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Sport: MMQB: How the Chiefs' Defense Helped Turn the Season Around; More From Week 11

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Patrick Mahomes hasn't been putting up the point totals we're accustomed too, but a healthier D has Kansas City back in first place.

I’m sure Andy Reid wouldn’t have minded seeing Sunday’s game look a little different than it did. Maybe in a perfect world, Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t have been taking big shot after big shot from Micah Parsons, the NFL’s newest freak-show defender. I’m sure he didn’t want four of his offense’s first eight possessions ending without a single first down. And the turnovers he, or any football coach, could do without.

But this is 2021, and Reid knows better than to be particular about winning right now.

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“The guys did what they needed to win the game,” Reid told me over the phone, early Sunday night. “And winning games in this league right now is a son-of-a-gun, right? The parity is crazy, and you’re seeing it, you have a birds-eye view of it. You’re looking at all these different games, and it’s a different animal. And the things that Roger Goodell and the owners wanted, they’ve got it right now.

“So from a coaching standpoint, you’ve got to be on your A game, and players have to stay on their A game, or you get picked off. That’s how it works.”

Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports (Jones); Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports (McCoy); Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports (Jones); Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports (McCoy); Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs entered the season as the league’s new big, bad wolf. Kansas City has its future Hall of Fame coach, and a 26-year-old franchise quarterback clearly tracking to join him in Canton someday. That quarterback’s got, perhaps, the NFL’s most feared receiver, its most feared tight end and a defense opposite him built to smother opponents after they fall hopelessly behind playing such a breakneck-paced offense.

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That blueprint hasn’t failed much of late. They rode it to the AFC title game in 2018, and the Super Bowl the last two years, winning it all in Feb. ’20, and they’d be on three straight conference titles now, were Dee Ford to have lined up onside in Jan. ’19.

And yet, there Reid was after a 19–9 win over the Cowboys at Arrowhead on Sunday knowing that this meat grinder of an NFL season—one that seems to chew up and spit out each team that emerges as “elite”—has left his team still looking for its stride. Which makes the Chiefs, well, just like everyone else.

As Reid said, when the Chiefs haven’t had their A game this fall, they have, indeed, gotten picked off. The Ravens and Chargers got them at the wire in September, and blowouts at the hands of the Bills and Titans made the problem look a little bigger than it actually is in October. Since, they’ve quietly rattled off a perfect November to head into their bye week at 7–4 and just game out of the conference’s top spot.

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But after what it took to get there, Reid’s not making any declarations about where the Chiefs go from here. Because doing that this year, in this version of the NFL, hasn’t really worked out for anyone.

Week 11 is almost complete and, as we said, the NFL’s a jumbled mess. Fifteen of the league’s 32 teams are between 4–6 and 6–4, and 25 of 32 are between 3–7 and 7–3—which, as Reid said, is just what the league and owners want. So in this week’s MMQB, we’re going to help you sort through it with a look at ….

• A very resilient Cardinals team sitting atop the league.

• Justin Herbert’s rebounding from a rough patch.

• How Nick Sirianni has the Eagles rallying back into the NFC race.

• Ron Rivera’s homecoming, Kirk Cousins’s comeback and Tyrod Taylor’s return.

And, of course, a whole lot more. But we’re starting in Kansas City, with a Chiefs team that’s still among the NFL’s most dangerous, even if it’s been harder than normal this year to turn its potential back into production.

Now, as to the Chiefs specifically, there is one thing that Reid will concede now that he might not have been willing to in July or August—this year’s version of the Kansas City juggernaut was always going to take time to come together.

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That obviously started with an offensive line that began the season with five new starters, four of whom hadn’t drawn a single paycheck from the team prior to March. The defensive line’s been working through names new and old (veteran newcomers Jarran Reed and Melvin Ingram played 72% and 66% of the snaps, respectively, against Dallas), and second-year players like Willie Gay, and L’Jarius Sneed are playing elevated roles in the back seven.

Throw in rookies like Nick Bolton on defense, and Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith on offense helping to fill important roles and, realistically, bumps should’ve been forecast.

“Yeah,” said Reid, “We anticipated that there’d be a little maturation period.”

So the line had its ups and downs. The offense lacked balance, especially when Clyde Edwards-Helaire got banged up, and Mahomes didn’t take easy completions enough, which only exacerbated the issues up front. And the defense’s centerpieces, Frank Clark and Chris Jones, got nicked up, missed time and weren’t themselves when they were out there, which exposed some of the inexperience on the back end.

Of course, that’s not to say anyone expected the mighty Chiefs would start 3–4. And when they did, no one expected the defense would be the one to dig Kansas City out of the hole.

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But the reality is that’s where the rebound started and it’s what’s sustained through the four-game winning streak. Third-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo stayed the course, knowing reinforcements were coming after allowing 27 or more in each of the Chiefs’ first seven games. The points against since: 17, 7, 14, 9.

“He’s just solid,” said Reid of his long-time staffmate. “He’s not going to waver because he’s got confidence in his scheme, and I think getting to know the players better helps any coach. So you have new guys in there, you find out strengths and weaknesses, and you play the strengths and you work on their weaknesses. But Spags is a seasoned veteran to say the least, and a guy that’s a potential future head coach again. That’s how I see him.

“So that’s the kind of confidence that I have in him.”

Reid’s confidence that Spagnuolo would figure it out showed again against Dallas—gone are the blown coverages and missed tackles of September and October, and they are out without having cost Kansas City any of its trademark aggressiveness.

And that showed against a Dallas team that, admittedly, arrived in Kansas City a little short-handed. Amari Cooper and Tyron Smith didn’t play. The Chiefs did shut down CeeDee Lamb (three catches, 14 yards) while he was out there, but that wasn’t for long—Lamb joined Cooper and Smith on the shelf after suffering a head injury just before halftime. And in part thanks to all that, the Chiefs were able to get on top of Dak Prescott and the Dallas run game.

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All that said, the Cowboys’ being held to 276 yards of offense, and out of the end zone completely, wasn’t all bad Dallas luck. There was also the havoc wreaked by Clark (one sack, three quarterback hits). And the absolute domination of Jones, who contributed to four sacks and proved that part of the problem the Chiefs’ defense was erasing was very simple: Kansas City just need its best players playing their best ball.

