by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball. This week, we continue our annual tradition of staring at one another in bemusement while asking, in almost wistful tones, if we can actually in fact believe that it's Week 8 already.
Bryan: Speak for yourself. As a fan of a winning team, I'm sure the season feels like it's just Brees-ing by, with the midseason point arriving well before you expected. As a fan of a losing team, every week seems to take roughly ten thousand years to pass -- or maybe that's just the feeling after watching the excruciatingly painful 49ers-Cardinals game this last week. At least I have some exciting matchups to look forward to over the next couple weeks, as the 49ers take on ... the Raiders and the Giants.
I can't think of a more fitting set of matchups for Halloween week, because that is terrifying.
Andrew: You could always watch in awe at the offensive explosion as the Titans visit the Cowboys on Monday night!
Bryan: That will likely be a better game, as at least those two teams are still vaguely in contention.
No, maybe we shouldn't look forward at the Thursday and Monday night horrorfests this week -- maybe we should take this midseason opportunity to look back at the season so far.
Andrew: As is our true Scramble tradition, we can take a look at the midseason contenders for the league's most prestigious awards, including Best Costume (Nathan Peterman, NFL Quarterback), Best Song (the one the Patriots paid for Josh Gordon), and Best Original Screenplay (surely, SURELY Hard Knocks was scripted. This league can't possibly have employed real people who act like that, can it?).
Oh, you mean MVP and stuff. I guess we can look at that too. We looked at some player props in preseason, so this doubles as a chance to check in on, say, how Le'Veon Bell's chances of winning Offensive Player of the Year are coming along.
Most Valuable Player
Bryan: Let's see here. Before the season, we both listed Aaron Rodgers as our favorite for the award. At this point that, uh, doesn't quite seem particularly likely? Not that he's been bad, per se, but the Packers aren't really in the position to have people at the tippy-top of the MVP conversation, and Rodgers hasn't been amazingly outstanding enough to garner any real consideration, I think. I mean, it's not out of the question, especially if the Packers go on a hot streak, but I don't think either of us would call him the favorite today, right?
Andrew: Does the MVP conversation seem a little muted to you, this year? It does to me. The two leading contenders among the few oddsmakers who update their numbers during the season are Patrick Mahomes and Todd Gurley. They're both leading lights on two of the league's best teams, sure, but it seems to me like Mahomes is more likely to win Andy Reid coach of the year than to win himself the MVP, and Gurley's basically a lock for Offensive Player of the Year but isn't even the most valuable player on his own offense.
Bryan: I think Mahomes and Gurley are both candidates, as are Rodgers and Jared Goff. Goff and Gurley are the top two guys on the last undefeated team, and they'll take votes from one another, I'm sure...
Bryan: No, he's not, I just hadn't gotten to him yet. I was doing a big reveal of "of course, my preseason best bet, Drew Brees, looks pretty dang shiny," but no, I guess you gotta take away all my drama!
Andrew: That's me. Killing drama and entertainment since 1982. How I wish I could do the same away from this column.
Brees and Tom Brady are part of the general mutedness I was referring to earlier. The Patriots are still good, sure, but thus far it has been mostly that sort-of-mediocre version of the Patriots that other teams would kill for. The Saints lost yet another crazy shootout on opening day, but otherwise have been what they are every year: efficient offense causing death by a thousand cuts, hoping for just enough defense to keep the wins flowing. I think there would be much more enthusiasm around both if they had started with their current win streaks instead of coming at it from a losing record. There's something just shinier about tags like "last undefeated team" rather than "one of four six-win teams at the halfway point."
Bryan: The problem with picking anyone from the "last undefeated team" is that the Rams, more so than even most years, feel like a team, rather than one guy leading a squad, if that makes sense. While a lot of the MVP oddsmakers and voters are looking for someone to reward, there really isn't that one guy who's clearly the spark that makes the engine go -- or, more accurately, you can't give Sean McVay this award because he doesn't wear a uniform. With the Patriots, it's pretty clearly Brady and the crew (featuring Gronk). With the Saints, Brees is clearly the star of the show. With the Rams? It's McVay's offense. So I think we are looking at the six-win teams to find a winner.
I doubt it will be Brady, just from voter fatigue. He won the award last year, he has won it three times, you have to be super-duper special to win it again after all that. Brady has been his usual solid self, but not super-duper special. No, I think this comes down to a race between the top two quarterbacks in DYAR and DVOA -- Brees and Mahomes.
Andrew: Ultimately, I think you're right, and I'm not sure I would disagree with either of those two at this point. Rodgers remains the wild card though. The Packers have a tough trip to Foxborough this weekend, but they have a much easier back half of the schedule: Dolphins, Cardinals, Falcons, Jets, and Lions in the space of eight weeks, albeit with road games against the Seahawks, Vikings, and Bears. A 6-2 or 7-1 end to the season could be enough to give the Packers the NFC North, and if that happens Rodgers is the most likely man to get the credit.
