Maybe it wasn’t all Tom Brady, after all. Or at least that’s how you might be updating your viewpoint on the still-standing Patriots dynasty, 12 weeks into Brady and Bill Belichick’s second season apart. And that would be an update, because just six weeks ago, there was valid and mounting evidence to the contrary.
The Patriots were 2–4 then, a point at which they stood 9–13 in their first 22 games A.T. (After Tom). Meanwhile, the Brady-led-and-changed Buccaneers were 20–6 (including playoffs).
Since then, everything has changed—or at least that’s how it’s looked to all of us on the outside. With Sunday’s 36–17 win over the banged-up Titans, who came into Gillette Stadium with the AFC’s best record, New England has won six straight, with five of the six coming by margins of at least 18 points. In Week 5, they struggled to get by lowly Houston. In Weeks 7 and 10, they outgained opponents by more than 200 yards and won by 41 and 38 points.
So it’d seem that some sort of switch got flipped, and Belichick turned the dynasty back on after the Cowboys’ offense burned through Foxboro on Oct. 17. It’s a nice idea, too. It’s just not the truth, according to the guys who pulled it off.
“We had a mindset of, Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s keep working hard. Let’s pay attention to the little details that we were missing,” 12th-year safety Devin McCourty told me from the locker room postgame. “And I think that’s what everybody locked in on. I don’t think anybody was sitting there like, ‘You know what? We’re gonna look at this schedule, and we’re gonna reel off six straight.’ No one was saying that. Everyone was just, ‘Let’s stick to what we’ve been doing. We got a good football team.’
“I think you heard a couple people say that we weren’t finishing games, that we weren’t executing in key situations. But we also knew we weren’t far off. It’s not like we had this team that couldn’t win. And I think everybody bought into that.”
That steady mindset paid off in a very big way.
The Patriots will enter Week 13 just a half game back of the Ravens in the race for the top seed in the AFC, and a half game ahead of the Bills, the East’s new reigning champions, with a trip to Buffalo on tap for Monday night. They play the Bills again three weeks after that, with a game in Indianapolis and the team’s bye in between—and it’s a stretch that a lot of people would look at and consider season-defining for this new/old group of Patriots.
But the truth is, over the last three months, the Patriots have already done a pretty good of defining themselves to anyone who’s paying attention.
And what we’re seeing? It looks pretty familiar.
It was sort of a B-week for NFL games, but we’re still planning to make the most of it in this week’s column. Inside the final MMQB for November 2021, you’ll find …
• A look at how the Packers’ resilience shone through against the Rams.
• The Bengals’ change in mindset helping lead to a sweep of the Steelers.
• The Dolphins’ rise from the NFL’s ashes.
• Some similarities between last year’s Bucs and where this year’s version stands.
But we’re starting with the NFL dynasty we were all writing epitaphs for in October.
(Suffice it tosay, it’s not even December yet and a lot of us would like a rewrite.)
If you want to get to the heart of how this is happening, McCourty will take you to something that inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo—a seven-time team captain in his eight years as a player in New England—has said to his defensive players a bunch this year, something he repeated to them before the win over the Titans.
“Mayo said it today: Everyone play like a star. If you’re a role player, be a star in your role. If you’re a star, be a star out there,” McCourty said. “And I think that’s what this team is built for. Not just offense and defense or special teams. It’s a combination of all those things that come together, and everyone’s fulfilling that role. And when we complement each other, we know we can be a good team and be a tough team to beat.
“But it always comes down to doing that day in and day out, and then obviously on Sunday.”
This particular Sunday had a few stars.
Mac Jones, the quarterback who’s lodged himself right behind Ja’Marr Chase in the Rookie of the Year race, wound up with stellar numbers, hitting on 23-of-32 throws for 310 yards, two touchdowns and a 123.2 passer rating. The run game, behind Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, churned out 105 yards. Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne made big plays. Matthew Judon had another sack. Super soph Kyle Dugger played big again.
And there were others down the line that, as Mayo would say, were stars in their roles.
But no one typified the effort—and how you could tie this year’s Patriots to the Brady Patriots—better than J.C. Jackson. Like many before him, Jackson’s replacing a veteran star, Stephon Gilmore, in this case, whom the Patriots let go. Also like many before him, in the midst of a performance that, for the team, looked a lot prettier in the final analysis than as it was happening, the emerging fourth-year star made the right plays at the right times when the Patriots needed those from him.
“He’s always looking for the ball,” said McCourty. “That’s J.C.”
Against the Titans, he found it when it mattered most.
The first time came on the Patriots’ second defensive snap of the second half. The Titans were down 19–13, but their M*A*S*H unit (no Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Rashaan Evans or Kristian Fulton) had hung in there, and the team’s Henry-less run game had its footing—rushing for 142 yards on 18 carries in the first half. After holding the Patriots to a field goal at the start of the second half, D’Onta Foreman ripped off a six-yarder on first down, then took a second-and-4 carry 30 yards through the heart of the Patriots’ defense.
But the Patriots’ secondary ran with Foreman and eventually made something happen.
“Very similar to the play Jon Jones made in ‘19 against Nick Chubb when we played Cleveland—Chubb breaks a long run, Jon Jones runs to the other side of the field and the first thing he’s doing is punching at the ball,” McCourty said. “Same thing J.C. did, and then it comes down to the whole team hustling. Today, Foreman breaks out but he sees Jalen Mills to his left and he goes to avoid him, and that gives J.C. the opportunity to punch the ball out.
“It’s those guys’ doing what they do every day in practice. The corners are finishing on the ball, running across the field, punching at the ball, and it showed up. And like I said, J.C.’s always looking for the ball and trying to create a turnover, and he’s done that better than anybody since he’s entered the league.”
He’d prove it again two possessions later. After Kendrick Bourne turned a simple drag into a tightrope, 41-yard touchdown later in the third quarter to stretch the Patriots’ lead to 26–13, the Titans went 73 yards in 13 plays to set up a fourth-and-goal from the New England 2.
