Patrick Mahomes on the Rise, Tom Brady on the Skids
NFL Week 10 - Tom Brady isn't washed up. He isn't even really in a slump. He's just recharging his underdog narrative.
Brady threw two interceptions in the first quarter of what became a 29-19 upset of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by the Washington Football Team. He and his receivers were out of sync for the entire first half. Brady also threw a pair of interceptions, including a game-clinching fourth-quarter pick-six, in the Buccaneers' loss to the Trevor Siemian-led Saints two weeks ago. The Buccaneers are now 6-3 and look uncharacteristically vulnerable.
It's tempting to imagine/hope/guess that age is finally, finally, finally catching up to Brady. Well, fool me multiple times since roughly 2014 and it's shame on you, but fool me in mid-November of 2021? Shame on me! I am now 100% certain that Brady purposely schedules these periodic slumps so he can generate a self-motivating everyone counted me out narrative, or bathe in a fresh wellspring of adulation when he performs his umpteenth comeback, or just to fool the suckers. Well, consider this sucker un-suckered.
It's more accurate to say that the sugar rush the Buccaneers enjoyed for nearly a calendar year has finally worn off. Remember: they were 7-5 as of Week 12 last year. They skated into the playoffs by trouncing the Falcons and Lions, then drew 7-9 Washington in the opening round instead of having to travel to face the Rams or Saints. Washington was a springboard to the Super Bowl, where the Buccaneers thumped a Chiefs offensive line full of bartenders and longshoremen. Then they rewrote the macro-capenomics textbooks to keep the band together and started the 2021 season 6-1.
Age hasn't caught up to Brady, but injury luck and central tendency have caught up to the Buccaneers. Everything went just a little perfectly for a little too long. Their offense isn't the same without Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski; their defense isn't as dominant with a bunch of fill-ins at cornerback. Caroms aren't bouncing their way as often. Last year's penalty advantage (295 yards in the regular season, 76 in the postseason) has swung the other way (275 yards for opponents in 2021).
The most revealing moment of Sunday's upset wasn't either of Brady's interceptions. It was Washington's final 19-play, 80-yard, 10-minute and 26-second drive. Washington converted third-and-2, third-and-1, third-and-4, third-and-5, and finally fourth-and-goal for a touchdown. The Buccaneers defense couldn't keep a very ordinary offense behind the sticks or keep Adam Humphries and Terry McLauren from hauling in conversions. It doesn't matter how much magic Brady has left if he never even gets the ball. This is the solid-but-not-overwhelming Buccaneers defense we saw for much of last year, not the 1985 Bears 2.0 of last year's Super Bowl.
The rest of the Buccaneers schedule looks pretty smooth; they host the Giants next week, so this "slump" will soon end. But a team that just lost to Washington and the scuffling Saints cannot take anything for granted. Upcoming opponents such as the Colts and Panthers aren't total pushovers. Even the Falcons can put up a fight. Sometimes. There's probably another surprise loss or two in the Buccaneers' future.
Welcome back to mortality, Buccaneers. There are teams in Dallas, Green Bay, Los Angeles, and (when Kyler Murray returns) Arizona that would love to have a word with you come playoff time, preferably at their homes.
And if you do come back and win it all, don't claim Walkthrough "didn't believe in you" as part of your motivational routine, 'cuz we're not falling for that anymore.
Game Spotlight: Kansas City Chiefs 41, Las Vegas Raiders 14
What Happened: Balance has been restored to the cosmos, or at least to the AFC West. The Chiefs are back on top. The Raiders are working their way back down toward the bottom.
The Chiefs played their most complete game of the season. They rushed a little more thoughtfully (more delays/traps/pulling guards) and effectively than they did early in the year. Patrick Mahomes took a checkdown now and then in between the hero balls and left-handed entry passes. The Chiefs' fumble luck evened out a bit, thanks to DeSean Jackson's impersonation of a lawn sprinkler at the end of a long reception. Just as critically, the Chiefs run defense and pass rush built on their recent relative success against the Giants and Packers.