Bryan: I'd agree with that -- Rodgers is one to keep an eye on going forward, so our preseason favorite may well be the postseason winner. However, these are the midseason awards, so let's come up with our winners if we had to pick them right now. As much as I'd love to give Brees his first ever MVP, as good lord does the guy deserve it, I have to go with Mahomes. His insertion into the Chiefs' starting lineup has been the story of the year by a wide margin. He's on pace to become the fifth player ever with 2,000 passing DYAR in a season, after Brady, Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton Manning. Even if you knock the level down to 1,800, you only add Matt Ryan and Daunte Culpepper. And this is Mahomes' first season as a full-time starter! He has been exceptional -- and it's easy to compare the Chiefs with and without Mahomes, as it's mostly the same lineup as they had with Alex Smith under center. The Alex Smith Chiefs were good -- the Mahomes Chiefs are great. I have to give it to him.
Andrew: I love Mahomes, so much so that I picked him as my outsider to lead the league in touchdown passes in the preseason, but I'm still going to give it to Brees. Call me a homer if you must, but in a year with no overwhelming favorite, I'm happy to hand out the lifetime achievement award.
Bryan: And no love for my long-shot, Le'Veon Bell. Which segues us nicely into...
Offensive Player of the Year
Bryan: Right. Let's get this out of the way first. I really, really was high on Le'Veon Bell before the season started. I called him the favorite to have the most rushing yards and the most rushing touchdowns. I figured he'd have yet another in a string of great seasons, perhaps even helping the Steelers get over the Patriots-shaped bump in the road. Yes, there was some crazy talk that he might hold out of Week 1, but c'mon. No player of Bell's caliber is going to miss significant regular season time on a Super Bowl contender, right? Right?
That ... could have gone better. Still, at least Bell's holdout will have increased his value, as the Steelers' ground game has ... huh. The word here is apparently "thrived" rather than "collapsed." It turns out that even elite running backs are considerably easier to replace than most other positions on a football team. Who knew?
Still, this does seem to be the offensive award that is most likely to go to a statistically dominant halfback, and my preseason pick of Todd Gurley is very much still in the frame. On the outside chance that Gurley wins the MVP, he obviously wouldn't win both, but I still reckon this is the more likely of the two. Other options include ... well, who exactly are the other options?
Bryan: There's always the chance that this gets split between two quarterbacks -- Brees for MVP and Mahomes for OPOY, perhaps?
Andrew: That seems a little too overtly "consolation prize" for my liking.
Bryan: They've done it before, but yeah, I don't agree with it, either. After Gurley, you have Ezekiel Elliott, James Conner, and Kareem Hunt atop the rushing leaderboards. I'd discount Hunt because I don't think MVP and OPOY coming from the same team would make very much sense, but Elliott and Conner have interesting arguments behind them … if, and only if, you're excluding Gurley.
Andrew: Moving away from running backs, how about Adam Thielen tying the record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games?
Bryan: Doing something historically unprecedented is definitely a way to get your name thrown in these kinds of discussions. If he can keep that up, I think he's got a real puncher's chance to take this award by the end of the year. I'd probably vote for him at the end if he manages to get 100 yards in all 16 games, at least. But the difference between Thielen and Julio Jones, the second-leading receiver, is just 113 yards. The difference between Gurley and the next leading rusher is 181, and that's not including receiving yards in the mix, where Gurley is fifth among running backs and averaging 11.3 yards per reception.
Andrew: We've been here before in some of these discussions: if you're straining for reasons not to give the obvious candidate the award, you should probably just give it to the obvious candidate. The obvious candidate is Todd Gurley, at least until further notice. My midseason winner is Todd Gurley.
Defensive Player of the Year
Andrew: Usually, this is a more interesting category than either of the offensive categories, because there are just so many different criteria for a defensive player. On offense, you generally have yards and touchdowns. On defense, you have sacks and tackles, forced fumbles and interceptions, and can combine those in many different ways. Is it more valuable to have an edge rusher who puts up 10 sacks in eight games, or a cornerback who grabs you six interceptions? Do you prefer to have a middle linebacker who is on pace for 176 tackles, eight sacks, and six forced fumbles, and can do it all from that spot, or a truly great edge rusher who does nothing but pin his ears back and chase the quarterback, but is averaging a sack in every game?
Bryan: If we had done a quarter-season awards here, I think the winner would have clearly been Khalil Mack. The Bears were riding high at 3-1, Mack had forced a fumble in every game, and the Chicago defense was looking a bit Monsters of the Midway-ey -- or at least as much as you can look like that in 2018. Since then, however, Mack has been nursing an ankle injury, so he hasn't been quite as explosive. I still think he's up at the top of any sort of list you can put together, but it's no longer a runaway.
Andrew: Really? I wouldn't have Mack in the top five now. He has been hurt since Week 4.
