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Ten Thoughts on the NFL

The greatest play to never happen, Mahomes is back, the Lions don’t lose, and more in this week’s column.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

1 – The Greatest Play to Never Exist

Robert Hunt, the right guard for the Miami Dolphins, had a play for the ages. If only that ball would’ve been tipped at the line to make it legal.

On a screen pass in the red zone on Thursday Night Football, Hunt plucked an errant ball out of the air and let instinct take over. The big man showed off some moves and rumbled his way towards the goal line where he took on two tacklers and reached the ball for the stripe. Of course, the play did not stand because Hunt was not an eligible player and therefore not supposed to touch the ball.

Watching it in real time, it certainly looked crazy, but my initial thought (hope, okay, it was a hope) was that the defensive lineman attempting to defend the pass got a finger on it to make it a legal play. Alas, the play does not stand, and we lose a piece of art forever.

2 – Guess who’s back, back again?

My colleague Robert Schmitz and I cut a video over the weekend to discuss the basics of betting NFL games. The info should be evergreen but the predictions given as examples throughout the show, well, proved to be incorrect. At one point we discussed the Panthers and Cardinals game where the Panthers entered the week as 10.5 point underdogs, on the road, against a team that had only lost once. I believe I said something like “I don’t know why you’d want to bet on the Panthers to win this.”

I underestimated the presence of Cam Newton.

Addition by subtraction (benching Sam Darnold for PJ Walker) and signing Cam Newton reinvigorated this Panthers squad to a frightening degree as the Panthers dominated the Cardinals 34-10. Newton played enough to have an impact with a rushing score and a short TD pass and Walker played crisp, efficient football.

It’s fascinating that Cam would return to Carolina after their divorce. The Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater, then traded for Sam Darnold, traded Bridgewater away, committed to Darnold’s 5th year option, and passed up Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the draft (thank you). Now, they’re back where they started.

3 – Upset City, Population Boom

The aforementioned Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added two more games to the list of recent upsets. It’s a good reminder that parity is alive and well in the NFL and that a group of professional football players can beat another group of professional football players any Sunday. The Windy City Gridiron survivor pool was evidence to that as eight players were eliminated and five of the remaining 12 players took a strike.

Part of the issue is that there are very few actual dominant teams and very few objectively terrible teams. Even the bad teams can show signs of improvement or a good team’s scheme can get solved one week and replicated the rest of the season. The NFL is fun because it’s a week-to-week league. Nothing lasts forever and watching how teams adapt, or not, throughout the year is half the fun of following this league. One week, Tom Brady looks like he’s Benjamin Button-ing his way through his NFL career, the next he looks like an out-of-work dock worker.

4 – Sunday Night Showcase

Is Mahomes back? The Raiders would say so. 35-50 for 406 yards and not 3, not 4, but 5 TD passes. Mahomes looked like the MVP of old, operating comfortably from the pocket, delivering throws on time and throws off-platform. It’s fun to watch an artist at work.

However, Mahomes and the Chiefs have struggled to answer good defenses playing two high safeties against them. The Raiders “major” in Cover 3, which employs one safety. That’s not to say that the Chiefs only struggle against one coverage or that the Raiders can’t run Cover 2, it’s obviously much more complex than that, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this game looked like a good schematic matchup on paper for Mahomes.

The remaining schedule shows three games against teams that major in using two high safeties – Vic Fangio’s Broncos (twice) and Brandon Staley’s Chargers. The Cowboys are next and Dallas has been excellent on defense this season, but are coached by Dan Quinn who has a stronger background in using only one deep safety? Well, it appears that Quinn and Staley have been evolving, taking principles from Bill Belichick and incorporating them into their respective philosophies. Chiefs – Cowboys will be appointment television next weekend.

5 – Baker Breaks

Before Baker Mayfield left the game on Sunday with a knee bruise, he was 11-21 for 73 yards, one score and an interception. In a big spot, on the road, without the all-world running back Nick Chubb behind him, Baker fell flat. In a year where the Browns were expected to compete for a division crown and make a playoff run, they instead sit at a disappointing 5-5 with question marks at the most important position.