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“Chris hurt his wrist [earlier in the year], and that’s a tough thing for a defensive lineman; you gotta power through that,” Reid said. “And I think he feels better, number one, and then we’re still moving him around, inside outside. And then he’s got his supporting cast, so 55 [Clark] is back in there, we added 24 [Ingram] in there, 98 [Alex Okafor]—they’re all contributing. So it takes a little bit of the double-team off you.”

All of it led to a 3.5-sack outing for Jones, a number topping his season total coming into the Dallas game, and an effort that was punctuated, on his final sack, by an absolute road-grading of Cowboys all-planet guard Zack Martin.

And that, in the end, led to these results from the Dallas offense, on 12 possessions: punt, fumble, field goal, punt, punt, punt, interception, field goal, punt, field goal, punt, interception.

That, in turn, gave the offense time to get its footing.

As Reid was sorting through the difference between the team’s first seven games and its last four, one area that football coaches always bring up was raised: turnovers.

On defense, in black-and-white, the numbers are clearly there. The Chiefs had just four takeaways over the season’s first five weeks, and they have 11 in their last six games.

Conversely, offensively, there’s been less consistency. Kansas City had two more turnovers on Sunday—one a Mahomes pick that clanged off Travis Kelce’s hands and right to Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse, the other a strip-sack of Mahomes by Parsons—which makes seven multi-turnover games for the team.

“We need to still do better on that from an offensive standpoint,” Reid said. “And then I just think the guys’ getting to know each other a little bit better, that’s also a big thing.”

The hope is, offensively, that these are the final steps. That the turnover problem gets straightened out and that the offensive line comes together, and then the Chiefs get the benefit of playing at the their full powers on offense with a defense hardened by having had to carry the team on Sundays like this one.

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The offense flashed in Vegas last week, with a 41-point outburst, and you still see glimpses even on a 19-point afternoon. Tyreek Hill’s 33-yard end-around in the first quarter gave us all one. The way things opened up for Byron Pringle on a 37-yard bomb from Mahomes a little later, on the last play of the quarter, was another.

But that Pringle play set up a touchdown that made it 16–3 less than a minute into the second quarter—and the Chiefs only scored once again the rest of the way, and that was on a third-quarter field goal, which is another reason to believe they’ve got a long way to go. The good news is Mahomes knows it, and per Reid he’s attacking it.

“He’s staying so positive, he works so hard, so he’s relentless with all that stuff,” Reid said. “And he just keeps getting better with age, that’s what he does, and because of that work ethic.”

Because of all this, the temptation is there for everyone to look at the past and blindly guess that the Chiefs, having steadied their ship, will soon take another step, and the offense will accelerate in December and January like the defense did two years ago, and Kansas City will be a real problem on both sides of the ball as it was late in 2019.

And it’s possible that’ll happen. But Reid’s read the room in 2021 and, at this point, he knows well enough not to predict much in what’s become an awfully muddled year.

That’s why instead of drawing parallels, he’ll draw parameters.

“I’d just say that it’s the guys’ bearing down. coaches bearing down and kind of getting their own identity, becoming their own team,” Reid said. “I’m not worried about what happened in the past. We’re just doing the day-in and day-out work that it takes to win in this league. It’s tough, there’s no easy way. No matter what you did before, it’s what goes on every day. And you gotta bear down every day, and that’s what I’ve seen from our team.”

So for now, all he’s asking for is more of that.

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The Cardinals are going into their bye at 9–2, all alone atop the NFL.

Surprised, Kliff Kingsbury?

“Some of those guys that we signed, I thought people were sleeping on them. I thought they felt like they were past it or whatever—whether it’s A.J. Green, or J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson,” Kingsbury told me, leaving Seattle’s Lumen Field on Sunday night. “You heard people saying different things. But when I watched them in training camp, these guys can all really play at a high level. And so I thought we’d be much improved.

“But to be able to do that without some of our star players in November was …”

Pretty incredible, for sure. The Cardinals are 9–2 despite having played three games without their starting quarterback and No. 1 receiver, and another without their head coach. They’ve done it in what many regarded as the most difficult division in football, and they’ve done it in a place that hadn’t won much in a while—Sunday’s win assured the Cardinals their first winning season since 2015.

And the truth is, Sunday’s win over Seattle did a whole lot more than that, as the NFL’s best team goes into the bye. In fact, as I talked through it with Kingsbury after the Cardinals’ 23–13 win over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, there were really three big things for the team to take from its trip to the Pacific Northwest.

The first was the obvious, and that was how Colt McCoy was able to carry the team late, and in particular on the Cardinals’ most important possession. That one came with 7:05 left, and Seattle’s having just cut its deficit from 16–6 to 16–13 on a two-yard touchdown from DeeJay Dallas. The Seahawks’ playoff hopes, more or less, were on the line. And McCoy wound up burying them.

On a second-and-3, he took a zone-read keeper for six yards. On the next play, he hit Antoine Wesley for 12 yards to move the chains again. On third-and-7, three plays after that, he hit Zach Ertz for 20. The play after that he took a quarterback draw 11 yards to get the team to first-and-goal at the 8. And he even threw a would-be touchdown pass to Christian Kirk that was overturned, since Kirk wasn’t all the way in bounds.

The Cardinals scored anyway, on a one-yard James Conner plunge, and never had McCoy’s value been more clear. By the time the Seahawks got the ball back, there was just 2:20 on the clock and the hosts were down 10.

“He was tremendous,” Kingsbury said. “You gotta have a drive, don’t want to give the ball back to Russell [Wilson] in that situation, only up three. And he was tremendous, I thought all night. Commanded the offense, checked it down when it wasn’t there, extended plays scrambling, and just the leadership that he brings, week-in and week-out, even when he wasn’t starting. His preparation, the mentorship that he’s had for Kyler [Murray] is just, we got really lucky adding him to our roster.”

And in part because of McCoy, the Cardinals hope to get a better Murray back.

Arizona’s MVP candidate suffered his ankle injury on Oct. 28 and, Kingsbury affirmed, the team’s been able to play it conservatively with him because of its belief in McCoy. Now, coming out of this, the Cardinals are going to have gone 2–1 in Murray’s absence while giving him 38 days between starts.