The Raiders hung in the game through the third quarter and were able to move the ball whenever the Chiefs pass rush took a series off. But the Raiders had no answers on defense and started waving the white flag after Jackson's izzy-dizzy fumble.
What it Means for the Chiefs: Their offense may not be "fixed," but it's at least operable again. Mahomes still overthrows wide-open receivers more often than we're used to and got away with at least two dropped interceptions on Sunday night. Also, the assertion that nothing was ever wrong (it was all just bad bounces and randomness) that was making the Sunday rounds was a little half-baked: what happened in the Titans game wasn't some fluctuation, and the Chiefs appear to have made concessions to offensive normalcy after their early-season slump. That said, the Chiefs are better off right now when they aren't trying to score two touchdowns per snap. They can navigate their way back toward the top of the playoff field by playing on both sides of the ball the way they did on Sunday night: slightly down-shifted on offense, fierce and active at the line of scrimmage to protect the slowpokes in the secondary on defense.
What it Means for the Raiders: They did a fine job staying in the Chiefs' blind spot for a while. Maxx Crosby looked like Bruce Smith for three quarters. And the Broncos/Chargers/Browns losses kept the Raiders from losing too much playoff ground. But there were lots of signs that the Raiders are coming unglued, from all of the offsides penalties to Derek Carr heaving the ball up for grabs multiple times late in the game. The Raiders would turn back into pumpkins about this time in a typical year. This has not been a typical year.
What's Next: The road to the AFC West title travels (metaphorically, at least) through Dallas. The Chiefs host the Cowboys before a bye. The Raiders host the Bengals before visiting the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Game Spotlight: New England Patriots 45, Cleveland Browns 7
What Happened: The Patriots outmuscled, outhustled, outcoached, and outclassed the Browns so thoroughly that they practically knocked them straight back into irrelevance.
This orgiastic spectacle of Patriots fan service is best summed up by contrasting a pair of early-game plays that helped tilt the game in New England's favor:
- On third-and-13 from the Browns 23-yard line in the first quarter, Mac Jones threw a screen to Brandon Bolden. The screen was executed and blocked perfectly, the Browns reacted as if Loki had just cast an illusion on them, and Bolden gained 20 yards to set up a Patriots touchdown.
- On third-and-8 from their own 35-yard line a few series later, Baker Mayfield threw a similar screen to D'Ernest Johnson. The execution was fair enough, and Johnson might have been able to weave for a first down, but the ball sputtered out of his hands and toward the Browns' end zone. Johnson pounced on the fumble for a 7-yard loss.
In other words, one team came to play assignment-smart, rugged football and the other came to commit unforced errors.
Also, Mayfield suffered a knee injury which casts the entire Browns future into doubt.
What it Means for the Patriots: There comes a time in every competitive AFC team's 2021 season when they have the chance to graduate from wild-card contender to Super Bowl contender. The Patriots graduated on Sunday.
That does not make them Super Bowl favorites by any stretch. But they are capable of beating quality opponents by creating turnovers on defense and avoiding them on offense, by winning line-of-scrimmage battles on both sides of the ball, and by out-game-planning and out-preparing the conference's less-experienced coaches. That puts them in the mix of teams that must be taken seriously.
What it Means for the Browns: To extend the graduation metaphor: the Browns were in the process of getting remediated even before the Mayfield injury. They allowed 98- and 92-yard drives. They got stuffed on a third-and-2 inside zone that the whole world (or at least, Walkthrough at our local tavern and Ja'Whaun Bentley at inside linebacker) saw coming the moment they lined up. Mayfield served up an interception that was nearly a pick-six and was looking for opportunities to throw some others. The Browns looked in every way like a team that wasn't ready for a bigger stage.
What's Next for the Patriots: They get to fatten up on the Falcons on Thursday night, then enjoy a mini-bye before they face the Titans and Bills in a truer test of their playoff mettle.