If I were the Browns, I would have a hard time letting him go just because of team history. Some team will give him decent starter money because he would be one of the better options out there. He’s a season removed from a 26:8 TD to interception ratio and has at least temporarily ended the QB carousel. It may be easy from the outside to say the Browns must move on from Baker, but you must have a viable alternative for it to work and know that decent is better than unending horror show. Having said all of that, I would move on from Baker.

It will be fascinating to see what happens with Baker and the Browns the rest of the year and into the offseason.

6 – OBJ Sweepstakes Surprise Winner

Speaking of Browns drama, when the dust settled around the Odell Beckham Jr. drama, the LA Rams emerged with a rare starting-caliber player added mid-season. All the reports leading up to the end put OBJ in Green Bay, Seattle, or even New Orleans. Instead, the rich get richer and the Rams add a veteran WR that should thrive in the Rams offensive approach.

The timing of the move was even more stunning when after OBJ signed, Robert Woods tore his ACL in practice and will miss the rest of the season. Bobby Trees is one of the most underappreciated players in the league and was steadily grinding his way toward yet another 1,000-yard season. Woods will be missed and OBJ will not serve as a direct 1 for 1 replacement of Woods, but McVay will be able to push the talent on the field and find a way to make it work, last night notwithstanding.

7 – McCorkle Jones

Landing spot in the draft is such an underrated measure when we talk about young players in the league. There are plenty of players drafted into bad circumstances, or the wrong circumstances, and their careers head the wrong way or never take off. Mac Jones getting drafted to the Patriots is the opposite of that. A stable coaching staff welcomed Jones and McCorkle rewarded their faith by competing hard from Day 1 to lead the Patriots.

Jones had his best day as a pro in a stunning blowout of the Browns, 45-7. The stat line, 19-23 for 198 yards, 3 TDs and no interceptions, was simply clean and efficient. The Patriots have now won four straight and have an excellent chance to win 10 or more games as they continue to rebuild post-Brady. He doesn’t have a huge arm or rare athletic talents. He doesn’t appear to be a guy who will take over games with his ability like some of the amazing QBs around the league. But, for Bill Belichick and the Patriots, he’s going to be able to win a lot of games with his head and extreme accuracy. That’s what the high floor gets you.

8 – Rushing Title Update

With the injury to Derrick Henry, someone needed to emerge to grab the rushing title. This week, the Colts ran Jonathan Taylor 21 times for 116 yards, backing up his huge 172-yard performance from a week ago. Taylor is now tied with Henry at 937 yards (just goes to show you how far in front Henry was) with Nick Chubb as the closest player behind him at 721 yards. Given injury issues to Henry and Chubb, it looks like the title is Taylor’s to lose.

The Colts play some good defenses down the stretch so he may have to rack up big games against the Texans and Jags to seal it away. Taylor would become the first Colts player to win the title since Edgerrin James did it in back-to-back years (1999-2000).

9 – Lions

I really thought the Lions were going to be able to steel a win away from Pittsburgh this week. When they announced Big Ben would be out, I thought about putting in a moneyline bet on the Lions up until kickoff. Instead, I put down a bet on the Lions to cover the spread at +6.

And they did it! They some money for covering the spread.

The Lions and Steelers recorded the first tie of the season, and the Lions avoid being the first team to record an 0-17 season. Hooray. Now, Bears fans have to hope that the Lions got the non-losing out of their system and it won’t impact their performance on Thanksgiving. I’d really prefer to consume two slices of chocolate pecan pie because I’m happy, not because I’m sad. But, either way, I’m coming for that pie.

10 – Justin Freaking Fields

Mr. Talib, that bandwagon has been filling since the spring. We’ll keep adding to the convoy.

What are your thoughts on the NFL this week? Sound off below in the comments and be sure to find me on Twitter @gridironborn.