“Just with where [Murray] was at, to see him tweak it and have some kind of setback just wasn’t the right play for us,” Kingsbury said. “And so to be able to have Colt come in as he did, you can’t ask for a better result. Hopefully he and D-Hop [DeAndre Hopkins] can get rejuvenated, rested up and be ready to go in two weeks.”

Kingsbury then added, “There was no doubt in our mind that [McCoy] would play at a high level. We played terrible last week, bad game plan, bad play calling and kind of tossed that one out the window. But he had a full week of practice as the guy, and was tremendous all week and then played at a high level today.”

Which brings us to the second thing the Cardinals can take from this one—a sign they can deal with adversity.

Arizona’s first loss of the season came on the night Murray was injured, a little less than a month ago, against the Packers, and that one couldn’t have been tighter. In fact, if Green had turned for the ball at the end of the game before Packers corner Rasul Douglas, there’s a good chance the Cardinals would’ve gotten out of that one with a win.

The team’s Week 10 loss that Kingsbury referenced was different. The Cardinals got run off their home field by the Panthers, 34–10. And while no coach would ask for that result, it did give Kingsbury a window into the psyche of his group.

“I just thought they put it behind them and practiced at a really high level,” he said. “Probably the best week of practice we had all year, starting on Wednesday. The week before, we gave them Victory Monday and Tuesday off. It kind of threw off the week. And we’ve been really good this week, we’ve had the total process, they embraced that, came back, went to work. And like I said, we had our best week of practice.”

And then there’s the third thing for the Cardinals to take away, which is another one you might not think of if you don’t know their history: This was another NFC West win. Arizona was 1–5 in the division in Kingsbury’s first year and 2-4 in the division last year.

Sunday’s win makes them 4–0 in 2021, with only home games against the Rams (Dec. 13) and Seahawks (Jan. 9) remaining.

“From where we came from, it felt like we couldn’t win one of these games, not one of them,” said Kingsbury. “Year 1, where I think we won one, maybe, to where it’s at now, that’s a big turnaround in a short time.”

And if you really look at it, it’s not just that’s it’s happened, it’s how.

That the Cardinals have withstood what they have—winning in Cleveland without Kingsbury, and in Seattle and San Francisco without Murray—adds plenty to the equation, and even some hope in what’s to come.

“No doubt, not to mention J.J. Watt, who was playing at a tremendous level to start the season for us. So to not have Hop or K1 play in the month of November, and have the best record in football going into your bye, you can’t ask for anything more,” Kingsbury said. “And that’s what we talked about in the beginning of the week, was we gotta respond from our game last week, how poorly we played, and this is what’s in front of us.

“Best record in football, and undefeated in the division, and our guys responded.”

Presumably, they’ll be in even better position to keep responding two weeks from now.

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The Chargers are, again, an interesting team. Just to start, I’m a little hesitant to put a ton of stock into this one, just because Pittsburgh was without its two best defensive players. That said, Justin Herbert broke out of what I’d call a lull—he threw for fewer than 225 yards in three of his previous four games, and the Chargers lost all three—with one of his best games as a pro, throwing for 382 yards and three scores on 30-of-41 passing, while running for another 90 on nine carries in a 41–37 win. Even better, he overcame what looked like a classic Chargerian collapse in the fourth quarter (a blocked punt, tipped-ball pick and turnover on downs turned a 34–20 lead into a 37–34 deficit in less than 2 minutes of game action) to make the biggest play of the season for the Chargers. And he made that play with savvy, rather than his overwhelming talents.

Here’s how Herbert explained the setup for his game-winning, 53-yard touchdown pass to rising star Mike Williams. “That’s one of those plays we ran a couple times in the game,” Herbert told reporters at his press conference. The corner ended up sitting on our ‘F,’ who ran that little option route. And we’d talked about it on the sideline after the first couple times we ran it. I told Mike just to be ready for it. And he did a great job running his route, and breaking the tackle and scoring.” Indeed, if you watch the play, you can see Steelers corner Cam Sutton close down on the Chargers’ ‘F’ on the play—Keenan Allen—which left Williams all alone down the left sideline. Herbert let it go right away, hit Williams in stride, and Williams broke the angle that safety Tre Norwood was trying to take to him. And really, that wound up being the ballgame. And a really nice way to win a game the Chargers very nearly let slip away.

The Ravens are 7–3, and that’s having withstood an avalanche of injuries. Like most of you, of course, I knew that when Baltimore found a way to outlast Chicago—the final was 16–13—they were doing it despite all that. But for one reason or another, seeing all of the names in one place crystallized it for me. And WBAL’s Pete Gilbert just so happened to put all the names together for us.

After the game, I texted that tweet over to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who simply responded, “Another miracle. Only God does things like that!” And this sure did feel like another miracle, because the circumstances surrounding Lamar Jackson’s absence made his more than just another name, and even more than it ordinarily would be as the team’s starting quarterback. Backup Tyler Huntley found out he’d be making his first NFL start on the bus from the team hotel to Soldier Field on Sunday morning, with a text from Jackson telling him to “go do your thing today.” On Friday, the Ravens were hopeful that an illness Jackson had come down with earlier in the week had passed. But it returned Saturday, causing Jackson issues on the flight to Chicago, and to miss team meetings that night. Jackson woke up feeling worse—even though, per Harbaugh, “There’s no influenza, there’s no COVID”—and the decision was made to go with the Ravens’ 2019 college free-agent signing.

Huntley had his ups and down, and going into Baltimore’s final possession he was 23-of-32 for 163 yards and a pick. From there, he helped draw a pass interference penalty, then hit on three consecutive throws to set up Devonta Freeman’s game-winning, three-yard touchdown run off left tackle. The biggest of the three was the final one, during which he was chased from the pocket by Robert Quinn, then hit by Cassius Marsh just before finding a wide-open Sammy Watkins downfield for 29 yards and a first-and-goal at the 3. And, again, it was made by a guy who didn’t expect to play a snap on Sunday even 24 hours before kickoff. The important thing, obviously, is that this one will go down as a win for the Ravens. And it’ll be remembered as an important one if Baltimore goes as far it believes it ought to in January.