Bryan: He's missed one game! That can't be enough to entirely throw away September's Defensive Player of the Month!
Andrew: Right, but Aaron Donald now has twice as many sacks as Mack, and has already reached double figures before the end of October. J.J. Watt is returning from not one but two major injuries and has 8.0 sacks and four forced fumbles on a Texans team that has won five straight. Jason Pierre-Paul is on track to post Tampa Bay's first 10-sack season since 2005 despite having the worst secondary in the league behind him.
Bryan: I'd also throw in your preseason value pick, Myles Garrett, who has 8.0 sacks of his own despite playing for the most dysfunctional franchise in ... I'm going to say all of professional sports. The NFL, at the very least.
Andrew: Von Miller, too, continues to be the outstanding player on the Broncos, though no doubt the team's terrible run defense will count against him. Still, he too has 8.0 sacks and four forced fumbles. It's not that I think Mack hasn't played well, and he was never likely to sustain his pace from the first four weeks, but there are a lot of worthy candidates in that exact spot, and a few of them have built up better cases since Mack had that barnstorming start for the Bears.
Oddly, I do think all of this season's candidates are pass-rushers. No one defensive back has really stood out so far. Earl Thomas is on injured reserve with a broken leg. Patrick Peterson is stuck on a terrible Cardinals squad. Marshon Lattimore is still Marshon Lattimore, but his highlight moments this season have involved him being burned by Mike Evans on opening day: he doesn't have a single interception. That's not really his fault, as he can't force people to throw at him, but those highlight plays are a factor in these awards. Xavien Howard is having a good season in Miami, but not this good. Not Aaron Donald good.
Bryan: My only hesitation with going for Donald is that so many of his sacks came in one game against the 49ers, whose interior offensive line resembles a sieve more than a collection of NFL players, and who were missing their starting center. A good defensive lineman should thrive in that situation, but 40 percent of Donald's season sacks came in that one contest. That looks great on the stat sheet -- he said, in a massive understatement -- but is it more valuable than someone who gets a sack a game on a consistent basis?
I mean, probably, yeah -- it's not like Donald had one great game and has otherwise been invisible, but I think you can use that one performance as an argument for Watt to pass him, despite the lower sack total.
Andrew: Counterpoint: Donald is both the guy who dominates one opponent for four sacks and the guy who gets a sack a game on a consistent basis. Remember, Donald held out over the summer, missing out on training camp and all of preseason. Since Week 4, Donald has recorded at least one sack in every game, and multiple sacks in three of five.
Bryan: Counterpoint to your counterpoint -- if Mack is off the top of your list because he hasn't done much in three games, shouldn't Donald also be off the top of your list, because he didn't do much for three games?
Andrew: Donald had more impact in his three early-season games than Mack has had in the three games since injuring his ankle, and Donald has also done at least as much, if not more, in the five games since he got up to game speed than Mack did in his super-hot start.
Bryan: It's a fair point, and I think Donald is my favorite to win the full-season version of this award. But it's not the full season yet, and I don't think he has quite passed the leaders at this point. I'm actually going to go with J.J. Watt, who you could argue was the second-best defensive player in September and the second-best defensive player in October. He has been the most consistent of all the top candidates, and while three slow games will matter less in December, it's enough of a sample size at the end of October for me to give Watt the nod -- and note that it's great to be talking about dominant Watt again after years of injuries.
Andrew: On that much, we can certainly agree. Watt has been back to something approaching his old self: he is consistently among the league leaders in defeats, and was on pace to lead all defensive linemen in that stat at the end of September too. Donald probably has more support from the team around him -- the Rams are all-in on making this L.A. thing work -- but he remains clearly the best individual player on the league's best team. It's a tough choice, but I'll concede that Watt's all-around contribution -- he also has four forced fumbles, and more pass deflections than Donald -- give him a narrow edge that I expect Donald to more than erase by the end of December.
I think we can safely just ignore both of our longshot picks, and move straight on to the rookies.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Bryan: I'm going to use a minute here to champion the best offensive rookie I have seen this year, one who has zero chance of winning this award: offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey of the San Francisco 49ers. McGlinchey has been outstanding in the running game; one of the major reasons Matt Breida was atop the rushing yards table early in the year was McGlinchey dominating the guys in front of him, opening up massive holes. His pass-blocking has just been so-so -- though I also blame some of that on trying to protect the Human Tackling Dummy, C.J. Beathard -- but I'm not sure I've seen any tackle in the league, rookie or not, do a better job at getting to the second level and opening up lanes than McGlinchey. He won't win, as he's an offensive lineman on one of the worst teams in football, but I honestly think he has been the best new offensive player this year, ahead of all the first-round quarterbacks and the generational running backs and everything else.
Ahem. Now we can talk about players who will actually win these awards.
