1 – Raising Arizona
Going on the road and handling a good Browns team is all I needed to see. They already beat my personal NFC pick, the Rams, but improving to 6-0 with this impressive road win left no doubt for me. They’re not a perfect team – those don’t exist – but with the magician at quarterback pulling rabbits out of his helmet every week and a defense backing up its 2020 breakout, the Cardinals will be playing playoff football.
As for the Browns, this was the first time they were blown out this season and they very well could be 5-1 if not for a couple bad breaks against the AFC West. They should have a chance to start to stack some wins before a crazy sequence where they play at Baltimore, take their bye, and then host the Ravens. If they can win at least four of the next five, it should set up a fun AFC North showdown for the division lead in late November to early December. That is, unless…
2 – The Ravens take Flight in the AFC
The Ravens passing game was a mess last year and as much as I liked the pick of Reshod Bateman, he just got on the field for his first game action this week. I wasn’t convinced that the Ravens would be able to do much in 2021 with a stale scheme.
The Ravens are built in a way unlike any other team in the league with Lamar Jackson as an incredible weapon in the run game if the passing game isn’t working. The problem for the rest of the NFL is that the passing game has been more than good enough. That makes them difficult to judge. Three weeks ago, I thought – tough loss to the Raiders but probably should’ve lost to both the Chiefs and the Lions (!), escaping both with a little luck. But the winning streak continued, including a dominant 34-6 victory over the Chargers this week.
Maybe it all starts to even out here but we’ve got a lot of evidence that John Harbaugh is a good coach and that the Ravens will once again be a problem in the AFC.
3 – Free Football
We’ve been treated to at least one overtime game each week this year with 11 games needing extra time already. It speaks to just how close in talent many of these teams are that games end in a tie after 60 minutes, but it also reinforces just how important it is for coaches to understand late game strategy. I’m not sure enough focus is given on some of these late-game decisions that coaches make to put their teams in good or bad positions.
In a league this bunched up, every conceivable advantage needs to be considered. Not enough coaches understand when they’re in 4-down territory or when the clock is the opponent. Far too often a coach trusts their defense to stop an Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes when the talent and rules align to favor the offense. When you have possession, go for the kill.
4 – Cheerio
I mentioned last week about the terrible product we send over to London for the international series and Rodger Sherman of The Ringer wrote this great piece. The Jaguars picked up their first win of the year over an incredibly disappointing Dolphins team. Urban Meyer may not want to leave London after the year he’s had.
The Dolphins looked like a team that should compete for one of the AFC Wildcard spots but now sit at 1-5 with a loss to the Jaguars. They also traded their first-round pick to the Eagles so that they could get Jaylen Waddle, who did score two TDs in a losing effort. Still, probably not what the Dolphins envisioned for themselves last April.
5 – Eagle-Eyed
There’s a long way to go, of course, but the Eagles currently sit on three top ten picks in the 2022 draft. Their own selection projects to the 8 spot while the aforementioned Dolphins pick (2nd) and Colts (9th) pick may potentially give them the most amazing first round draft capital in recent memory. Seriously, I don’t think I ever rigged a Madden franchise mode enough to get that kind of capital.
The Eagles as currently constructed are an expensive, veteran team with a bloated cap. They’re not going anywhere this year but who cares? They’ll have the chance to change all of that as soon as next year with an influx in talent. The Eagles front office led by Howie Roseman is one of the smarter groups in the league. I’m fascinated to see what he could do with those resources.
6 – Lions in Last
The Detroit Lions are 0-6. They are the last winless team.
I don’t think they deserve to be winless but that is their current situation. The Lions were, of course, one of the only teams to have a winless 16-game season and so naturally, one wonders if they might pull off the 17-game feat as well.
I believe the Lions play hard and could be a pesky opponent for most of their remaining schedule but for sure they’ll have a shot in home games against the Eagles, Bears, and Vikings, and road games against the Steelers, Broncos, and Falcons. I don’t think it’ll happen and part of me doesn’t want it to happen.
And then there’s another part of me that does, because, well, I’m not above that shot of schadenfreude.
7 – Playoffs?!
Too early to start to think about this? Yeah, probably, but that’s why we’re all here.
When you look at the NFC playoff picture, it might surprise you to discover that the Bears are in the thick of it. The Rams (5-1) and Cardinals (6-0) will both get in from the NFC West, barring some huge drop off, but with the Russell Wilson injury the Seahawks (2-4) are looking at a lost year and the 49ers (2-3) seem lost in the early going. The NFC East will only send the Cowboys (5-1) and the Bucs (5-1) will likely run away with the NFC South.
That leaves the Bears (3-3), Vikings (3-3), Saints (3-2) and Panthers (3-3) to contend for the final two wildcard spots. I like the Saints a lot more than the Panthers at this point. It may just come down to the Bears vs. Vikings games for the final spot and who wants it more. Or, who doesn’t want it less? I’m not sure which way to go on that one.
8 – Matt Nagy as CEO Head Coach
Now that Nagy handed off play-calling duties to Bill Lazor, I’ve tried to observe how he handles the other aspects of the game compared to other coaches around the league. Is he aggressive enough going for it on 4th down? Does he understand situational football? Is his team disciplined? Well coached? Is he able to make adjustments at half time?
So far, it’s not looking good. If the Bears have decided he will no longer have a hand in offensive play calling, he needs to redirect his attention to the other aspects of the job that he probably hasn’t spent a lot of time on. Yes, he comes from the Andy Reid tree, who notoriously was bad at that part of the job. I’ll be watching Nagy closely herein.
9 – The Third Team
It’s incredibly easy to blame the third team in any game for the woes of your favorite squad. Officiating crews have made terrible calls for as long as they’ve been around. Sunday’s crew at Soldier Field had a particularly rough day – one of the worst I’ve ever seen – and while there were bad calls on both sides, they certainly called (or didn’t call) more in Green Bay’s favor.
But it’s bigger than just one game, one week, or one season. The officiating has degraded over time in the NFL. It’s inconsistent, emphasizes silly things like taunting, and is flat out incorrect at an incredibly high rate. In an industry where the difference between winning and losing is razor thin, and wins and losses determine contract extensions and bonuses, the NFL needs to figure out how to fix this.
I would recommend investing in officials, hiring them as full-time employees of the league. That seems like a good start. Add the eye in the sky – an official that can overrule obvious bad calls made on the field. The league should also take a long look at the rules on the books for competitive advantage. In a league that hasn’t figured out what exactly constitutes a catch, they certainly haven’t figured out what counts as a hold or pass interference.
This is a real issue and the NFL needs to invest in fixing this problem now.
10 – Justin Freaking Fields
I see a lot of people sharpening their claws on this Justin Fields performance. Don’t.
He’s a rookie, he’s going to make mistakes. This year is all about the flashes and stitching those flashes together into something bigger, something that you can build off for 2022. Anyone that believed Justin Fields would supercharge this squad into a SB contender was already leaning on long odds. It’s just not going to happen. Have some patience and enjoy the ride.
Growth never follows a linear path and judging any quarterback throw to throw or game to game leads to madness. I saw a young QB get a little unlucky at times (maybe should’ve been a free play on that INT, didn’t get recognized for the time out, etc.), miss on a couple of throws, and, quite frankly, didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers. I also saw flashes of that rare athleticism and a couple of great drives – one to start the game and one to bring the Bears within a FG late in the game.
What are your thoughts on the NFL this week? Sound off below in the comments and be sure to find me on Twitter @gridironborn.