The Eagles are creeping up on everyone. I’m not telling you they’re going to win the Super Bowl. I am telling you that I was wrong. A month ago, the Eagles—then holders of a 2–5 record, and three first-round picks in April 2022—looked to me to be in a full rebuild. Maybe they’d be a suitor for Deshaun Watson. Maybe they’d be thumbing through the quarterbacks in what’s expected to be a weak class of them in the draft. Either way, this sure had the markings of a rip-the-Band-Aid off year to a lot of us, and it’s a good thing for Philly that Nick Sirianni didn’t see it like that. Because after Sunday’s 40–29 beatdown of the Saints, the Eagles are on the doorstep of .500 at 5–6, with the arrow pointing up.

“I kind of have been prepared for this, with how we started in Indy,” said Sirianni, going back to his first year there, having arrived with Frank Reich as the Colts’ offensive coordinator in 2018. “I had a good blueprint from Frank on how you handle a tough start. And we gotta handle one game at a time, but we’re kind of getting ourselves back right now. … In this league you know that there’s going to be adversity. The best teams go 12–4. And so you know you’re going to have adversity in this league, which is a little different than, say, DeVonta [Smith] and Landon [Dickerson] had at Alabama, where they won every game.”

So from Reich, he took the lesson to double-down on the identity of the team and program. In Indy, that meant nailing down the core values Reich had established (togetherness, toughness and team), and so Sirianni went to do that with his own emphases (connectivity, competitiveness, accountability, football IQ and fundamentals) by being detailed in meetings and walkthroughs, and intense in practice. But Reich wasn’t the only coach whose influence has shown. He’s also taken from his college coach, Mount Union legend Larry Kehres, and his brother Jay, who won two state titles at their alma mater, Southwestern High, in Jamestown, N.Y. From the former, Sirianni told me, he took how to prioritize in building an offense: players, then formations, then plays. From the latter, he took scheme flexibility: Jay won one state title running a spread offense, another in a pro-style attack and then took a third style of offense after that to a sectional title, all based on the type of athletes he had. Along those lines, the Eagles’ offense has undergone some major tweaking over the first two months of the season, and Philly’s run more of its run game from the shotgun to maximize Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who we all figured would be playing out the string now, and has instead has made a push to be the guy long-term.

“When you put Jalen Hurts in the shotgun, he demands a lot of respect on that backside,” Sirianni said. “And what I was taught is front side wins games, back side wins championships. And Jalen Hurts can have a big effect on what happens to the back side. Cause if he pulls it, it’s dangerous.” Which has, without question, shown. The once-struggling run game has topped 200 yards three times in Philly’s last four games—not coincidentally accounting for the three wins through the current 3–1 run the Eagles are on. On Sunday, 94 of the yards came from Miles Sanders, 69 came from Hurts and 63 were from Jordan Howard. The final tally: 50 carries, 242 yards, and 37 minutes of possession.

Does Sirianni wish this all happened earlier? Sure he does. But he also knew it’d take time, and he says that while acknowledging that in a place like Philly, results are demanded, not asked for. “They want to see the final product right away,” Sirianni said. “And our job is just to grow every day, and get better every day, build a good foundation every day, so when you’re ready to make that jump, you got a strong foundation in it. So that’s been our message. And that’s really coming from this city, and that’s the Mamba Mentality, the Kobe Bryant mentality that I love to study so much. That was his philosophy. How do I get a little bit better each day?” It’s hard, of course, to say how far the Eagles are ready to take all that this year. But you can say for sure that they are, progressively, continuing to get better every day.

The Colts are for real, and Jonathan Taylor’s the favorite for Offensive Player of the Year. And I don’t want to pound my chest here—but I did tell you so. Back at the 2020 combine, I made the case, as a humble observer of Big Ten football, that it made no sense that Taylor wasn’t being looked at like Zeke Elliott or Saquon Barkley were coming out in 2016 and ‘18, respectively. I picked him to win this year’s rushing title in June. And I told you last month he’s who everyone wanted Barkley to be. Now, I’m no scout. But Taylor’s combination of testing numbers, outsized production at every level, performance in big games and high-end run instincts made me wonder back in 2020 why he wasn’t drafted earlier than he was, at 41st.

Twenty-seven games into his NFL career, there still isn’t a great answer on that (other than, maybe, his skills as a receiver coming out weren’t as refined as Elliott’s or Barkley’s), and Sunday was another shining example of why. GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich have built a big, physical offense, and Taylor’s the perfect focal point for it. What’s manifested from that is a run of eight straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and a rushing touchdown, making Taylor only the second back since 1950 to do that (LaDainian Tomlinson is the other one). And that run of dominance high-pointed in Orchard Park on Sunday, with Taylor’s scoring all five of the Colts’ touchdowns, and piling up 204 scrimmage yards on 35 touches right through the heart of the league’s No. 1 defense. As a result, Indy controlled play throughout a 41–15 win over the Bills, a win that put the Colts, once 1–4, over .500 for the first time this season, at 6–5. Taylor carried the Colts through that by running through two Bills defenders to get in the end zone on his first-quarter touchdown catch (one he caught off-balance, by the way). Taylor did it by dead-leg juking veteran safety Jordan Poyer on his way to a 40-yard run in the third quarter. He did it every which way. And he dominated, as he always has, which is why we shouldn’t be even remotely surprised to see this unfold.

The 49ers are coming. How can I tell? Because it sure looks to me like an identity’s forming, and that’s probably made most obvious with a simple look at the first possession of their last two games.

Week 10 vs. Rams: 18 plays, 93 yards, 11:03 elapsed, touchdown

Week 11 at Jaguars: 20 plays, 87 yards, 13:05 elapsed, field goal

It’s no surprise that, from there, the Niners wound up running the ball 44 times against the Rams and 42 times against the Jaguars. Or that receiver Deebo Samuel (five carries vs. the Rams, eight carries at the Jags) was creatively worked into that mix. In both situations, the Niners basically took the first quarter away from the opponent, and mixed creativity with brute force to pound them into submission. Working as the sidecar to that attack, Jimmy Garoppolo’s posted passer ratings topping 125 both weeks, and an unburdened defense has played fast and free. Which is to say I think the Niners have found their formula. And looking forward at their schedule, it’s not hard to figure how Kyle Shanahan’s crew could go from 5-5 to double-digit wins in a relative hurry.

