Judgements Six: Where's the power in the NFC North now?
Now that Aaron Rodgers is out ... maybe for the season ... who's the team to beat in the NFC North? Answer: Nobody.
And here's why: No matter who emerges, that team doesn't make it past the first round of the playoffs.
It's not just that there's no Aaron Rodgers. There's no Sam Bradford. Teddy Bridgewater hasn't played or practiced since August, 2016. And Matt Stafford, the only division starter still standing six weeks into the season, not only is coming off one of the worst performances of his career but lost three of his last four starts.
So who emerges? Detroit is a popular choice, and the Lions may, in fact, win the division. But I don't trust them anymore, not after Sunday's blowout in New Orleans. Then there's Minnesota, and they're tied with Green Bay at the top right now. But tell me: Do you honestly believe the Vikings make a run with Case Keenum at quarterback? Me, neither. Finally, it's Chicago, and ... well, next, please.
Yeah, I know, Green Bay is still in first, tied with the Vikings, and I know the Packers survived the loss of Rodgers in 2013 ... or when he broke his collarbone and missed seven weeks (they were 2-4-1 without him). But one big difference: Rodgers hurt his left collarbone then. He hurt his right Sunday, leaving his right arm useless.
Plus, who's his backup? It's an untested third-year pro who, prior to Sunday had thrown 10 passes and who had a 126.3 passer rating this preseason. But that was preseason. Sunday was the real deal, and Brett Hundley's rating then? It was 39.6, with the rookie throwing an interception on his first pass and three before he was finished.
Ouch. Anyone have Brett Favre's number?
- Sorry, but I still don't see an Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fumble at the goal line. I see a touchdown. Again. Again. And again. Yeah, I know the rule. But I also know what I see. What I don't know is what referee Tony Corrente saw.
2. The catch rule = worst rule in sports.
3. People said the Jags were crazy to spend the fourth overall pick of the draft on a running back. They were wrong.
4. Best team in the AFC North: Chicago. The Bears are 2-0 vs. the division, with OT wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore. They haven't beaten anyone else.
5. From the Believe-It-or-Don't Dept: If the playoffs were to begin today, Philadelphia would be the No 1 seed in the NFC, and defending champion Atlanta ... nope, it wouldn't make it.
6. Rats. Was hoping Oakland might move its game vs. the Chargers to its home away from home -- San Diego.
7. Might be time to reassess Tampa Bay, especially with the Jameis Winston injury. The preseason favorite in the NFC South looks like anything but.
8. Anytime the 49ers are a three-point underdog, take 'em. They lost their last five by a total ... a total ... of 13 points, including two in OT, with none more than three.
9. Best move that the Giants' Ben McAdoo made all season: Firing himself as play caller.
10. Other than Bill O'Brien, nobody should be happier that Deshaun Watson is quarterbacking the Texans than Will Fuller. He has five touchdown catches, all from Watson. He had two last season.
11. Maybe it's time to respect Melvin Gordon as a receiver. He has four TD passes, or two more than he had his first two seasons and two more than Antonio Brown has this year.
12. Appropriate that San Francisco rookie C.J. Beathard becomes a starter vs. Washington -- the franchise that his grandfather, 2018 Hall-of-Fame candidate Bobby Beathard, built into a Super Bowl champion.
13. Finally, a decent half from Jay Cutler. But credit the Miami D ... and a stupid Grady Jarrett penalty ... with the win. The Dolphins defense produced the game-saving interception in Nervous Time and held Atlanta scoreless the second half. Plus, it did it in Atlanta, where the Falcons lost their last two.
14. Drew Brees wasn't sacked Sunday. So what? So he's been sacked only four times all year.
15. So Colin Kaepernick filed a collusion lawsuit vs. NFL owners. He may discover that proving it is tougher than finding his next employer.
