had only been sacked 5 times this season; his 119 yard, one touchdown, and two interceptions (of which he’d previously only thrown 3) were all season-worsts, as were his 55.6% completion percentage and 54.9 passer rating. When facing pressure from the blitz, Mayfield was only 2 for 6 for only 11 yards, with one interception and three sacks. He was equal parts beat-up and demoralized by the time he was pulled for Case Keenum in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh improved to 5-0 for the first time since Terry Bradshaw was still the quarterback in 1978, in turn demoralizing Cleveland in the process. The Browns are clearly hurting without Chubb, but their offensive line has been so subpar that one can only do so much when presented with a brick wall. Mayfield just has to get better under pressure if the Browns want to succeed; an o-line can rarely fix itself entirely midseason. A quarterback can get steadier in the pocket. Mayfield was pressured on a career-high 52% of his dropbacks, and the results were telling.
It certainly isn’t the end of the road for a 4-2 team – they have a winnable game just next week against Cincinnati, aka, we’re in for the Battle of the Collapsed Pockets. They may do best with sitting Mayfield through the game if his injuries played any factor in his lack of mobility today. If his ribs were fine, and the only thing bruised was his ego, well, buckle up Cleveland, because that familiar feeling is harshly incoming.
Houston, the Problem Rerouted to Minnesota
As a Saints fan, the conundrum that is the Minnesota Vikings will never fail to bewilder me. The Vikings always show signs of promise, then Kirk Cousins gets embarrassed by Green Bay on Monday Night Football and we’re back to square one. And right after that, they become our playoff kryptonite time and time again. But a 40-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons? That’s just inexplicable.
I for one am quite thrilled with my decision to ignore talking heads and pick up Ryan Fitzpatrick off waivers rather than bank on Cousins “destroying the lights out of Atlanta’s secondary.” Welcome to playing the 0-5 Falcons who beat both the Saints and 49ers in 2019. Never will it make sense. At least he added a nifty fun fact to his resume in Sunday’s loss:
Per ESPN Stats and Information, the three interceptions Cousins threw before halftime were the most in a first half of his career. He threw an interception on the first play of the game; Atlanta jumped to an early 7-0 lead. The Vikings complete inability to generate an offense led to 20 unanswered points and a 20-0 deficit prior to the half; on the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s secondary allowed Julio Jones to finally join the 2020 NFL season with his first two touchdowns this year.
The Falcons have always had an offense, it’s just a question of whether they decide to be the satirical version of themselves each season or not. The biggest surprise, and cause for concern to Minnesota, was their sudden emergence on defense. The reason Cousins was touted as a Week 6 pickup steal was due to Atlanta’s hilariously awful passing defense; entering the game, they allowed the league-highest QBR rating to opponents, had only two interceptions, and had already given up 15 pass touchdowns this year. They also had yet to shut out an opponent in the first half this season; in fact, this was their first shutout since Nov. of 2019.
Minnesota has lost two games this season by just one point, and have played formidable opponents in the Packers, Titans and Seahawks, but this 1-5 start is inexcusable when you look at losses like today’s, and their Week 2 28-11 loss against the Colts. When you draft a receiver in the first round, which I am starkly against, you need to justify that choice with a steady aerial game. Cousins has yet to live up to any potential; should the Vikings falter down this trajectory the remainder of the season, there’s valid questioning for replacing Cousins in 2021 with the amount of weapons this team has on the offense. It’s the Falcons.
It’s Time to Take the Chicago Bears Seriously
The late afternoon games led to a surprising NFC North shakeup; the 5-1 Chicago Bears have officially toppled Green Bay for 1st place in the division with Sunday’s 23-16 win over the Carolina Panthers. There was not noticeable offensive improvement from last Thursday’s game, when Tom Brady’s inability to count downs gave Chicago a bewildering win. But when have the Bears ever been considered an offensive juggernaut? Sunday’s win, unsurprisingly, came from the scrappy defense, with a flashy finish at that:
With DeAndre Houston Carson’s interception that picked off Teddy Bridgewater on the Panthers 20 with 1:32 left effectively ending the matchup, the game ball goes emphatically to the defensive unit. Bridgewater was sacked four times, scrambled a season-high eight times for 48 yards, and was held to 216 passing yards; Chicago further stifled the run with strong goal-line stands and third down stops.
The Bears defense, should it continue this play level, gives the offense a lot of breathing room; better years for the team have typically been bolstered by the defense. Nick Foles had his bad moments and reads again this game, but is overwhelmingly more in control than Mitch Trubisky ever was in three years in just three full games. Foles, much unlike Trubisky, is a veteran quarterback who is not prone to panic and looks more in control than utterly confused under center. If Trubisky was in this game, Chicago’s ability to pull out of the win would have been a resounding no. Foles’ throw in triple coverage on 3rd and 9 inside the 10 is something Trubisky would never even contemplate attempting. The Bears can trust Foles, and he is easily the face of the team moving forward this season. Chicago is 5-1 for the first time since 2012; with the playoff expansion to 14 teams in 2020, the Bears are a valid challenger for the NFC East title at this rate.
The Cheese No Longer Stands Alone as Green Bay Falls 38-10 to Tampa Bay
What an odd, odd timeline. Nick Foles is the NFC South Sandman all of a sudden, while previously airtight Green Bay went full swiss cheese? The odd sitcom that is Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski’s retirement fever dream finally came to fruition in Tampa Bay’s 38-10 win that toppled the unbeaten Green Bay Packers. Ultimately, though, the Packers loss is at the hands of Aaron Rodgers. Sunday was a friendly reminder that he is still a human being in his MVP season; he wasn’t aided by the loss of his starting left tackle late in the game, but Tampa’s pass rush had already demolished the o-line so badly and Rodgers’ bad decision-making made it insurmountable.
Brady had a slow start, and the Packers running game put them at a 10-0 cushion at the start. Rodgers then was perfectly read by Jamel Dean and intercepted an intended out route to Davante Adams, who then ran it back 32 yards for a TD. Not two minutes later, Rodgers threw to Adams in coverage and was picked off a second time; this set up an easy score for the Buccaneers, completely flipped the momentum, and took all the pressure off of Tom Brady to generate a spark on offense. Like the 20-season pro he is, Brady took the relay from his defense and ran with it, while the Packers consequently crumbled.
In the veteran QB show out, Rodgers saw a steep fall in his season-worst 160-yard game, with zero touchdowns, two interceptions, and four sacks; he had previously been sacked only three times in three separate games, threw at least two touchdowns in every game this season, and had thrown zero interceptions prior to today’s loss. Green Bay is in no way in the danger zone, and most teams frankly need a humbling loss some seasons to not get overly carried away by Week 5. For the rest of the NFC, it’s a great reminder that Aaron Rodgers is not a superhuman and the Packers are indeed beatable, just as long as you can get to Rodgers.