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

Ron Rivera’s return to Carolina ended with another team creeping closer to Dallas in the NFC East. And Washington’s making that happen—while giving its coach a little closure on his time in Charlotte—was really about a couple of plays making all the difference in a 27–21 win. Both snaps, as fate would have it, came on fourth-and-3.

• The first came with 7:23 left, the ball at the Panthers’ 43 and Washington’s offense on the field. Taylor Heinicke took a shotgun snap, patted the ball and bailed out of the pocket to his left. Seeing it unfold, linebacker Jermaine Carter made a beeline to Heinicke. And as he grabbed the quarterback’s jersey, and just before he swung him to the ground, Heinicke somehow flung the ball, against his momentum, to tight end John Bates six yards downfield. “Because of his athleticism, he can extend a play, and when he extends a play, his teammates, they don’t stop playing because they know, as long as he’s moving, they have a chance,” Rivera told me, walking to the team bus. And six plays after Bates took advantage of such a chance, Joey Slye banged home a 36-yard field goal to give Washington a 24–21 lead.

• The second fourth-and-3 was on the ensuing possession. A holding call meant the Panthers started the series in first-and-20, but three straight completions got them back into fourth-and-short from their own 32 with 3:05 left. There, new/old Panther QB Cam Newton found Christian McCaffrey right at the sticks, but Washington safety Kam Curl met him there and stopped him cold just short of the line to gain. “The biggest thing we did was we played an in-and-out technique on him,” said Rivera, who, of course, knows McCaffrey well. “[Curl]was playing man coverage and pretty much knew he had some inside help. So he could overplay the outside, which he did, and I thought he did a nice job with it.”

From there, Washington kicked a field goal, got one more stop and dropped the Panthers to 5–6, while climbing to 4–6. And sure, there was some satisfaction for Rivera, who spent nine years leading Carolina, but also spent the last week trying to downplay the importance of his homecoming. With the game over, he could come clean on that. “It was great, it really was,” he said. “I did try to downplay it. I wanted the guys to stay focused, and I told them, Let me handle the interesting stuff, and you guys handle the important stuff. And they did. They worked and focused in on themselves getting ready to play football, they did the things they needed to and that was important. And that gave us a chance to win a football game.”

Along the way, Rivera did have a couple of moments, quietly taking in some of the applause and “really just appreciate the fact that they appreciated me.” But what he prioritized to his players remained the priority, and the best part for Rivera was leaving Charlotte with that job done. Remember, last year, Washington was 2–6,and wound up winning the NFC East. And while it might be tougher to pull that off this time around—WFT needed seven wins to take the division last year, and Dallas already has that many—the experience of last year hasn’t hurt in helping Rivera get his team past the Bucs and Panthers to, for now, turn 2–6 into 4–6. “We’ve been through this and we’ve been part of this,” he said. “And we understand what we can do. So as we talked about, I think the guys really started reflecting on last year, and how they have the ability to go out and play better than they have.” Which makes the last two weeks are, as Washington sees it, a start.

The Vikings’ upset of the Packers shouldn’t shock you—because it’s who they’ve been all year. Some of these games have gone Minnesota’s way (against the Lions, Panthers and Chargers), others haven’t (against the Bengals, Cardinals, Cowboys and Ravens). But it feels like no matter how good or bad the opponent, the Vikings are going to be on a high wire, and take the team they’re playing up there with him. “It’s a razor’s edge,” Kirk Cousins said, over the cell from the locker room. “It was a very close win today. Our losses have been close, our wins have been close. Aside from the Seahawks game, it feels like a lot of these games have come down to the final drive. So we knew we weren’t far away from losing, and we also know that when we win, that it wouldn’t take much for us to have a different feeling right now in the locker room.” This one, indeed, boiled down to three plays involving Cousins, with Aaron Rodgers’s fourth-quarter bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling sandwiched in between them.

1) Third-and-3, 2:24 left, game tied at 24, ball at the Packers’ 23. Cousins takes a shotgun snap, and in the face of free-rusher Darnell Savage Jr., blitzing from the secondary, throws a moonshot to the pylon, timed up to catch Justin Jefferson turning to his back shoulder. Call this one the trust fall of touchdown passes. “It was cover-zero, so the ball had to go,” Cousins said. “And I just felt like, one-on-one, Justin might be my best opportunity and especially from the time in my head to let the other routes develop, where the other routes may be, it didn’t give me that kind of time. So there’s a lot of trust, like you said, to make sure that Justin will make me right, or at least not allow it to be intercepted, and he certainly did a tremendous job adjusting back to the ball and then finishing the play in the end zone.”

2) First-and-5, 2:08 left, game tied at 31, ball at the Vikings’ 30. A snap from scrimmage after Rodgers and Valdes-Scantling connected for the 75-yard equalizer, and just two after his own go-ahead TD pass, Cousins fires the ball into traffic toward Jefferson, and Savage comes over the top to take the ball and, seemingly, the game. “I was just trying to give Justin an opportunity down the field. It was a one-on-one deal, and Savage made a nice play,” Cousins said. “I think, not so much the decision, as I wish maybe I had put the ball up on a higher trajectory and maybe a little deeper where it would’ve truly been more of a jump ball for Justin. I think he can make that play, but when it was more of a driven throw, maybe it didn’t give Justin the opportunity to get underneath it and go up and high-point it.” Fortunately for the Vikings, upon review, it was revealed Savage bobbled, and lost the ball as he went to the ground.

3) First-and-10, 1:33 left, game tied at 31, ball at the Packers’ 45. Cousins takes a shotgun snap, and with Kenny Clark collapsing the pocket in front of him, unleashes another timing-based, back-shoulder throw. This time, Green Bay corner Rasul Douglas recognizes it, but misses batting it away by a fingernail. Adam Thielen collects the ball and races to the Packers’ 19, comfortably inside Greg Joseph’s field-goal range. “That’s what I’m saying about how it’s a razor’s edge,” Thielen said. “And the difference between an incompletion and a gain that gets us down into field-goal range is an inch. And it’s felt that way every week—and some of them we won, some of them we’ve lost. But it’s great that this one went our way, and guys made plays and Adam did a tremendous job there staying in bounds and getting us down the field.”