At the snap, Tannehill rolled to this right, and trouble followed for Tennessee.
“They flooded the zone going to our left, and I think everybody picked up a guy going to the flat,” McCourty said. “Me, as a free guy, I try to see what’s trailing from behind because that’s the next read for the quarterback. That window that opens up coming from the other side, and I was just able to get a hand on it. And J.C., chasing his guy from outside in, I get a hand on it, it puts the ball right up in the air for him to make an interception, and another key play in the game to get that turnover and get our offense back on the field.”
From there, the Patriots kicked a field goal, created another turnover—their fourth on the day—scored a touchdown and pulled even with Tennessee in the standings, a half game back of the Ravens in the AFC playoff picture.
Of course, when McCourty spoke of what these Patriots are built for, he was talking about a lot more than just what went down over three hours at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
It’s been a while coming—and this rebuild was rockier than the last one for the Patriots. The one in which McCourty was drafted into, that bridged dynastic runs, happened without the Patriots’ so much as finishing with fewer than 10 wins once. The growing pains through this one, done without the benefit of Brady’s covering up flaws, took down one season and bled well into the next. But all along, there was a level of consistency buoying the ship.
“I’ve never played on a different team, but obviously there’s great continuity in this staff,” McCourty said. “We’ve lost coaches who go to other teams, take higher roles, but I would say overall the continuity in how Bill builds a team, he always talks about that. Everybody that’s here is here for a role. They’re here for a reason. There’s no mistakes on this team.”
And that much, when I asked around about the Patriots’ rebuild on Sunday before the game, is reflected in how rival teams view Belichick’s building his team back up.
On the free-agent front, Judon’s been a spectacular fit. Hunter Henry is there to give Mac Jones another crafty route-runner, along with Jakobi Meyers, for manageable third-down situations. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne filled needs. And yes, they overpaid for this group, but Belichick’s going through a major slump in his drafting made it so they didn’t have people internally to pay, and each of the new guys came in to fill very specific roles.
Add to that a draft class headlined by Jones, Stevenson and disruptive defensive lineman Christian Barmore, and the older vets, and you have a team that isn’t the league’s most talented, but is very well-conceived and able to play the game Belichick wants it to.
“We saw them as the best-coached team that we’ve faced since we got here,” said one rival exec. “They do everything correct. They do everything disciplined. They have the perfect guys for it. They know exactly how they want to use them and where they want to use them. And everything is done perfectly. They’re so impressive to watch with the big-picture stuff—what they’re doing with Mac and how that affects the defense, and what they do defensively
“A lot of these guys defensively are declining. … But they get the most of these guys. They got rid of Gilmore, their corners aren’t very good, but they know exactly what coverages they’re gonna play. They know exactly what their matchups are gonna be. It’s a master-level class of coaching.”
A coach from another team that played New England earlier in the season pointed out how data they had showed the Patriots run the ball the ball on second down, and were in third-and-2-to-6 a disproportionate amount—keeping Jones in on-schedule situations. And how they do it is creative too, in zigging when other teams are zagging.
“They’re very committed to the run the game, the offensive line’s good and they’re really physical,” said the coach. “You can tell they’re well-coached, they’re on their s--- in the run game, and with the amount of 21-personnel [two backs, one tight end] they run at you, it’s tough. It’s different than what you see from other teams. No one, other than maybe Baltimore and San Francisco, runs it more than they do.”
“All these teams want to be light up front and get after the passer? Cool,” the exec added. “We’re gonna run power at you, we’re gonna run duo at you, we’re gonna make you stop it.”
And defensively, just the same, they two-gap and set edges up front, and dare the opponent to try to drive the field on them, betting on their ability to force a mistake that’ll take the offense out of its plan. Which, of course, should all sound familiar to people who’ve followed the team the last 20 years.
On paper, at least, the Patriots’ turning point came after a Dallas game in which New England went toe-to-toe with a noticeably more talented opponent. That was the game in which Jones followed a pick-six to Trevon Diggs with a long touchdown pass to Bourne, and where the Cowboys needed a long field goal from Greg Zuerlein to force overtime, before Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb won it in the extra frame.
And I’d figured that was maybe the game where this group found its stride, going step-for-step with a star-laden opponent. So I asked McCourty about it, and my idea was quickly debunked.
“It was disappointing,” McCourty said. “From the outside looking in, I think people see matchups, and they’re like, ‘Alright, this is a hard win. They’re probably not gonna win this game.’ We don’t think that way as players. We have a game plan. We think if we go out and execute, we’ll win. And to fall short, to me, is just more disappointing. I don’t look at an opponent like, ‘Man, if we could just stay close with these guys, we’ll have a chance.’
“It’s about winning. So to be that close in that game, I was pretty disappointed. But I love how the next week, guys didn’t hang their heads. It was like, ‘Alright, we didn’t get it done how we wanted to. Let’s focus on getting it done and not be over here sulking and feeling bad for ourselves.’ And I think that’s been the difference in our season.”
And six weeks later, here they stand: where few thought they would, a half game up on Buffalo in the AFC East, with a critical stretch ahead.
They already have more wins than they did all of last year, and winning through December like they just did November could mean a January just the way they used to have it, with the playoff bracket going through suburban Boston.
But as for how ready this group is compared with where those groups were? McCourty’s not going there yet.
“I always say you don’t know you have a championship team until you win a championship,” he said. “But I think in this league, you want to give yourselves a chance. And I think that’s what we’ve done so far. We’ve given ourselves a chance in this season. And with that chance, we gotta continue to get better, continue to do the things we’re doing. Because last year, we saw that whatever you think of this season, whatever you think of the opportunity, it could be gone. Just like that. And I think we’re all aware of that.