NOTE THAT MIGHT INTEREST ONLY ME
Maybe I like this because two Harvard guys, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cameron Brate, hooked up for a touchdown Sunday. But there are two Ivy League teams that are undefeated, and one is Dartmouth. The Big Green (5-0) won or clinched its last four games in the last minute, including two on the last plays (Penn and Holy Cross), and Jack Heneghan take a bow. The quarterback and son of former league and NFL team executive Lal Heneghan has seven touchdown passes the past two weeks . But the other unbeaten? Columbia. Yes, Columbia. The Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1996 after knocking off defending league co-champ Penn in overtime, 34-31, to snap a 20-game losing streak to the Quakers. That's the good news. The bad? The climb to the top just got steeper. The Lions' next game is in Hanover, N.H., this Saturday vs. ... you guessed it ... Dartmouth.
SPECIAL TEAMS. They produced five touchdowns, including two by the Baltimore Ravens' return teams, in further proof that, yes, special teams do make a difference.
PITTSBURGH QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER. Congratulations, Big Ben. You just earned a week off from questions about retirement.
L.A. Rams win on the road, Chargers gain a game on everyone in the AFC West and Justin Turner's walk-off dinger puts the Dodgers up 2-0 in the NLCS.
GIANTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR STEVE SPAGNUOLO. Finally, his defense delivers. Not only does it protect a lead; it doubles its interception total (it had two where it had one before Sunday), returning one for a game-clinching touchdown, and bottles up Denver's running game. The Broncos had 46 yards total. Oh, yeah, it also made life miserable for Denver's Trevor Siemian, sacking him four times -- with three by Jason Pierre-Paul. In short, its best effort of the year.
ROAD DOGS. There were three double-digit road underdogs that covered Sunday, including two (the Giants and Miami) that won outright.
AGE IN ARIZONA. Adrian Peterson is 32, but he ran for more yards on the Cards' first drive (54) than any of their backs did in any game this year. He also produced his 50th 100-yard rushing performance. Carson Palmer is 37, but he missed only four of 22 passes and hit three TDs in his sharpest performance of the year. And Larry Fitzgerald is 34, but he caught a game-high 10 passes for 138 yards and a score. All together now: Old guys rule.
MIAMI RB JAY AJAYI. Before Sunday, he had 276 yards rushing and a 3.4 yards per carry for the season. Then he broke loose for 130 yards vs. Atlanta, averaging five per carry, and that's huge. Reason: The Dolphins are 6-0 when Ajayi rushes for 100 yards.
HOUSTON OFFENSE. It's scored 30 or more points in a franchise-record four straight games.
NEW ENGLAND TE ROB GRONKOWSKI. With 15 multiple-touchdown games he ties Randy Moss' franchise record.
NEW ENGLAND QB TOM BRADY. No quarterback has more regular-season wins (187) in his career.
DETROIT T GREG ROBINSON. Finally, mercifully, he's been benched. On behalf of Matt Stafford, thank you, Jim Caldwell.
RAVENS' RUN DEFENSE. It hit rock bottom vs. Chicago, shredded for a franchise-worst 231 yards, breaking the previous high of 227 by Dallas in 2012.
PITTSBURGH S MIKE MITCHELL. Alex Smith should be furious. Mitchell's late hit -- his late, LOW hit -- on Smith's leg is precisely the sort of shot the league is trying to eliminate. Reason: It's dirty, and it can blow out an ACL. Mitchell was penalized, but he should be suspended.
CLEVELAND COACH HUE JACKSON. He texted Houston's Deshaun Watson "to be ready" during this year's draft. Then Jackson and the Browns drafted Myles Garrett and traded the 12th choice to Houston, who, of course, took Watson. Big mistake. Just remember, Cleveland fans: Your Browns could've had Watson; they chose DeShone Kizer instead. Sashi Brown, report to the office.
NEW ENGLAND RB MIKE GILLISLEE. Once upon a time he was the Pats' short-yardage threat. Then, 34 snaps into Sunday's game, he fumbled and ... presto! just like that ... he disappeared.
ATLANTA QB MATT RYAN. He has six interceptions his last three games. He had seven all of last year when he was the league MVP. But help is on the way. Atlanta meets New England next weekend.