From there, the Vikings grinded out a first down, and grinded down the clock, and Joseph banged home a 29-yarder as time expired to move the Vikings into the sixth spot in the NFC playoff picture at 5–5. And from here, Cousins knows the team will have to find a way to do better than just win some, and lose some, of these nail-biters. “There’s no secret formula,” he said. “You just gotta be strong in all three phases, and you gotta do all the things that it takes to win in this league. And you gotta do it week-in and week-out, and that also comes back to the way that you work all week long. So no, no formula.” But having guys like Jefferson and Thielen sure doesn’t hurt.

Tyrod Taylor deserves some credit. The Texans’ quarterback has had mostly godawful luck over the four years since he left Buffalo. He’s lost jobs in weird ways and has endured injuries, both conventional and not, along the way. So you had to feel good for Taylor as he and Houston snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday in Nashville, while delivering one of the season’s biggest upsets: a 22–13 shocker over the AFC’s best team on its home field. But maybe … we shouldn’t be that surprised? Taylor, after all, led the Bills to the playoffs in 2017. And I happened to look up his record since then as Houston worked to hold onto its fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. While he’s only gotten seven starts, in those seven starts, for the Browns, Chargers and Texans, he’s 4–2–1. When I mentioned it to Taylor after his game Sunday, he laughed. “That tie was with Cleveland,” he said. “I appreciate that. Obviously, putting the team in a position to win games is definitely something a quarterback gets judged on. So I take pride in that. And I just love the game. I love being around the guys.”

And you could see how that energized the Texans on Sunday, and how it showed up on both of Houston’s touchdowns—each scored on Taylor runs, one through the teeth of the Titans’ defense, the other on a sprint to the pylon. “The first touchdown run, in my mind, I think DBs typically go low when they get a chance to hit,” Taylor said. “So I was just kind of reading his body language and jumped, thought I could get over the top of him, ended up grabbing my leg, but I knew I was in the end zone already. And on the second one, that was the last thought in my mind, was to run. I honestly was trying to string the play along to throw it to [Brandin] Cooks, but then realized that the linebacker was coming in and was able to reach for the pylon.”

Maybe most importantly, he took care of the ball on both runs, and over the rest of what was a sloppy afternoon in Nashville, when the Titans didn’t (Ryan Tannehill’s four picks were basically the difference). And in the bigger picture, as he sees it, he helped give players who’ve kept their heads down and worked through all the losing a little positive affirmation. This is Year 1 for David Culley and Nick Caserio, and everyone there knows the rebuild’s going to take time. So considering how easily things could go the other way, beating a team like the Titans does mean something. “If anything, it just shows that we have the talent within this locker room to be able to do the things that we want to do,” Taylor said. “It’s just about us going out and executing each and every week, and being together in our approach. And I think that it just opens guys’ eyes up, like you said, the younger guys understanding how. The veterans, it’s a big win for all of us, but at the same time, we should expect it.” We’ll see how soon they can to the point where that’s justified. For now, though, Sunday was a pretty good step.

Mac Jones deserves credit, but you should really be paying attention to what the Patriots are doing on defense. And this is happening, by the way, with New England having traded the best defensive player it had over the last half decade, 2019 DPOY Stephon Gilmore, for a couple coolers of Gatorade in October. Here’s a look at the last month, since the Cowboys ran roughshod through the Patriots’ defense on Oct. 17.

Week 7 vs. Jets: 13 points, 299 yards allowed

Week 8 at Chargers: 24 points, 369 yards allowed

Week 9 at Panthers: 6 points, 240 yards allowed

Week 10 vs. Browns: 7 points, 217 yards allowed

Week 11 at Falcons, 0 points, 165 yards allowed

So over their last five games, they’ve allowed 10.0 points and 258.0 yards per game. Over the last three, they’ve yielded 4.3 points and 207.3 yards per game. How has it happened? It’s been adjusting to losing Gilmore, for sure, and getting the most out of big-ticket free-agent addition Matthew Judon. It’s also been getting contributions from rising young guys like J.C. Jackson, Ja’Whuan Bentley, Kyle Dugger and star rookie Christian Barmore. Plus mid-level veteran imports of the last couple offseasons like Adrian Phillips, Davon Godchaux and Jalen Mills. And then there are old standbys, like Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy (who left and came back) and Devin McCourty. The defense looks a lot, in fact, like the Patriots’ defense did early on in 2019. That group faded late, and looked old later that year, Tom Brady’s last in New England. We’ll see if this group can avoid a similar fate.

Want some quick-hitters from an unexpectedly exciting Sunday? You got it …

1) It’s not panic time for the Bills, but there are some things that need to be assessed—and I think the lack of balance on offense is at the top of the list. Bills backs logged just 11 carries on Sunday against the Colts. The five games previous to that: 17, 9, 15, 13, 17. The backs had well over 20 combined carries in every game from Week 2 to 4, when the team rolled to easy wins over the Dolphins, Washington and the Texans. Bottom line, no one feels the need to respect the Bills’ run game, which is why teams can pin their ears back and make Josh Allen to run around like it’s 2018 again.

2) The Seahawks don’t look close to regaining the form that got them to the playoffs eight of the last nine years, and badly need draft capital to rework the roster. And if it’s time for a reset, it’s fair to assume that Russell Wilson’s going to be eyeing the exits. And it’s also reasonable to think trading Wilson might be what the team needs to gather the resources necessary for an expedited rebuild.

3) The Dolphins are my never-say-never team. They were 10–6 last year. They started 1–7 this year. They’ve won three straight. Yes, two of those wins came against the Texans and Jets. But the next month of the schedule is manageable. And they have a young quarterback, in Tua Tagovailoa, with a lot to play for. They’re three games back of the Patriots in the AFC East, beat the Patriots on opening day, and get a rematch with them in Florida in Week 18.

4) I think the Jets are doing the right thing in slow-playing Zach Wilson’s return. He wasn’t progressing out there, and I think it’s smart to play it safe until he’s really put himself in position to take steps forward.