What's Next for the Browns: If Mayfield's injury isn't serious, they'll linger at the bottom of the playoff field for a while. If it's as bad as it looked, the Browns face a dilemma about his future and the overall direction of the franchise. Initial reports suggest the Mayfield will be fine, so the Browns may have dodged a bullet by leaping straight into the rush-hour freeway of overpaying a quarterback who, in his fourth season, appeared to have no chance of converting a third down in a game that mattered.
Oh, and the Browns face those pesky sister-kissin' Lions next week.
Those Who Fail to Learn the Lessons of History...
Walkthrough would like to take a moment to acknowledge the end of the Mike White Era in New York.
The glorious, unforgettable White Dynasty began on Halloween in a Jets upset of the Bengals that no one actually watched. Oh, Jets and Bengals fans watched it, of course, and the rest of the football world saw the highlights and skimmed the stat sheet. White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns! He also threw a pair of first-quarter interceptions, but we all know that nothing a quarterback does in the first quarter of a dramatic upset matters. White's two interceptions in garbage time against the Patriots in Week 7 also didn't count, because two interceptions at the end of a blowout is the traditional start to any Hall of Fame quarterback's journey.
The Age of White continued through the entire first quarter of the Jets' 45-20 Thursday night loss to the Colts in Week 9. White was knocked out of the game with a forearm injury, but the first quarter of TNF is when legends are made! (Read: the first quarter of TNF is when the entire NFL media is still awake and sober enough to thirst-post exaggerated opinions for engagement, so it's an ideal spawning ground for silly storylines.).
A golden age dawned after those magnificent (semi-competent, really) 75 minutes of football. The New York Post declared MetLife Stadium "White's House" on Sunday's back cover. Ian Rapoport Tweeted a diplomatically worded report suggesting that White could supplant Zach Wilson as the Jets starter, at least in the short term. It sure sounded like Robert Saleh was looking for an excuse to give Wilson the full Tua treatment. How could that possibly set the Jets franchise back another three years?
Alas, the White Epoch ended suddenly on Sunday, just 15 days after it began. White threw four interceptions in a 45-17 meltdown against the Bills. He has now thrown eight interceptions in 122 attempts. The Wilson Era is expected to restart as soon as Wilson is healthy.
The moral of the story is this: EVERYONE loves a Jets quarterback controversy. Jets fans love them because they are so traumatized that they cling to any semblance of hope. Non-Jets fans love them because they're reliably entertaining trainwrecks. The tabloids love them because they sell papers. The Jets themselves seem to relish them because the organization has run on bad ideas for about 50 years. But just because everyone wishes a zany controversy into existence doesn't mean that sane, rational people (like Walkthrough readers!) should get sucked into it.
Farewell, Mike White. We'll see you next year, when you are competing with Ian Book for the Saints' starting job.
Week 10 Awards
Time to hand out some hardware!
Offensive Line of the Week
Who else but the Patriots? Isaiah Wynn, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Trent Brown, finally together after a season of injuries and absences (and a 2020 of opt-outs and defections), helped Rhamondre Stevenson and others rush for 183 yards, opened up downfield lanes on what seemed like 20 productive screen passes, and once again kept Mac Jones comfy in the pocket for most of the game.
Defender of the Week
Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks sacked Justin Herbert for a 15-yard loss on the Chargers' opening possession. He then picked off a Herbert pass in the second quarter, setting up the first touchdown of the Vikings' 27-20 victory.
Davion Taylor and Darius Slay earn honorable mention: Taylor for stripping Melvin Gordon on fourth-and-1, Slay for scooping up the fumble, nearly fumbling it back, juking all over creation, and eventually sprinting 83 yards to give the Eagles complete control of what ended as a 30-13 victory over the Broncos.
Special Teamer of the Week
Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed of the Indianapolis Colts share this week's trophy: Franklin blocked a Logan Cooke punt, and Speed picked it up and stiff-armed his way past Cooke to an early touchdown that the Colts needed in their 23-17 win over the Jaguars.