Andrew: When we discussed this category ahead of Week 1, we both agreed that the award was Saquon Barkley's to lose. Barkley has been terrific, but that statement is no longer quite so true now. There is much more immediate competition than we had anticipated. Most of that has come from one of the receivers we discussed in that article, but whom neither of us actually picked: Atlanta's Calvin Ridley not only ascended the depth chart quickly, he has the fourth-most receiving touchdowns in the league despite playing one fewer game than two of the players above him. We did both pick Sam Darnold as the best value, and Darnold has started every game for a competitive if flawed Jets team. He leads the league in interceptions, but we expect rookies to make mistakes. The Jets are not coddling him at all, and he already looks like he belongs as a starting quarterback.
Bryan: Honestly, I know our stats disagree on this, but I think Baker Mayfield has looked better under center. Mayfield's -27.6% DVOA is 32nd in the league; Darnold's -19.7% ranks 28th, so it's not a massive blowout...
Andrew: Mayfield, of course, has the massive disadvantage of basically everything that comes with playing football in Cleveland.
Bryan: Exactly. When a team feels the need to fire their head coach and offensive coordinator halfway through the season, you've got some serious problems to overcome if you're going to be successful. I feel like when Mayfield has been put into situations where he can succeed, he has done better than Darnold -- it's just his coaches seemed to be actively conspiring against him, what with not getting him any training camp first-string reps and just the general ... everything that was the Browns offense so far.
Andrew: I guess I'd phrase that slightly differently: his coaches have been actively conspiring against each other, and he has been caught in the crossfire. Mina Kimes suggested on Twitter that the Browns coaching situation was like Game of Thrones, only everybody involved was Littlefinger. I think it was more akin to Game of Thrones, if everybody involved was Renly Baratheon.
Going back to Barkley, it's not even like he's dominating the field at his own position. Phillip Lindsay has taken over the starting role in Denver, and has 12 more rushing yards than Barkley at a full yard higher per carry (5.7 vs. 4.7). Some of that is to do with Barkley's disastrous line, but the Broncos aren't exactly a juggernaut either and Lindsay has generally outperformed their other backs.
Bryan: I'd also argue that Kerryon Johnson has also outperformed Barkley to this point in the year, though he doesn't have the same volume that either Barkley or Lindsay have. He's second in rushing DVOA this year, compared to Lindsay's fourth and Barkley's 15th. Of course, Barkley outdoes them both in the passing game, but the moral is clear -- don't draft running backs early.
Andrew: Certainly not when your quarterback is a 37-year-old Eli Manning. The biggest argument in Barkley's favor is that for all of that, he genuinely is playing very, very well. He is the Giants offense: the running game goes through him, and so does much of the passing game: only Odell Beckham has more receptions than him, and even then by only three catches.
Bryan: He also has more highlight-reel plays than all of the other top rookies here, combined. He's a boom-and-bust player with phenomenal boom. He has been as good as advertised, I feel; he's just playing with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the shambles of a team around him. I think the highlight reel aspect of his game will end up making him the winner when all is said and done, and I'm not entirely sure that's not deserved. In fact, I think I am still going to pick Barkley as my midseason award winner -- this award's not one about value, and the fact that a UDFA is keeping up with him on the ground is an argument against Barkley's draft position, not his actual performance on the field. I just close my eyes and picture what the Giants' offense would be without Saquon and ... well, I shudder to think.
Andrew: The thing is, on the Giants, a boom-and-bust runner is probably more valuable than a steady guy without breakaway traits. As a Barkley fantasy owner, I may not be entirely impartial, but Barkley has been exceptional. It's just a shame he isn't on a team that could take advantage.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Bryan: Four rookies have emerged as the oddsmakers' top favorites through eight weeks: Darius Leonard in Indianapolis, Denzel Ward in Cleveland, Derwin James in Los Angeles and Tremaine Edmunds in Buffalo.
Andrew: Leonard is the player I was alluding to earlier when I mentioned a linebacker who was on pace for 176 tackles and 8.0 sacks. Some of that is opportunity: the Colts are not an especially good defense, and a lot of losses means a lot of run tackles. Still, Leonard is genuinely playing well, and he was September's Defensive Rookie of the Month. Even 4.0 sacks, as he has right now, is a good return for a rookie inside linebacker.
Tremaine Edmunds will also get a mention later in the column, at the heart of a very decent Bills defense that has been overshadowed by the unholy abomination that is their offense. He has stepped right into the lineup, as one of the youngest players in the league, and never looked remotely out of place.
Still, I don't think either of them is playing as well as either of the other two. Denzel Ward already looks like a stud corner who has absolutely justified being the fourth overall pick. Derwin James looks like a future All-Pro safety. He can do it all: cover, tackle, rush the passer, and generate turnovers with his hitting and ball skills.
Andrew: We had a similar embarrassment of riches at cornerback last year, though no safety at quite the level of James. That bodes well for the future of a league in which defense has been almost an optional extra at times.