5) The Cowboys didn’t look like the same on offense without Amari Cooper out there, it got worse without CeeDee Lamb and Dallas might be without both (they’ll be missing at least Cooper) on Thanksgiving against the Raiders. Oh, and if Dallas loses again, then the Eagles would have a chance to pull within a game and a half in the NFC East next weekend.

6) The Bengals’ defense has quietly situated itself inside the top 10 in points allowed, a pretty remarkable feat for coordinator Lou Anarumo considering all the turnover in personnel the last two offseasons. That group bought Joe Burrow and the offense, coming out of the bye, plenty of time to find its stride—the Raiders didn’t even get in the end zone until the fourth quarter.

7) That said, Joe Mixon’s 20-yard touchdown run at the end of game, during which he glided through the Vegas defense, was a pretty decent illustration of how an offense that came under some fire last week wound up breaking the Raiders.

8) Cam Newton’s reintroduction to Charlotte (we have video in Best Of below) was one of the coolest moments of the season so far.

9) Terry McLaurin’s a bad man.

10) My only real takeaway from Browns-Lions? Cleveland really missed Nick Chubb (22 carries, 130 yards) and might’ve been in trouble without him.


1) I think the best prospect in college football might be a guy who won’t be draft eligible in April: Alabama true sophomore edge defender Will Anderson Jr. He’s 6' 4" and 243 pounds, with room to grow, was third in the SEC in sacks as a true freshman and has 12 sacks through eight games this year. All of it makes him a very good bet to go in the top five picks or so in 2023.

2) That said, saying that about Anderson is, indeed, commentary on the state of the 2022 draft class. I’ve heard from scouts who believe the Tide star sophomore is a superior player right now, today, than Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, the leader in the clubhouse to go No. 1 in April, but a prospect who isn’t perfect by any stretch (we detailed some of the issues in last week’s Six from Saturday). In fact, when I asked one veteran evaluator how high Anderson would go in this April’s draft, his answer was direct: “Likely No. 1 overall. The gap between he and Thibodeaux is wide at the D-end spot.” Add to that concerns on fellow top-of-the-food-chain prospects Evan Neal, Alabama’s left tackle, and Derek Stingley Jr., LSU’s shutdown corner, and this year is shaping up like 2013 did. Which is to say it’s probably going to be a tough year to draft a quarterback, and not a great year to have a top-10 pick.

3) On the bright side, another similarity to 2013 that’s come into focus this fall for the ‘22 draft is that depth on the offensive line is shaping up to be solid. Behind Neal, at tackle, Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning and Ohio State’s Nicholas Petit-Frere are jockeying for position (and Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann, an Austrian who started playing football as a receiver, is another intriguing name). NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu is another really good tackle, albeit one who’ll likely kick into guard in the pros. And Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum and Texas A&M G Kenyon Green give the group of interior linemen a couple of headliners.

4) If there’s one quarterback who could get a bounce from the success Mac Jones has had in New England, it sure looks Pitt’s Kenny Pickett would be the guy. He got an invite to the Senior Bowl last year (they even had a jersey printed up for him), and he’s improved this year and has the Panthers going to the ACC title game. Like Jones, there’s nothing overwhelming about him physically, but he’s a field general in the truest sense. And scouts are talking about Pickett like they did Jones. “Kenny’s seen so much,” said one AFC exec. “He’s doing NFL stuff, getting through progressions, and he’s able to speak the language better than the other guys.”

5) In 2019, you could legitimately ask how many NFL teams would trade their receiver rooms for LSU’s. The last two years, you could ask the same question about Alabama’s room. And this year, Ohio State’s that team. Consider this—there’d been five 1,000-yard seasons by OSU receivers prior to this year. Sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba is already there, and junior Garrett Wilson and senior Chris Olave are close. The latter two will be in the first-round conversation in April; and Smith-Njigba likely in 2023.

6) One player who caught my eye on Saturday night: Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, who can really run and hit, and has the kind of length NFL teams look for in the position in this era. He’s got a shot to be the second off-ball linebacker to go in April, behind Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, and looks a little like a poor man’s Darius Leonard.


Did he drive to the stadium like that? Get dressed in the parking lot? Did others come to the game with him? Are they dressed similarly? I have a lot of questions.

I’m honestly not totally sure what to take away from this one.

This explains why I liked the playoffs at 12 teams. I feel like it should be hard to get in.

The AFC is weird.

Heinicke may not be anybody’s long-term starter. But he’s making a lot of money with the way he’s playing. You can ask Josh McCown about the benefits he’s about to see.

This one did get to me.

This isn’t an NFL tweet, per se, but I’m all for making the #thiccsix a part of our vernacular.

I never noticed the resemblance before Trevor Siemian fielded this question. Now, I can’t look at the guy without thinking about it.

I like a mascot who wears his heart on his sleeve (wing?).

S/o to Kyle Dugger, Patriots Draft Class of 2020.

What an incredible story. Good for Brian Flores for amplifying it this way.

This is exactly right.

Micah Parsons is, indeed, special. He’s already got the Cowboys’ rookie sack record (nine) and he got it with seven games left.

My guy Charlie pointing out something that was … pretty weird in the late afternoon window.

Maybe we’ll see Watt again …

That’s Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler. Like Kevin, our prayers are with those affected and the first responders in Waukesha.

Danielle Parhizkaran/ TODAY Network © Provided by Sports Illustrated Danielle Parhizkaran/ TODAY Network


Every week, we talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Giants-Buccaneers, we caught up with New York’s big-money D-lineman, Leonard Williams.

MMQB: Was there any focus for you guys in resetting during your bye week?

LW: I think we wanted to just focus on getting our bodies back under us. We had that time off. At the beginning of the week, we took it slow, making sure guys’ bodies were coming back, hydrated and all that stuff. And then Thursday, we really got after it in pads, got to run around and hit a little bit. [Coach Joe Judge] really wanted to get the focus back and locked back into the season.

MMQB: Have you started to think at all, coming off the bye, about this being a 17-game season and how that’ll affect things?

LW: Yeah, for the average person, it’s kind of easy for them to say it’s just one game, or it’s one week. It doesn’t seem like much to the average person. But for us playing, especially around this time of year when it’s cold, and you got all the injuries you’ve had leading up, all your bumps and bruises leading up to this point, those hurt even worse in the cold. For us, that one game, it’s a lot more than you’d think. But we had a good bye week. It was good placement for us. We came back fresh and ready to go.