“So we’re all just trying to stay focused on what’s next. And for us now, Monday night against Buffalo … a large arena and all they want to see is us lose, and we gotta have a certain type of mental and physical toughness to go out there and compete against those guys at home. It’s gonna be a tough game. I’ve been there plenty of times. I know what it’s like to play there, and if we don’t have 100% focus on that, then it won’t turn out the way we want. That’s what I’ll be preaching to the guys. That’s gonna be my attitude this week.”
Then, McCourty, on his own, finally brought up Brady, explaining how his old quarterback used to get the team ready for games like this—by focusing entirely on the season in front of him and not the history of things, one way or the other.
Safe to say, it’s a lot more enjoyable to focus on the present for these Patriots than it was last year. And in that way, sure, it feels a lot more like it used to around there.
PACKERS' CULTURE OVERCOMES INJURIES
Aaron Rodgers’s toe injury grabbed all the headlines last week, but going into Sunday’s game against the Rams, it was pretty far down the list of health concerns for the Packers. Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith are both on IR, with some hope they’ll come back for the playoffs. Elgton Jenkins is now out for the year, and David Bakhtiari still isn’t back. Kevin King didn’t play Sunday either, and Aaron Jones came in nicked up.
All of which makes Packers 36, Rams 28 even more impressive than it might seem.
Virtually every foundational player on the Packers’ roster, Rodgers included, has missed time this year. Yet, here the Packers are, through 12 weeks and heading into their bye, with the second-best record in football, at 9–3, and a really good shot at getting significantly healthier—with guys like Alexander, Smith and Bakhtiari trying to get back—in December and January.
Green Bay’s lost just two games since the shocking blowout loss to New Orleans in the season opener. Both were single-possession games, and one was without Rodgers. They’ve otherwise weathered the storm through Sundays like this one, no matter who the opposition is.
“It’s a big culture thing,” second-year tailback A.J Dillon told me postgame. “I’ve been talking about it a lot this season, just around our locker room I think we have a great culture. In that example, you look around on offense and defense, we got so many veterans that’ve been doing it at a high level for a long time, and know the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it. And they set that standard and keep everybody accountable.
“So I feel like in individual rooms, and when star guys are going down, they’ve set that example that we’re ready to step up in those instances. It’s not just happening overnight. Aaron Jones has helped me so much to become a better running back and teammate these last two years, and so I feel like that’s kind of with every room and all those vets help all these guys. And it really is a family culture.”
Dillon pulled a couple of examples from Sunday. One was how he, Jones and third-string back Patrick Taylor were trading off sideline jackets as guys came on and off the field, to make sure everyone was staying warm and ready. Another came after Jones trucked a defensive back in the fourth quarter, when he looked up and saw Jones flexing for him on the sideline.
“We really do care about each other,” he said. “I feel like with that, when things are getting tough, when adversity does hit, we’re there for each other and we can make things happen.”
Which brings us to the best example—how Dillon played on Sunday. Postgame, coach Matt LaFleur said he didn’t have Jones on a pitch count, but acknowledged that the team was trying to “be smart” in managing his MCL injury. Jones got eight carries in the first half, then just one on the Packers’ 13-play, 75-yard drive to open the third quarter, a possession on which Dillon had five carries and three catches (including a five-yard touchdown catch). Jones got his final carry of the afternoon on the first snap of the next possession.
That meant for the last 21 minutes of the game, it was Dillon’s show in the Green Bay backfield, and it stands to reason that LaFleur’s confidence in the second-year back’s ability to handle that went a long way in the decision to play it safe with Jones’s knee. Even better, Jones was an asset for Dillon after his day was declared done.
“Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams both took me under their wing,” he said. “And I communicate with them all the time. And obviously, Aaron, I see every day, but they’re like my big brothers. I can go to them with anything, whether it’s on the field, off the field. It’s just genuine, about trying to make each other better. And when you make somebody else better, you’re also pushing yourself. So, like I said, great family culture.”
And really, that’s shown up everyone for the Packers as they’ve had to plug holes through the season. Rashan Gary got back from injury, and registered a sack for the Smith-less front. Veteran Rasul Douglas again proved invaluable with Alexander and Douglas out. Green Bay made it work up front, with Jenkins’s absence making Bakhtiari’s hurt a little more. But the Packers got yards behind the line when needed, and Rodgers was sacked just once.
By the end, Green Bay was leaning on a Rams team that got physically whipped for the third week in a row—the Packers finished with 39 minutes of possession. And it was Dillon playing hammer to the Rams’ front seven’s nail.
“That’s definitely something we stress,” Dillon said. “Especially this week, going against such a great team on both sides of the ball, we really wanted to be physical. And on the offensive side, we were going up against one of the best defensive lines in football right now and so it was big for us to really control the line of scrimmage. So I feel like converting those second-and-1s or third-and-3s, things like that kinda ignites that spark.
“And I feel like we did a really good job just kind of sticking together.”
In the end, Rodgers got his—throwing for 307 yards, with a couple of highlight throws mixed in there. But this was more about how well-rounded and deep the team is.
“You look around the locker room and it’s kind of shocking sometimes, just how many weapons we have in all three phases of the game,” Dillon said. “We got high-level players, players with great IQ and young players stepping up. So it’s really cool to see, it’s really cool to be a part of. It really is. I feel like I’m underselling it. But just going out there, you never know who’s gonna make a play, but everybody in the huddle is capable of making a play.”
And, again, that much is apparent just in the numbers from Sunday.
Dillon had 20 carries for 69 yards, Jones 10 for 23 (not his best outing). Davante Adams finished with 104 yards on eight catches. Randall Cobb (four catches, 95 yards, TD) and Marquez Valdes-Scanting (four catches, 50 yards) did their parts too, and Kenny Clark was a menace on the other side of the ball. Collectively they made this a game that never felt close after that first drive of the second half.