In case you don't know Speed's backstory: his brother Rex Speed disappeared many years ago while shagging punts using an experimental punting machine. E.J. Speed has dedicated his career to Rex's legacy, though he often gets an assist from "Gunner X," whose identity and motivations remain an unsolvable mystery.
Big-time honorable mention goes to Dylan Cole of the Titans, who walloped Saints return man Deonte Harris and forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. The resulting touchdown gave the Titans a 20-6 lead.
Burn This Play!
The Saints attempted a flea-flicker late in the third quarter which may or may not have actually been planned. Trevor Siemian handed off to Mark Ingram straight up the gut. Ingram got stuffed and was in the process of being driven backwards for a loss when he turned and nope'd out of the play by pitching the ball back to Siemian. Siemian took the pitch, rolled to his right under a heavy rush, and just chucked the ball out of bounds.
If the play was unplanned, Ingram and Siemian get props for the improvisation. Sure, it could have ended in disaster, but they handled the situation with cool heads and turned about a 4-yard loss into an incompletion.
If the play was planned (as it almost certainly was): good heavens Sean Payton, is this what you have been reduced to? The old Drew Brees-to-Ingram-to-Brees-to-someone like Devery Henderson flea-flicker was a brilliant way to punish an overpursuing defense. Siemian-to-Ingram-to-Siemian-to-whoever the hell the Saints receivers are now is just sad. Sadder than the Taysom Wildcat, Coach. Sadder than the Taysom Wildcat.
Best Actor in His Own Highlight
Cam Newton, on Cam Newton's touchdown run.
CAM NEWTON IS BACK.
— NFL (@NFL) November 14, 2021
Walkthrough admits it: we sometimes find Cam a little annoying. But folks who really need to be annoyed find him much more annoying than we do, so we've learned to embrace our ambivalence.
Runner-up: Chargers running back Larry Rountree, with a shoutout to Twitter user Garnet West for adding a George Clinton soundtrack.
I think this sounds a little bit better 😎 pic.twitter.com/vve8hYJoue
— Garnet West (@Garnet478) November 14, 2021
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Prepare to be dazzled by the athleticism of Minkah Fitzpatrick as the last line of defense on Godwin Igwebuike's long touchdown run.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 14, 2021
Yes, it was rainy and slippery. But that's what I look like when I stumble over one of my dog's chew toys in the living room. Multiply Minkah's precision and intensity on that play by 22 players and 70 minutes and you get a pretty solid sense of how the Steelers ended up tying the Lions.
Honorable mention goes to the NFL cameraman who got too close to Kendrick Bourne's touchdown celebration:
— Overtime (@overtime) November 14, 2021
Kudos to Bourne and Hunter Henry for rushing to the cameraman's aid. That's what makes the Patriots eternal champions and fundamentally better human beings than anyone else on earth. Basic decency is The Patriots Way!
(Note: Basic decency is the antithesis of The Patriots Way. Bourne and Henry, relative newcomers, were chewed out on the sideline by Bill Belichick for not stomping on the cameraman's head in their effort to get to the sideline to study Polaroids of the Browns defense 0.5 seconds more quickly.)
Monday Night Action: Los Angeles Rams (-3.5) at San Francisco 49ers
The Rams are just 4-5 against the spread. They are coming off an upset. And they just replaced the utterly reliable and versatile Robert Woods (ACL tear) with the mercurial and new-to-the-playbook Odell Beckham. So it's easy to be skittish about them.
Beckham will be targeted for one (1) bomb and catch one (1) screen for about 6 yards. Otherwise, he'll run about 20 fly routes up one side of the field to keep safeties away from Cooper Kupp on the other side. The 49ers should keep things close if they don't suffer one of their fumble sprees, but the line isn't that big a factor. Walkthrough is keeping things simple for once: we're taking the Rams, laying the points, and hoping that the NFL has gotten all of the upsets out of its system for a while.