Some other names worthy of mention include Bradley Chubb, who leads all rookies with 7.0 sacks, and Miami's versatile cover safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Da'Ron Payne has been a force on the interior defensive line in Washington, and Leighton Vander Esch has capably filled the void created by Sean Lee's latest hamstring injury in Dallas.
Bryan: Da'Shawn Hand has done an excellent job filling in for Ziggy Ansah, as well, eating up tons of snaps for Detroit and constantly generating interior pressure. When all is said and done, however, I think I'm going with Leonard for the midseason honors. It's a wide-open race, though -- probably the best race for any of these awards going forward. So many deserving candidates, playing such a wide range of positions for teams going in very different directions.
Andrew: It is indeed, and open enough even to generate disagreement from the Scramble team! I like Leonard a lot, but Derwin James for me is the pick of the bunch. The Chargers have had some tremendous safeties in their time, but had never really replaced Eric Weddle after his departure to Baltimore. It may be premature to say, but it really seems like they might have now: James already looks like he could be a future All-Pro at the position.
Comeback Player of the Year
Andrew: This is always the award that is the hardest to truly define. What exactly is a "comeback?" Is it a comeback for a player who, say, missed only a couple of games last year, but it was a major injury with a long recovery time and he made it back to play well again this term? Is it a comeback for a player who looked old and finished last year, bouncing between teams, before rediscovering some measure of his old form this term?
Bryan: I try to limit this category to players coming off of injuries, as "coming back from being a terrible football player" seems less award-worthy. So I usually look for the combination of "worst injury" and "best performance."
Andrew: Even that is fairly nebulous though. Is a distal femur fracture worse than a torn ACL?
Bryan: Not being a doctor, I'm not sure. But I do know that Andrew Luck and the Case of the Mysterious Missing Arm was one of the ongoing sagas last year, and he's back to something approaching his old self again. That likely makes him the favorite in my book.
Andrew: In the same division, our DPOY candidate J.J. Watt missed 75 percent of Houston's games over the past two seasons, and would seem to be another leading candidate.
Bryan: In the same same division, Deshaun Watson is coming back from that terrible knee injury and playing well, as well. Really, this award is going to the AFC South, isn't it?
Andrew: Given that you have already excluded Adrian Peterson's comeback from being a bad running back to being a fairly good one, it sure looks that way. We both picked Luck in the preseason, and a strong second half of the season -- which, as I said back then, I always thought was likeliest for the Colts given their schedule -- should be enough to seal the deal, unless Watson truly is back to last season's form after overcoming further injuries sustained this season.
The wild card in this category is still Josh Gordon, who is really in a category all of his own. He is not fully back to his best, but he has at least made it back to being a productive player after years away from the game working through a fairly unique set of circumstances. I think Gordon's situation will be too hazy, both in terms of what he's returning from and in terms of how far "back" he actually is, to be a serious candidate for this award. Still, I'm happy to see a player overcoming his personal demons even if he doesn't make it all the way back to his best.
Overall, I agree, this is probably going to be Andrew Luck.
Coach of the Year
Andrew: That about does it for the player awards, so we only have one major award left to give. Sean McVay is the reigning champion, making him very unlikely to reclaim this award this year. If we exclude McVay, does Andy Reid have any serious competition for this title?
Bryan: The one other name I'd throw into that hat is Sean Payton, as he'll get credit for the Saints' offense, including the Taysom Hill packages the Sunday Night and Monday Night crews can't stop raving over. I think they're the top three candidates at the moment, with John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and maybe Matt Nagy in the "we want to reward something new!" division as the next rung down.
Andrew: I think we've all generally assumed that Bill Belichick doesn't qualify for this category, possibly because he isn't a member of the Coaches' Union or something, and it would be very weird for him to win it this year when this is far from his best Patriots team. I'm not convinced about Payton, because I do think most people see him as the beneficiary of Drew Brees to a large extent. I'm not sure people have forgotten about his long legacy of truly inept defense keeping Brees out of the postseason.
John Harbaugh would be an interesting conversation, as long as the conversation wasn't actually with John Harbaugh. We'd need to see the Bears win the division for Nagy to win, and I still think there's too much standing in the way of that. Is Anthony Lynn solely the product of Philip Rivers, do we think, or just too overshadowed by the Chiefs?
Bryan: A lot of column B there, and I think Lynn would be in my top ten ... but he has got some weak points in his game that I think keep him from being the very best. His time management's only OK, and it does sometimes feel like when Plan A isn't working for the Chargers, he doesn't do a great job of shifting off of it. His Plan A's have been doing really, really well so far this season, so that's great for Lynn, but I think I'd have him a further rung down from everyone else.
I'd love to vote for Reid here, as I feel he's criminally underappreciated by people because he has never won the Super Bowl, and only gotten there once. He has been a very, very good coach for years, but hasn't won this award since 2002. Still. McVay is undefeated. We haven't had a repeat winner since Joe Gibbs in 1983, but we've also never had an undefeated coach lose this award. It has to be McVay until the Rams lose a game, right?