Even better, with the bye coming, the Packers will likely inch a little closer to getting back to full strength, with guys’ coming back off the injury list and rejoining a suddenly deeper and more balanced roster. In theory, anyway.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s not something that I think about,” said Dillon, with a laugh. “It’s just human nature. But I just feel like these wins, we’ve been just kind of grinding them out, finding ways to win. I feel like they’re character-building for the team, for individuals. And so right now, I think we’re tough to deal with. But when we get those guys back, man, different level. So you know I’m excited, wishing nothing but health for everybody who’s out right now, and really hoping they come back better than ever.”
And if they can? As we’ve the last few weeks, then there’s a chance that the Packers might give Rodgers his best shot at a title since he last won one after the 2010 season.
Here come … the Dolphins? Once left for dead at 1–7 by pundits like, maybe, the guy writing this column, Miami’s roared back to life with four straight wins, with games against the Giants and Jets sandwiching a bye up next. So yes, there’s a real chance the Dolphins will go into Christmas week at .500, with real playoff aspirations, thanks to Sundays like the one they just had in blowing the Panthers out of Hard Rock Stadium, 33–10. And in coach Brian Flores’s mind, really, they’re here not because they suddenly started playing better, but because they didn’t take their foot off the gas when things weren’t going right.
“We got a group of guys that works hard and supports each other,” Flores told me, just after the win. “I think even when we were losing, guys were still practicing hard, guys were still supporting one another. I think our coaching staff has done a good job of just kinda reevaluating things and trying to put our guys in the best positions offensively, defensively, in the kicking game. And then our guys, they come to practice, they come to work every day. … Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Landon Roberts. Our captains Mack Hollins, Jesse Davis. Even some of our young guys: Myles Gaskin, Tua [Tagovailoa]. I think they all just continue to believe in each other, support each other, and I think we just knew that if we took care of some of those little things, things would turn around.”
And therein, per Flores, lied the big talking point through the Dolphins’ thorny patch. Special teams coach Danny Crossman actually succinctly cut it down to slogan length: Little things turn into big things. On Sunday, that meant outgaining the Panthers by a wide margin, yes, but it also meant winning the turnover battle, being better on third down and more than doubling up Carolina’s number of first downs. “Whether it’s a presnap penalty, or not getting aligned or not communicating something as quickly as you can, I think there’s just more urgency to get all those little things done,” Flores said. “And that’s really what it is.”
And along with that has come continued improvement from 23-year-old quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Sunday was the former first-round pick’s second straight game completing over 80% and his third straight game with a triple-digit passer rating. Since the Dolphins last lost a game, on Halloween, Tagovailoa has thrown just a single pick. That run actually also coincides with the passing of the trade deadline—significant to Tagovailoa because of the rampant rumors that Miami was considering replacing him by trading for Deshaun Watson (which the Dolphins later acknowledged).
“He’s a mentally tough kid,” Flores said. “I think he’s a physically tough kid. He’s always done everything he could to try to help this team. He’s a young quarterback. He’s still developing. I think he’s getting better every time he steps out there.” Flores then added that, sure, there were plays from Sunday’s game that Tagovailoa would want back. But, clearly, the quarterback’s starting to make some headway toward—just maybe—extending his future in Miami. And the Dolphins are just making headway, period, in a wide open conference.
The other end of the Miami game wasn’t pretty, and it underscores a couple of things. First, with the Panthers, you’re seeing the importance of the quarterback position at work in a very big way. I think Matt Rhule’s done a lot of nice things in nearly two years in Carolina. I think, given time, he can succeed as an NFL coach. But at quarterback, the team’s done a lot of treading water: going from a low-risk flier on Teddy Bridgewater last year; to a middling investment in a reclamation project (Sam Darnold) with an old backup quarterback with ties to Rhule (ex-Temple star P.J. Walker) mixed in. Even Tagovailoa, who’s had his issues the last two years, made Carolina look a ways away at the position. And second, I wonder if this is it for Cam Newton (who went 5-for-21 for 92 yards with 2 INTs)—if he can’t hold onto the job after the Panthers’ bye. He struggled to find work this summer and fall, and his steps back the last couple weeks have been alarming. I’d love to see him bounce back against his hometown Falcons in a couple of weeks. The problem is there seems to be mounting evidence that it won’t happen—and it’s certainly possible this is just who the guy is now (which, again, would be easy to understand, given how much a quarterback of his size and style gets knocked around).
The Bengals are for real. If you wanted to think this was the same old Cincinnati outfit a couple of weeks ago, it’d have been hard to blame you. After an eye-opening 5–2 start, the Bengals blew a lead at the Jets on Halloween and got blown out by the Browns the week after that to limp into their bye at 5–4. And with that, the players and coaches got a shot to take stock of where they were—and there’s no question that reflection certainly could’ve allowed the doubts of the past to creep back in. But in this case, the opposite happened. “No, this is the 2021 Bengals,” said coach Zac Taylor, afterward. “And we’ve got a team, a bunch of guys we brought in that are new to the team this year, last year, and we’re just focused on this. And we feel like we had a ton of momentum in the early part of the season. We were playing great football. We stumbled a little bit like every team does, especially this year in this league, and had those two losses. But now we’re back to playing like we felt we were against Detroit and against Baltimore. And these guys just have a ton of confidence right now, but it’s earned confidence. They put in the work. We got the right leadership, and these performances are what happen when you have all that combination of things.” That performance? It was a 41–10 beatdown of the Steelers that ended a number of streaks.
• The Bengals hadn’t swept the Steelers since 2009.
• The Bengals scored 40 on the Steelers for the first time since 1989.
• The Steelers had 40 dropped on them in consecutive games for the first time since 1989.
And all of this happened with Cincinnati leaning on the team’s purported hole—the offensive line—throughout. Stud mail-carrier Joe Mixon rushed for 165 yards on 28 carries; Joe Burrow was sacked just twice, and stayed mostly upright, thanks to a unit that melded its veteran pivot man (Trey Hopkins) with older additions (Riley Reiff, Quinton Spain) and a couple of young draft picks (Jonah Williams, Hakeem Adeniji. “Cumulatively, it’s such a great group,” Taylor said. “We’ve got good, young depth behind those guys and [line coach] Frank Pollack does a tremendous job with that room right now. You heard the things in the offseason, people taking shots at them—we knew what we had and what we were capable of. And that room’s done a great job for us.”