NBC HOST AL MICHAELS. I know he apologized, but he should know better than to float a Harvey Weinstein joke. Not funny, Al.
SUNDAY'S REPORT CARD
ARIZONA QB CARSON PALMER. Tell me the last time you heard of him completing his first 14 passes. Never happened ... until Sunday. Palmer seldom looked beter in a demolition of Tampa Bay.
HOUSTON QB DESHAUN WATSON. In five starts he has a league-leading 15 touchdown passes. Soooooo ....remind me again why he lasted until the 12th pick of the draft.
JACKSONVILLE RB LEONARD FOURNETTE. He becomes just the second rookie running back (New England's Robert Edwards, 1996, was the other) to score touchdowns in each of his first six games. Of course, that was before he hyperextended his right knee.
N.Y. GIANTS RB ORLEANS DARKWA. In four previous games he'd run for 122 yards. Then, against the best run defense in the NFL, he explodes for a career-best 117. Someone please explain.
NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE. OK, so it gave up 347 yards and three Matt Stafford touchdown passes. It also turned three Matt Stafford turnovers into touchdowns. I'll take that trade any afternoon.
N.Y. GIANTS QB ELI MANNING. So he threw for a season-low 128 yards. He didn't make critical mistakes, failing to throw an interception for only the second time this year, and he looked poised in the face of an impossible situation -- winning in Denver without his top three receivers, no running game and an offensive line that leaks like the S.S. Minnow.
KANSAS CITY QB ALEX SMITH. For five games we had Good Alex, with Smith the league's leading passer. But on Sunday it was Bad Alex, with the Chiefs producing 6 first-half yards and one first down en route to their first loss. No, he didn't throw interceptions or lose a fumble, but he didn't make anything happen, either. Granted, Smith pushed the Chiefs to the finish line, but it wasn't enough ... and somewhere the 1972 Miami Dolphins are popping champagne.
DENVER DEFENSE. It's been the backbone of the Broncos for the past two years, but on Sunday it couldn't solve an opponent that hasn't blocked, run, caught or won. And that happened at home.
BALTIMORE QB JOE FLACCO. He has interceptions in 11 of his last 12 games, including one Sunday that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Say it ain't so, Joe.
DETROIT QUARTERBACK MATT STAFFORD. I don't care that he cracked 300 yards for the first time this season nor that he threw for three touchdowns. He committed four turnovers, including three that became touchdowns, in one of the most forgettable performances of his career. Granted, the poor guy is treated like a piñata behind what passes for an offensive line, but giving away three touchdowns? That's a no can-do.
DENVER PK BRANDON McMANUS. Since signing a three-year, $11.25 million contract, he's missed as many field-goal attempts this season (five, including two Sunday) as he did all of 2016.
NEW ENGLAND PASS DEFENSE. There is none. Every quarterback the Patriots faced this year has shredded them for 300 or more yards, and their best player Sunday was referee Tony Corrente.
BEARS COVERAGE TEAMS. A kickoff is returned for a touchdown. A punt is returned for a game-tying touchdown. Don't blame the Bears' defense for this game going to OT. It had more touchdowns (1) than Baltimore's offense.
SUNDAY'S HALL OF FAMER
ARIZONA RB ADRIAN PETERSON. He wanted more touches in New Orleans, but he didn't get them. So the Saints ship him to Arizona, and what happens? Peterson cracks 100 yards for the first time since Dec. 27, 2015, and scores twice as the Cardinals ... at least on offense ... suddenly look like the Cardinals again. "This is the opportunity I've been waiting for," Peterson said.
SUNDAY'S HALL OF SHAMER
REFEREE TONY CORRENTE. He's the guy ... OK, maybe it was Alberto Riveron, the NFL's senior VP of officiating, it doesn't matter... who put the screws to the Jets with that hard-to-believe fumble call that cost them a touchdown. I didn't get it. The CBS crew doing the game didn't get it. Fox officiating guru Mike Pereira didn't get it. Bottom line: It made no sense. I don't care what Corrente said. I know what I saw.