Andrew: Not when the one-loss team's only defeat was in prime time, in Foxborough, by only three points. Andy Reid is doing everything this year with Patrick Mahomes that McVay did last year with Jared Goff, and doing it even better.
Bryan: Is Reid getting more out of Mahomes, or is Mahomes just better than Goff? Could getting so much out of Goff be considered a more impressive feat for McVay, even if it's just a repeat of last year?
Andrew: I don't think there's a huge amount to pick between them, but I do think getting a first-year starter to play at Mahomes' level is more impressive than getting a third-year starter to play at Goff's. Both are good players. Both are excellent coaches. Either would be a worthy winner. I think the job Reid has done, in moving the team from veteran Alex Smith to first-year starter Patrick Mahomes while making everything about the offense better, is the more impressive job so far this season. Week 11, in Mexico City, should be a truly fantastic game.
Bryan: Game of the Year potential written all over it. If only London could get some of those types of games, rather than the Loser League-esque quality we normally send their way.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: There must be some mistake. Drew Brees, what are you doing in the Loser section? No, no, no -- you're supposed to be up there near the top, not down here near the bottom. This is supposed to be Jameis Winston's spot! As it turns out, though, Winston's 276 yards well outdoes Brees' 120, and even Winston's flotilla of interceptions isn't enough to completely knock him down past that mark. Brees finishes with just 7 points and yes, that is the high-water mark for a loser-leading quarterback this season.
Running Back: With the Jets trailing the entire way, it was never going to be a great week for Isaiah Crowell. Picking up just 25 yards on 13 carries, though, is what turns a bad week into a Loser League leading week. His 13 receiving yards keeps him to a 3, so it could have been worse, but this was not a fun day to be a Jet.
Wide Receiver: A trio of Goose Eggers to report on this week. Jarius Wright and Kevin White both were held under 10 receiving yards; the usual way to pick up a zero. Keelan Cole, on the other hand, went above and beyond, gaining 20 yards of offense but losing it all and getting benched after a fumble late in the first half. Nul Points!
Kicker: You don't expect any of the high-powered Chiefs to appear in Loser League, but we cap off one of the weirder sets of leaders in recent memory with Harrison Butker. Those missed extra points will kill you, although a trio of made XPs and a field goal keep him out of the negatives, at 1. Not a good week for finding losers!
Check your team's score and the leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: This week, we have two contenders who both fully deserve the award, albeit for different reasons. It would be a shame to exclude either of the two, so we're going to award both.
First up: the Pittsburgh Steelers punt return team, headlined by Ryan Switzer. The Steelers have a hard-earned reputation for playing down to the level of their opposition; but even against the Cleveland Browns, wilfully deciding not to field a live ball and thereby gift the opposition the ball is generosity beyond the call of duty.
Steelers inexplicably fail to field a free kick and let the Browns have it. Browns could have run it in for a TD pic.twitter.com/yMyT6PqMeR
— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) October 28, 2018
Even better, nobody on the Browns appeared to realize that they had recovered a live ball either. Kickoffs are always live. Safety kicks are no different. This was a ridiculously bad play all-around, though especially so for Pittsburgh.
Still, at least it did not cost them the chance at a victory, unlike contender No. 2. When the Los Angeles Rams kicked a field goal to take a 29-27 lead over the Green Bay Packers, we could have forgiven Rams fans for being a touch uneasy -- or, as was more the case on Sunday, Packers fans for being excited. After all, Aaron Rodgers was about to get the ball with just under 2:00 remaining and one timeout, needing only a field goal to win.
Or was he?
Ty Montgomery : 2 carries for 6 yards (Fumbled during a kickoff with under 2 minutes left) pic.twitter.com/q0s9ITEW4l
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) October 29, 2018
Yes, that was kick returner Ty Montgomery fumbling the ball back to the Rams, without ever giving Rodgers a shot at the comeback drive. A report by NFL Media's Mike Silver after the game claimed that Montgomery was specifically told by coaches to down the ball for a touchback, though Montgomery has since claimed that he returned the kick because he was not sure whether he was in the end zone when he caught it. That would be slightly better than directly disobeying coaches' instructions, but is still not particularly good for Montgomery. The Rams were able to close out the game and remain the league's only unbeaten team. The Packers remain in the playoff hunt, but they will move forward without Montgomery: the receiver-turned-tailback was traded to Washington on Tuesday.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win The Game: The Bills' first offensive drive against the Patriots featured not one, not two, not three, but four trick plays in the span of five snaps. The first two were fairly standard Wildcat things -- LeSean McCoy plunging off right guard for a dozen yards, followed by Chris Ivory faking a handoff to McCoy and getting 4 yards of his own. The third was a full-house sweep to the left, with McCoy, Ivory, and Patrick DiMarco all lined up in the backfield, and pretty much every offensive lineman pulling out, resulting in a gain of just a yard.