And so has the rest of a team that feels like it’s still getting better, and now has the rare blowout/sweep double of the Steelers on its résumé, which, Taylor swears, won’t cause his team to get all starry eyed. “I mean, just our goal is to go through and win the division,” Taylor said. “And so it’s not so much for us about sweeping Pittsburgh, it’s just we have to make a statement in this division. And I felt like we did that today. We still got a couple games left to go here, but just really proud of the way that our guys handled coming off of a West Coast trip with the big road win, and come out on our field in front of our fans and play the way they did from start to finish was awesome for me to see.”
Jonathan Taylor’s stat line was the strangest of the day. It’s not like the Colts’ second-year star was invisible on Sunday—he did carry the ball 16 times for 83 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs, and caught four balls for another 14 yards along the way. No, what was weird was how the carries came. Taylor got the ball on a third-and-2 from the Tampa 19 with 6:39 left in the first half, took that one for a yard, then didn’t get the ball again until there was 10:06 left in the fourth quarter. So what gave? Well, I talked to Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. after the 38–31 win, and he seemed to think his defense gave the Colts looks that forced them to bail from their run calls.
“One-hundred percent,” said Winfield. “Our goal coming in was to not let 28 beat us, and try to stop the run as best as we could and hopefully a good outcome would’ve come. So that was our goal, just to stop him, really.” It mostly worked, with the Colts’ getting both the good and bad of Carson Wentz just enough to keep the door ajar for the Bucs to come back after trailing by 10 twice early on (17–7 and 24–14). And it was in that window where the Bucs were stacking boxes to influence the ball away from Taylor that they made their move. A fast six-play, 65-yard march cut Tampa’s deficit to three—Leonard Fournette cashed that one in, his third of four touchdowns on the afternoon—and set the stage for Winfield’s game-swinging play.
That came with Wentz going up top to 6' 4" receiver Michael Pittman downfield, on a second-and-3 with 5:38 left in the third quarter. “I was the post safety, and I was just reading the quarterback, and as I read the quarterback, I’d seen 11’s route and I knew it was a post,” Winfield said. “And right when I’d seen him throw the ball, I knew with Pittman he’s a tall guy, so I’m like I gotta go up over him and make a play. I saw the ball, went up there, high-pointed it and made a play.”
And, indeed, the 5' 9" Winfield somehow leapt over Pittman and snatched the ball away. Brady then drove Tampa another 65 yards in seven plays and, just like that, a 24–14 deficit was a 28–24 lead. That basically gave Brady and the offense the last shot after the teams traded fourth-quarter touchdowns, and set up a final eight-play, 75-yard drive that closed the door on the hosts. Afterward, Winfield said the team looked hard at the details and fundamentals of its game through that 29-day stretch between wins. And with that stuff nailed down, the Bucs now have consecutive wins under their belts, and the players can at least think about this year’s team mirroring last year’s. That one had issues too, in the middle of the season, but eventually climbed from a 7–5 mark at its bye all the way to a championship. Based on where they are, there’s reason to hold out hope, in Tampa, that lightning will strike twice for the Bucs. “I think we’re getting there,” Winfield said. “I think we’re getting there.”
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I think other quarterbacks could learn by watching how Lamar Jackson carries himself. Clearly, Sunday was not the Ravens star’s day. Everyone has bad ones—and his was ugly, with four interceptions hanging on the ledger. But if you were paying attention, and obviously his teammates were, you saw the reaction from Jackson. He wasn’t angry at anyone but himself for how the night went, even with Baltimore’s escaping SNF with a 16–10 division win over the Browns that kept the Ravens in the AFC’s top spot. “I’m hot,” Jackson told the media in his postgame presser. “I feel like those drives, when the interceptions came, we could’ve done something on those drives. We could’ve put points on the board. … I just told my team, ‘That’s me. I owe y’all.’”
The Ravens overcame it with their defense’s suffocating the vaunted Browns running game (17 carries, 40 yards) and knocking Baker Mayfield around; Justin Tucker’s coming through with three field goals, two of them coming from way out; and then Jackson himself making a couple of big, off-schedule throws to Mark Andrews—one for 39 yards, another for a 13-yard touchdown—to fuel a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter that wound up getting Baltimore that difference-making score. So it’s not like Jackson had no hand in this. But the quarterback’s taking accountability in this sort of situation does two things, essentially. One, it ingratiates him to the rest of his teammates, who know he’ll shoulder the blame when things aren’t going well. And two, it raises the bar for everyone, because the quarterback’s raising it for himself. Which makes this one more place where Jackson just sort of naturally gets it, when it comes to the position.
The 49ers’ run game is worth paying attention to. Kyle Shanahan’s crew is right back in the thick of the NFC playoff race, and it’s easy to see what changed—San Francisco, over the last three weeks, wholly committed back to leaning on perhaps the NFL’s most creative run game. In their last loss, to the Cardinals on Nov. 7, the Niners ran the ball 11 times and called 45 pass plays. Since, here’s the breakdown …
Nov. 15, 31–10 win over the Rams: 44-to-20 run-to-pass ratio; 44 carries, 156 yards.
Nov. 21, 30–10 win over the Jaguars: 42-to-24 run-to-pass ratio; 42 carries, 171 yards.
Nov. 28, 34–26 win over the Vikings: 39-to-22 run-to-pass ratio; 39 carries, 208 yards.
In two of those three games, rookie Elijah Mitchell emerged as the focal point—carrying it 27 times against both the Rams and the Vikings. And receiver Deebo Samuel is in a sort of Percy Harvin–type of role. Which is to say he’s still a receiver, but used as a slash weapon, and has 19 carries for 181 yards the last three weeks to show for it. In turn, the Niners’ growing dominance in this area overall has led to three convincing wins. And if you don’t believe me about how innovative San Francisco is in this phase of the game, you can take it from Eric Kendricks, Minnesota’s veteran middle linebacker: “Hats off to them. I respect them. They came with it and we knew their run game was really good. Very complex, very confusing.”