MMQB: How do you feel physically then, after getting the time off? Are you recharged?

LW: Yeah, for sure. This was actually the first year I decided to do something for the bye week. Me, A.J. [Austin Johnson] and Dexter [Lawrence], we went to Turks and Caicos, and we kind of just relaxed on the beach, got massages and took some time off, got away from football a little bit. I’m usually the type of person—I don’t want to get mentally out of the season or football, so I’d kinda hang around, I wouldn’t even go home or anything like. This was my first time doing something. I wish I had. Going forward, I know that I’m going to keep taking advantage of the bye week. Because after having that time from football, when I got back, it was like, Oh, I miss this. I was refreshed and ready to attack the rest of the season, having that time away.

MMQB: So that part of it’s mental recuperation, more than physical?

LW: Yeah, exactly.

MMQB: How long were you guys down there, and what did you do?

LW: We left Wednesday night, got back Sunday night. We really didn’t do much, because it’s the bye week, obviously. We didn’t want to put too much on our bodies, or be around too many people. We kind of had our own private villa, and we just had a private chef come every night. We had massages at the house every night. It was really just relaxing. We were just hanging out on the beach, hanging around.

MMQB: For you personally, statistically, it looks like you’re playing your best ball. Does it feel that way out there, and where are you better now?

LW: Yeah, last year and this year I feel like I’ve played really well. I don’t know what’s too different. Sometimes my D-line coach laughs about how much hate I got when I was with the Jets, because he said he watched my film when I was with them, and I was almost the same player. But the defense here does a good job of putting me in the right position. And I think also with the experience of being in the league now, I kind of know what’s coming my way a little bit more. I’m able to read the game, to see the game a little bit slower. There’s not as much angst as there was in my younger years, being nervous out there. Now, I feel more comfortable with who I am, what skill set I have, what I bring to table, and I can maximize that.

MMQB: You’re the rare guy who knows the difference between being a Jet and a Giant in New York. So what is the difference?

LW: I honestly appreciated my time with the Jets. They took their chance on me, drafted me. I think people always have some sentimental value towards the team that drafted them—they gave us our first chance in the league, what we wanted as a kid. But just being here with the Giants, it feels so professional. It feels like one of those blue-collar, hard-working type teams. And they also have a little more history of winning around here, so it just feels like a little more of a winning type of culture.

MMQB: Winning two of three before the bye, with a close loss to the Chiefs in there, did it feel like you guys were turning the corner?

LW: I do feel like we’re starting to turn the corner, I would say that. But I’d say even before the bye week hit, the Washington game we lost by a field goal, the Falcons we lost by a field goal, Kansas City we lost by a field goal. I think we’ve handled it by putting more emphasis on knowing that these games in this league—every team in the league has great players, great coaches, great schemes, all this other stuff—really come down to the last two minutes of the half and the last two minutes of the game. That’s when we have to play our best ball. We have to have a heightened awareness of that and play our best ball at that time. I think we’ve been playing good ball overall. The record doesn’t show it, and no one’s gonna make excuses for us having injuries and all that. But I think that’s been a part of it as well.

MMQB: You played four-plus years in the division against Tom Brady, plus last year. What’s the best advice you can give your teammates on playing him?

LW: The best advice I can give to my D-linemen up front is to not get frustrated in pass rush. He’s one of the guys who gets the ball out fastest in this league. Sometimes you can beat your guy completely clean, and the ball’s just coming out. Don’t get frustrated, keep rushing, get in the middle of the pocket on this guy. Even if you’re not getting a sack, the best way to disrupt Brady is getting bodies in front of him, not allowing for a step-up window and then getting your hands up when the ball’s coming out really fast. And then for my secondary, he’s one of the best in the league at reading defenses, so disguises go a long way and I think we’re going to do a good job of that this week.

MMQB: Do you relish the chance to play him, like a basketball player playing Michael Jordan?

LW: Yeah, someone asked me that earlier today, if I thought I was escaping Brady by coming to the Giants, and now I have to play him last year and this year. But I said not at all. We play this game because we’re competitors, and as competitors you want to go up against the best. I’m not gonna shy away from competition. I love playing against guys like this because they’re the best in the biz. And it shows you where you’re at when you play against teams like this. Like you said, I relish it. I’m excited to play against guys like this.

MMQB: Do the Bucs look the same as last year to you?

LW: Yeah, they have a very talented offense, they have a really good defense. That starts up front. They have a really good team. They’re coming off two losses, we’re definitely gonna get their best. But they’re gonna get our best too. We’re gonna have to prepare for that.

MMQB: You played with Eli for half a season, have you checked out the ManningCast yet?

LW: No, I haven’t. … I never got too close to Eli, I was only here half a season with him. But I know he’s a good guy, people love him around the building. He was actually my first career sack, so I’d thank him for that. But I’ll have to check it out.

MMQB: Is there anything special to you about playing on Monday night?

LW: You know you’re the one game on, you know [your peers are] watching you. There’s just something special about being a kid and wanting to play football and making it to the NFL. I’m in Year 7 now, still playing, four years past the average, and every time I hear the national anthem I get butterflies, and I hope I never lose that feeling while I’m playing. And it’s even more amplified on a night game, a Thursday or a Monday game, when you know everyone’s watching. It’s a really special feeling.


I watched the in-season edition of Hard Knocks, which is following the Colts on HBO Max. It’s worth checking out, even if I’m not telling you to rush to the TV to go see it.

A couple of interesting scenes from the first episode.

• Chris Ballard’s having a pretty frank discussion with running backs coach Scottie Montgomery on Taylor. “Jonathan is the best back in the league,” Ballard said to Montgomery. “I keep telling Frank, he’s in the top-five offensive weapons in the league.”

• And Reich’s taking note of Urban Meyer’s saying in a press conference the week of the Colts’ game with the Jaguars that his defense was leaning more and more on zone coverage over man. “That was an interesting comment,” Reich said in a coaches meting. “We have to run the ball on them.”

Anyway, like I said, the first episode was pretty good. Nothing groundbreaking, but worth checking out if you’re a football fan.

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