My favorite play, however, came next, and was straight out of Tecmo Bowl -- a full-fledged reverse flea-flicker, going from Derek Anderson to McCoy to Zay Jones back to Anderson and then juuuust out of the reach of Charles Clay. It didn't work, but we acknowledge and admire the gusto -- the Bills, as massive underdogs, needed to pull out something unconventional to win this game. If only they had twenty to thirty more trick plays. Or one quarterback.
Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching:: Yes, we're renaming this award after Hue Jackson, because for as bad as Jeff Fisher was, he at least could routinely put together seven-win seasons. The Browns would kill for a seven-win season, and Jackson's penchant for stabbing everyone else in the back to save his own skin created plenty of confusing moments in his Cleveland tenure. Jackson ends his time in Cleveland with the worst record of any coach in the Super Bowl era with at least 40 games under his belt. He is the worst coach in Cleveland Browns history, and that's a long list of terrible coaches since the franchise was reborn. He may be gone from our Sundays, but he shall remain a feature of our Wednesdays for the time being.
We'll see Jackson off with one last award for excellence in the field of bizarre coaching decisions. Up 7-6, the Pittsburgh Steelers got the ball at the end of the first half, on their own 13-yard line, with 7:20 left in the first half. At the time, Cleveland had all three timeouts remaining. The drive ended with a Steelers touchdown 87 yards later, with just eight seconds left on the clock.
Towards the end of the drive, Jackson let the clock tick from 1:55 to 1:19, from 1:19 to 0:41, and from 0:32 to 0:15 without making any sort of move to stop it. Now, maybe the Browns wouldn't have done anything with the ball in a two-minute drill. Maybe the Browns would have turned it over and given the Steelers the chance for an extra score at the end of the first half. Maybe Jackson felt that his team's best chance was to let the clock drain and get out of there with, say, a 10-6 deficit going into halftime. Or maybe, just maybe, Jackson wasn't thinking at all, as The Athletics' Zac Jackson reports:
Hue asked why he didn't use timeouts late in the second quarter: Honestly I don't even recall that.
— Zac Jackson (@AkronJackson) October 28, 2018
So long, Hue. We'll miss you.
'Kupp Runneth Over' Fantasy Player of the Week:: Fantasy players were left scrambling to find a temporary fill-in for Cooper Kupp as the receiver's knee injury has forced him to miss the past two and a half games. Most of them turned to other offenses to fill the void, but they would honestly have done just as well to keep Kupp's actual replacement, Josh Reynolds, in the lineup. Reynolds nearly doubled his season reception total by catching three passes against Green Bay, with two of them ending up in the end zone. While this is probably a wrap on Reynold's production this season, at least he's going out with a bang.
— John Elizondo (@johndelizondo) October 28, 2018
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: Your trivia answer for the week: Seth DeValve was the last player to score a touchdown in the Hue Jackson/Todd Haley era in Cleveland. It was DeValve's first touchdown of the year -- and his second and third catches of the season, as well. It's safe to say DeValve's value has been slightly depressed by the rise of David Njoku. Maybe a new offensive coordinator will get DeValve more involved in DeAction.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 28, 2018
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: Their offense may be historically terrible, but that overshadows the fact that the 2018 Buffalo Bills defense is a legitimately good unit. Ranked sixth in DVOA heading into Monday Night Football, the Bills held Tom Brady and company without a passing touchdown, and without a touchdown of any sort until James White's 1-yard plunge with just under 10 minutes remaining. That marked the first time Brady had failed to record a passing touchdown since Week 13 of last year ... also on the road against the Bills. Rookie Tremaine Edmunds, one of the youngest players in the league at just 20 years old, already looks like a potential star at linebacker. Last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Tre'Davious White has maintained his high level of play into this season. Veterans Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander continue to perform at a high level. If the Bills can just find something to work with on offense, even if it has to be the single wing or the wishbone, this defense could make them a very dangerous opponent in the winter months.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: Game-changing plays usually happen late in the fourth quarter, because with less time on the clock, the impact of any given play is magnified. This week, however, the most impactful play came in the second quarter of the Vikings-Saints game. The Vikings were driving past the two-minute warning and inside the red zone. They seemed a near-guarantee to at least tack on a field goal and enter halftime with a 16-10 lead. A touchdown would have made it a ten-point deficit at the half, and considering New Orleans hadn't been able to put much together after their opening drive, that might have been enough to clinch this one. But then, they threw a pass to Adam Thielen, who ran into Alex Anzalone ...
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 29, 2018
Adding insult to injury, the flag at the end of that clip was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Laquon Treadwell's tackle, which tacked an extra 15 yards onto Marshon Lattimore's 54-yard gain. Two plays later, the Saints were in the end zone with a lead they'd never relinquish -- at least a ten-point swing in what ended up as a ten-point game.