This sure feels like a critical period for Joe Judge. The NFL Network report on Sunday morning that GM Dave Gettleman is expected to be replaced hardly came as a surprise, given where the franchise has been the last four years, and that owner John Mara signed off on a midseason coordinator change, from Jason Garrett to Freddie Kitchens, that meant firing a coach, in Garrett, whom he’s close to. I’ve said it a few times now, but that should put everyone on notice. And while the Giants’ offense did show some glimpse of progress on Sunday—eight different skill guys had catches—matching what Judge wanted in the change, it’s hard to imagine much really changing that’ll dramatically shift Mara’s approach to the offseason. So while the Giants fight to get back in the race late, like they did last year, there really are two different GM paths they could take to examine here.
1) Hire a confidant of Judge’s to give Judge the chance to build the football operation out as he sees fit. The Titans’ Monti Ossenfort is one name to watch on that front—he worked with Judge in New England and is seen as a good match for him. It could also be an internal promotion in this scenario (assistant GM Kevin Abrams is well-regarded within the team and in the league).
2) Hire a GM independently, and from outside the Giants’ family, and give him the keys to run a full introspection of the entire program, something some who’ve worked there believe the team could use in a building stocked with team lifers.
So this ends up, from there, being relatively simple. In scenario one, Judge would get a new lease, if a short one, on life as Giants coach, and he and the new GM would be tethered to one another. In scenario two, Judge would be under evaluation in 2022 and assured of, well, not much past that. And like I said, I do think how the team finishes this season could play into how the Maras set this up.
Lincoln Riley’s pending megadeal will reverberate in NFL circles. And it’ll happen in a number of ways.
• First, the money. If Mel Tucker got $95 million over a 10-year deal at Michigan State and James Franklin pulled in $70 million guaranteed on his own 10-year deal at Penn State, then it’s fair to assume it took a lot to get Riley to USC. And that’ll affect the market for NFL coaches in the same way Matt Rhule’s coming up from that level and getting a seven-year deal (a term unheard of in the NFL, but common in college) with the Panthers did.
• Second, NFL teams have flocked to Norman, Okla. the last few years to learn more about what the innovative Riley was doing, and that made him a sort of white whale for the pros to pursue, in the same way Chip Kelly once was. Rumors were rampant that the Cowboys had interest a couple of years back, and others have kicked the tires since, and this at least should put the idea of his landing in the NFL on hold for a while.
• Third, we’ll get to see if his vaunted scheme can seamlessly transition over into a new program and conference.
• Fourth, and maybe most interestingly, he’ll now be recruiting quarterbacks out of and to places that have long been breeding grounds for top-shelf passers. California’s always had a pipeline for prodigy quarterbacks in its high-school ranks (in fact, 2023 five-star Oklahoma commit Malachi Nelson is from Orange County), and USC’s developed pro-ready passers for generations. Which positions USC to carry on the pattern Riley started at Oklahoma in producing back-to-back No. 1 picks (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray), and following that up with a second-round pick (Jalen Hurts).
And maybe, eventually, we will get to see Riley in the NFL. He’s still just 38. So there’s plenty of time. Until then, his impact will continue be felt in the league in different ways.
I’ve got a couple of thoughts leftover for you from Thanksgiving. And the first one is simple, and in defense of my dad’s hometown: Stop it with demands to take the tradition away from Detroit. The Lions were responsible for starting it, and it’s become a part of the fabric of that area, and it’s not on the people who live there that the team hasn’t been consistently good in, well, forever. I hate the idea of making them pay for the football sins of the Ford family (well-meaning people who just haven’t been able to get it right). And as for the three games played on this Thanksgiving?
• The Bears treaded water through the day and snuck away with a win that doesn’t change a lot as to where everyone there stands. As for the Lions, it was hard not to watch the end of the game and walk away with some big-picture concerns. The game management issues—a double-timeout penalty late positioned the Bears to put the game away, and a defensive call playing corners off in third-and-4 sealed it—were egregious, and especially within a staff that’s already undergone some shuffling. I love how hard the guys play for Dan Campbell. But a big part of his job is hiring staff and managing the game, and the last few weeks have raised valid questions in those areas.
• Let’s give Raiders coach Rich Bisaccia, his staff and the players in Vegas some credit. There’s been ample opportunity for all of them to let the wheels fall off—and it’d be tough to blame the individual guys there if they did. The Raiders cleaned out their business side over the summer, with president Marc Badain among those dumped; they went through the Jon Gruden affair, and the coaching change attendant to it; and then there was Henry Ruggs’s car accident, which led to tragedy far, far beyond anything any Raider felt, but was still something for everyone to reckon with. Some would say the postbye three-game losing streak, as a result, was predictable. What wasn’t was how they bounced back and won in Dallas in overtime on a short week. And if you want to know how it happened, consider the rushing numbers: Vegas piled up 143 yards on the ground to Dallas’s 64. Which told the tale of which team came in more engaged and which was worn down in the end.
• The Bills really did get something to build on in New Orleans. Outside of two picks (really, one was his fault) Josh Allen was much more efficient than he has been (23-for-28, 260 yards, 4 TDs), the offense was more balanced around him (Devin Singletary and Matt Breida combined for 24 carries) and the defense played like it has most of the year. For the first time in a while, in fact, this felt like Buffalo’s offense playing to its defense stylistically and vice versa. Now only if they still had star corner Tre’Davious White, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in New Orleans.
And I do have some quick-hitters for you from Sunday’s action …
1) The inconsistency in officiating has become maddening. And I’m someone who’s defended officials in the past, because I think their job, given the speed of the game, is so much harder than it looks. That Cowboys-Raiders game was as tightly called as any game I can remember watching.