And Finally: Jon Gruden v. The NFL
News of Jon Gruden's lawsuit against the NFL—he's claiming that there was a "malicious and orchestrated campaign" against him that ended with his "forced" resignation—caused a Twitter tizzy on Friday afternoon.
Here is what the Twitter hivemind thinks will happen:
- Gruden's lawsuit will force the NFL into "discovery," which works exactly like Wonder Woman's lasso.
- We will get weeks of revelations from open-sourced league emails that Dan Snyder drinks the blood of orphans and such.
- A cosmic force of righteousness will hold a public trial in which the NFL is found guilty of crimes against decency.
- Gruden and Roger Goodell will wrestle atop a steep cliff, and both will plunge to their deaths with the hands around each other's necks.
- All of the NFL's and society's ethical problems will be forever solved by that notorious cudgel of justice: wrongful termination litigation.
Here is what will actually happen:
- The NFL will block like the 1992 Cowboys offensive line and milk the clock like they have a three-touchdown lead.
- Every preliminary hearing to determine where every actual hearing is to be held will be shunted into league-friendly courts. Every point of procedure will be challenged as if it were a threat to national security. The NFL knows more stall tactics than a fifth-grader who doesn't want to do their homework, and it will marshal all of them.
- While I am not a lawyer, I have dealt with "discovery" a few times in my professional lives: if it ever happens, it will likely be limited to potential evidence that the NFL leaked the Gruden emails on purpose or manipulated his firing (the points Gruden hopes to prove). It will not be "a judge ordered the release of Jerry Jones' emails on Pro Football Talk because he thinks it would be great reading." Seriously: some very smart folks were throwing "discovery" around on Friday the way anti-vaxxers throw around HIPAA.
- Jay and Deuce Gruden will find themselves without work in 2022. Yes, that's collusion. No, it won't be provable. Jon will also find himself without golf partners or drinking buddies.
- Months and months and months will quietly pass.
- Gruden and the NFL will settle on the Friday before a major spring or summer holiday for an amount roughly equivalent to the rest of his 2021 salary and some French fries.
- Folks will write haughty "Aha! This proves the NFL has something to hide!" columns after the settlement and then forget the whole thing ever happened two days later.
I'm certain that is how the Gruden lawsuit will play out because that's how broadly similar legal actions against the NFL have turned out. No nefarious paper trail will be uncovered, because none exists: most owners and top team brass are either too smart or suspicious to put anything in writing or too insulated to compose and send their own emails.
As to the merits of Gruden's allegations: they sound more like a smote rich man's pity party than a series of events that actually took place in the real world. (As Pro Football Talk pointed out, one of Gruden's key claims is both factually inaccurate and counterproductive to his own argument). They won't be that hard for the league's lawyers to deflect into oblivion.
I'm all for holding powerful folks accountable, but that's not what the Gruden case is about. It's not going to shed any real light on the already-settled Washington Football Team harassment case, which is where the leaked emails sprang from. It's not going to confirm anything about NFL owners or top-of-the-org-chart personalities that we don't already know or strongly suspect. Gruden will not successfully "take anyone down with him," and it's weird to think of anyone rooting for that. But NFL legal-blotter Twitter isn't driven by common sense: it's more of a mix of kids yelling "Fight! Fight! Fight!" in the middle school cafeteria and folks who never tire of writing "The NFL is Very Bad: My column." (For the record, I tired of that many years ago, but still write it now and then out of a sense of obligation.)
The Gruden saga is gonna stick around for a while. Feel free to take sides if you enjoy courtroom dramas or heel-vs.-heel wrasslin' beefs. Just don't expect any sort of satisfying conclusion. Gruden will remain meritoriously unemployable in his chosen professions. The NFL will continue to straddle the line between Lawful Neutral and Lawful Evil. And if you are reading this, it means that you are like me: unless an email emerges that says the NFL is conspiring to nuke a continent, we're probably still gonna keep buying their product.