The loss means Minnesota is currently sitting in seventh place and out of the playoffs in the NFC, whereas a win would have put them atop the NFC North. The Bears sit there instead; they would have been sixth had the Vikings won -- and instead, the Seahawks have slipped into wild-card position as well. Minnesota has the sixth-toughest remaining schedule and are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. A win here would have been extraordinarily helpful, and it was within their grasp if Thielen could have held onto the ball.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: Back to my usual: favorite wins but fails to cover, as the Bengals built up a huge lead against the Buccaneers but still ended up winning by only three points after the return of Fitzmagic to our screens. Woe is me.
Speaking of woe, boy is this week's prime time slate disappointing. Sure, we get Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady on Sunday night, but Raiders-49ers on Thursday and Titans-Cowboys on Monday night aren't exactly the most enticing of the remaining games. Thursday Night Football is slightly interesting to me, because the Raiders are three-point underdogs and shedding talent, but are probably a little bit better than the 49ers as currently constructed. The 49ers are already well into their multi-year rebuild, whereas despite the personnel turnover the Raiders are still getting started on theirs. Neither of these teams has much of a pass rush, for wildly varying reasons, but I trust Derek Carr to take advantage of that substantially more than I trust C.J. Beathard -- or worse, whoever is the backup to Beathard, as Beathard is reportedly a game-time decision for Thursday Night. That might mean an actual start for ... *checks notes* Nick Mullens, or it might be Tom Savage. Yikes. Kyle Shanahan is clearly the better coach, but Jon Gruden probably still has the better roster. I genuinely give the Raiders a strong chance to not only cover, but win outright. Oakland (+3) at San Francisco.
Bryan: I am so, so tempted to take the 49ers just to counter your pick ... but I'll try to be smarter, instead. The Atlanta Falcons season has ... not exactly gone according to plan, and they're floundering. They've also struggled on the road in recent times, going 1-4 in their last five games away from their dome. They've also just added Brandon Fusco to their IR list, making it six Falcons out for the year with injuries. I'll take the surprisingly rejuvenated Adrian Peterson, a stout defense, and Washington (-1.5).
Double Survival League
Bryan: Huzzah! I've caught up to Andrew as we make the mid-season turn. Thank you very much to Jon Gruden, who has yet to have an impressive day in his return to Oakland, and to Hue Jackson, for driving the Browns straight into the ground. You have been very helpful.
Andrew does have one advantage going forward, however: the teams we have remaining. Andrew's 16 remaining teams have a combined record of 60-59-1, while my 16 teams are sitting at 57-63-1. It's not a huge gap, but it does exist. Yes, Andrew still has to find wins with the Falcons, Cowboys, Jaguars and Jets, but none of them are that terrible. Meanwhile, I've still got the Cardinals, Browns, and Raiders to try to deal with, and they're all just sort of playing out the stretch. I'm going to have to pick my spots quite carefully to keep pace with Andrew the rest of the way.
Andrew: After the expected 1-1 last week, this week brings a touch more optimism. As the touchdown line implies, Dallas should have enough about them, at home after a bye week, to take care of the struggling Tennessee Titans in Arlington on Monday Night Football. Carolina, fresh off a pair of wins against good teams in the Eagles and Ravens, gets Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers in Charlotte. Both teams ought to be better than their opponents, and both are at home, so I'm slightly more confident this week than I have been for the past two columns.
Bryan: I don't feel I have any choice here -- there are only 13 games on the schedule, and I've already picked the favorites in eight of them. Of the remaining picks, I want to save Kansas City, New England, and Miami for later, which leaves me with just two options. I'll double-up on my Lock by taking Washington to handle Atlanta, and then I'll cross my fingers and take Seattle, at home, against a tough Chargers team. The worst fears of the Schottenheimer offense have not come to pass, and the loss of Tom Cable has had great results along the offensive line. The Chargers are a tough out, but CenturyLink is a tough place to play. I'm moderately OK with these picks.
Yes, the halfway point also brings with us our first elimination scenarios of the 2018 season. As it stands right now, every team is still mathematically in the hunt for not only playoff berths, but every individual playoff seed. The road to Atlanta could still go through the Bay Area! Thursday night's death march between the 49ers and Raiders could have significant playoff implications! It's possible! Stranger things have happened!
... OK, stranger things have not happened, but still. The math exists, but teams are about to run out of time. While no team can be eliminated from playoff contention entirely after Week 9, we will begin to see teams penciled out of the picture, as the 49ers are the first team to see even the mathematical possibilities fade away. Such is the cost of A) playing in a division with the last undefeated team in the NFL and B) being really bad at football.
- San Francisco can be eliminated from the NFC West IF Oakland d. San Francisco AND L.A. Rams d. New Orleans
I think the 49ers will survive one more week here, but we're getting down to the wire ... at least for the league's terrible franchises.
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