2) Justin Tucker’s a freak for kicking 50-yarders as routinely as he does.
3) Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury deserves a raise. If it takes flirting with Oklahoma, with Oklahoma in such a tough position, to make that happen … I don’t really have a huge issue with it. Go get your money, Kliff.
4) Vic Fangio’s quietly doing a really nice job in Denver. And if it weren’t for Micah Parsons’s wrecking the league one week at a time, his first-round corner, Patrick Surtain II, might be Defensive Rookie of the Year.
5) Fournette’s a really nice weapon for the Bucs to have with the playoffs coming.
6) Elijah Moore’s going to be a really, really good player for the Jets. I got Santana Moss comps on him over the summer, and he looks every bit of that so far.
7) Score one for the Bengals: They got criticized for letting Carl Lawson walk in free agency and bringing in Trey Hendrickson to replace him. Hendrickson, after a strip-sack of Ben Roethlisberger, is up to seven straight games with a sack. And his four-year, $60 million deal is looking like a bargain.
8) Falcons RB (WR?) Cordarrelle Patterson: 16 carries, 108 yards, 2 TDs.
9) The emergence of guys like Patterson and Samuel into these roles, I think, will keep happening. The Jaguars were looking to do the same sort of things with rookie Travis Etienne before he got hurt. The reason why? The best skill players are all receivers these days, meaning a lot of elite athletes with tailback builds aren’t playing tailback anymore. And if they get to the pros, and a coach identifies that sort of versatility in a player of that size, and can be creative with it, there’s a huge advantage to be had.
10) Big opportunity for Washington Monday night. If they win, that would be three straight and sole possession of second in the division.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) Aidan Hutchinson is a good example of a guy who benefitted from an extra year in school—and maybe if an injury didn’t end his 2020 season at Michigan, he’d have come out. As it was, even if he’d been healthy last year, he was a borderline first-round pick coming into the season. In a new scheme, he’s exploded for 13 sacks, three against Michigan’s archrival Ohio State on Saturday. And while there are questions about whether he’s got the athleticism of the top rushers to come out the last few years, I’d bet, based on my conversations, some scouts will prefer him to Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux—because he’s bigger and more complete. Which would put him in the top-10 mix. (And while we’re there, the job Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald did this year will probably get the attention of NFL teams looking for coordinators, given Macdonald’s roots in the Ravens’ system.)
2) I guess this is where I fall on the sword. Congrats to Michigan. That was a terrible experience, and the first time I’ve felt like that in 18 years (2011 was the de facto probation year with an interim coach). But Jim Harbaugh and Michigan earned that one and made a bunch of Ohio State’s season-long red flags, which had been covered up by blue-chip talent’s building big leads, show up all at once (overall physicality, third-down defense, red-zone offense). That said, I have no doubt Ryan Day’s gonna fix it.
3) Am I out of my mind to think an NFL team or two might want to think outside the box and kick the tires on Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin? Forget all the histrionics. Since flaming out at USC and relaunching his career as an Alabama analyst, Kiffin’s developed pros and top-shelf offenses at both Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss, and a quarterback likely to go relatively high in April, in Rebels star Matt Corral. And he does have NFL head-coaching experience. We’ve all discussed the idea of guys like Lincoln Riley, Day and Matt Campbell going to the pros. Now that he’s won in places where it’s not easy to win … why not Kiffin?
4) Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III looks to be solidly in the Day 2 mix, with his regular season complete, capping his year with a 30-carry, 138-yard performance in the snow against a solid Penn State defense geared up to stop him. The Spartans won, finished 10–2, and Walker really was only stopped by Ohio State. And really that happened because the game got away from Michigan State so quickly (it was 35–0 OSU in the first quarter), to the point where the Spartans had to abandon the run game. Walker should be a very formidable NFL back.
5) The point totals of Georgia’s opponents, week-by-week, through the Bulldogs’ 12–0 season: 3, 7, 13, 0, 0, 10, 13, 7, 6, 17, 7, 0. That’s mind-blowing. And a great front seven that may wind up being entirely made up of Day 1 and 2 draft picks is an enormous reason why. One nugget on them here: The best NFL prospect may be a guy who isn’t even starting. True sophomore DT Jalen Carter is already on the NFL’s radar as a game-wrecking interior presence, and should be a high first-rounder in 2023.
6) In a year in which there isn’t a runaway candidate, Alabama’s Bryce Young may have won the Heisman with his season-saving 97-yard touchdown drive in the Iron Bowl. But I can also see where this might be the year to consider a defensive guy, like Hutchinson or Georgia’s Nakobe Dean.
BEST THE NFL INTERNET
Yeah, being the Browns coach isn’t the easiest job.
Sunday night was messy.
Very, very messy.
Big fan of Nora’s Browns takes.
Lots of weird stuff happened Sunday.
I agree with Tom here—I think game-management just takes investment of staff and time. If you don’t prioritize it, that’s where it becomes a problem. And in the NFL, where everything’s won on the margins, it’s on you if you don’t prioritize it.
Not sure if this is a reference to Kliff and Oklahoma, but I kind of hope it is.
And this one’s very subtly referencing just that. Nice work, J.J.
No idea why I thought that was so funny.
Mixon called it?
And he can dance!
Things get testy out there.
Vita Vea is definitely on my wouldn’t-mess-with-him list.
Yeah, Mac’s fit right in.
That’s Drew Bledsoe. And as you can see, dude’s living a good life, whether it’s back in the Pacific Northwest, or at the occasional Patriots game.
This is amazing.
And I know that’s not NFL, but I thought it was pretty cool, and would be a nice way to wrap up this section for this week.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Washington vs. the Seahawks, we bring the Football Team’s emerging star, Terry McLaurin.
MMQB: Where do you think you’re better this year than you were your first two years in the league?
TM: I definitely think in those contested-catch situations, I’m a lot more consistent. My first few years, I would make the plays here and there. Now, I’m making the plays more than I’m not, and I think that’s a testament to the trust that Taylor [Heinicke] puts in me to give me a chance to get the ball, and also just the work I’ve had to put in to be able to develop that part of my game. And it’s the ability to be a guy who’s consistently getting open even though the defense is planning for you, and you’re getting shaded coverages and things like that.
MMQB: What do you do, specifically, to get better in those contested-catch situations?
TM: It’s the reps catching the ball, but more so doing it at practice when you get those situations where it’s you and another guy, and you can attack the ball aggressively with your hands. You continue to build that confidence, and then you do it in a game and you continue to get better at it.
MMQB: What have you seen that’s different from defenses in how they’re attacking you?
TM: Even when I’m getting man coverage, there’s usually some type of help, either over the top with a safety or inside with a hold player. So I think just being able to still be efficient in the way I run my routes, even though I’m getting bracketed coverages at times, I definitely have had to do that a little bit more. And then just the ability to play in the slot, outside at the Z, outside at the X, just being able to be proficient at all three of those spots is something that’s helped my game, because you have to be able to move around when you’re getting extra attention. I think that’s where I’ve really taken the next step. But I can’t take all the credit, it’s also coach [Scott] Turner and the offensive staff trying to put me in the best position to make plays.
MMQB: What’s the challenge for a receiver in being able to play all three spots?
TM: I think the key is, and what I try to learn when we’re going over the plays, is seeing it conceptually—what are we trying to get done as an offense? It’s not just what my route is on this play, so then I understand the pacing, I understand the timing, I understand what the other three receivers are trying to do at the same time as knowing what I’m trying to do. When you have that ability, and you have the freedom to move to any kind of spot, and know what to do, it helps you get your job done, because you’re learning the plays big-picture as opposed to just what I have to do on that play.
MMQB: Obviously no one was hoping for Ryan Fitzpatrick to get hurt, but is there some benefit now in knowing Taylor’s the guy the rest of the year?
TM: I think we’ve really developed a lot of just the chemistry. The trust has always been there. I believed in his ability; he’s believed in mine. But you can’t replicate all the reps that it takes to become a proficient quarterback/wide receiver duo. And I wouldn’t say we’re at the peak of that yet. But we’re definitely more on the same page now than we were at the beginning of the season, and we were connecting at the beginning of the season as well. I think it’s just that he’s got a feel for how I run my routes, where to place the ball when I’m running deep, and I have a feel for where he’s trying to put the ball in zone, and I’m trying to be quarterback-friendly and give him an easy target.
MMQB: I don’t know that many people expected you’d be a No. 1 receiver this quickly. Have you surprised even yourself a little bit?
TM: I knew coming from Ohio State, I had the ability and I had the training to be able to play at this level—I really did. I felt like I could be successful and a top receiver in this league. At Ohio State, as you know, there’s only one ball to go around. So I just wanted to embrace the role I had at Ohio State, being that leader, the captain, the big-play guy my last year and a guy on special teams. When I got to the NFL, I really was just looking to help out the team I got drafted to. A lot of people saw me as a special-teams guy, and I was humble enough to accept it. If that was my role to get into the NFL and make a name for myself, I was gonna do that. But I wasn’t just going to limit myself there. I was going to continue to work to be the receiver I thought I was gonna be. To say I thought it was gonna happen my rookie year, that fast, to be starting? I didn’t see that happening. But I believed I could play a high level, and it was just a matter of putting the time and the work in, and just making the plays when it counted.
MMQB: What do you think young guys coming out can learn from your story then, that you were willing to play on special teams, because I know you never shied away from that?
TM: Most definitely. Yeah, I think it’s extremely important. I think you gotta ask yourself, do you really want to play in the NFL? And if that comes down to playing special teams, and that’s going to be your role—whether it’s for a season, a couple years or your career—how bad do you want to play in the NFL? Not a lot of people get to do what we get to do, whether you’re playing at your position or you’re playing special teams. You’re fortunate to be in this situation to begin with. But also, I’d say special teams shows a lot of people throughout the building that you have the capability to play your position and earn that trust. Special teams is kind of a thankless job, if you think about it, you gotta be able to make plays there while continuing to get better at your position, so if a guy goes down you’re ready. I’d tell a young guy just to be ready for your moment. Take special teams as an opportunity to prove that you deserve a job in this league. And things can happen going from there.
MMQB: Do you take some pride seeing what might be coming up with the guys after you at your position at Ohio State?
TM: Oh, most definitely. One thing that coach [Brian] Hartline said to me, Johnnie [Dixon] and Parris [Campbell] before we left was we were that group that helped change the culture and the perception of Ohio State receivers, along with Mike Thomas, Devin Smith, a few guys before us. Being two-time captains, me and Parris, and then Johnny being a captain, we were able to set a new precedent at Ohio State playing wide receiver. We were more the leaders and big playmakers, not the slaparounds, as coach [Urban] Meyer used to say when they first got there. I remember coach Hartline saying, Your legacy is built and I promise you’ll be proud of the way the guys behind you continue that legacy, and even up it a notch. I think how it’s changed, the last few years, we haven’t had a first-round receiver, and now we have a chance to have two, and then you see Jaxon [Smith-Njigba], he may have a chance to be a high draft pick after that. Then, you’re making Ohio State Wide Receiver U. We’ve always believed that but the proof could be in the pudding over the next few years. And to be part of that group, be one of those first guys that helped changed that narrative, it’s pretty humbling.
MMQB: Anything that’s still special to you about playing on Monday night?
TM: Yeah, it’s a prime-time game, you get to be the last game of the NFL week and everyone’s watching. You want to put a good product on the field as a team, you want to show the world and your opponents that you’re playing well in front of everybody. And honestly as an individual you want to play well on a Monday night when the lights are the brightest. I think we’re all excited for the opportunity to showcase what we’re able to do.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s one of those weeks. It’s 5:30 a.m., and I’m going to bed.
See you this afternoon for the MAQB!
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