Judgements X: Why the biggest winner Sunday was a team that didn't play
Sunday’s biggest winner wasn’t Tennessee … or Pittsburgh … or Atlanta … though all were close. Nope, it was someone that didn’t even play.
Introducing the San Francisco 49ers.
They’re more than the only unbeaten team in the NFL. Now they’re the clear NFC favorite, two games up on the rest of the conference and three-and-a-half games ahead of the defending NFC-champion Los Angeles Rams.
Of course, all of that could change Monday when the 49ers play Seattle. The Seahawks are one-and-a-half games behind the 49ers within the NFC West, and a San Francisco victory would make the 49ers the overwhelming favorite to win their first division championship since 2012 – which, it so happens, is the last time they went to the Super Bowl.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there aren't potential potholes along the way. Because there are. Of the 49ers’ eight remaining games, including Monday, six are vs. winning teams and three are vs. division leaders (Green Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans). Worse, all three are in succession, including two (Baltimore and New Orleans) that are on the road.
But the 49ers are 5-0 away from home, have the league’s top-ranked defense, have a quarterback who can’t lose and just watched New Orleans and the Rams get waxed and Green Bay survive a last-second scare.
Bottom line: While the NFC playoff race may be wide open, it’s not wide open at the top. It’s the 49ers and everyone else … with New Orleans, once considered the best team in either conference, in pursuit.
At some point, the 49ers lose. And maybe it’s Monday. All I know is that Sunday was no day of rest for them. It was a day of celebration.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. It’s not too early to worry about the Rams. They don’t run. They struggle to score. Their quarterback isn’t playing up to his contract, and they haven’t scored an offensive TD in their last 19 possessions. Let me repeat: THEY HAVEN’T SCORED AN OFFENSIVE TD IN THEIR LAST 19 POSSESSIONS. Oh, yeah, one other thing: They’re 5-4 and fading. This after starting 3-0.
2. Kansas City should be more concerned about winning its division than reaching the Super Bowl. I know, Patrick Mahomes looks the same as always. And that’s good. But so does the Chiefs’ defense ... and that’s not. The Chiefs lost four of their last six and … this is not a misprint … are now just a half-game up on Oakland … the Raiders … in the AFC West. Now get this: The Raiders’ next three games are vs. Cincinnati, the Jets and the Chiefs. Kansas City’s next three are vs. the Chargers, the Raiders and New England. Fasten your seat belts. It could be a bumpy ride.
3. Beware the Pittsburgh Steelers for two reasons: 1) Defense and 2) the schedule. At 5-4, the Steelers are on a four-game run and credit the defense. In three of those four games, they held opponents to 17 or fewer points. Moreover, they just produced four takeaways vs. the Rams and have two or more in eight consecutive games – their longest streak since 1989. OK, so it’s not the Steel Curtain. But it is a Steal one. Now, to the schedule: Of Pittsburgh’s last seven opponents, only two (Buffalo and Baltimore) have winning records. Better yet, the next four (Cleveland twice, Cincinnati and Arizona) are a combined 9-27-1. I’m not saying the Steelers are going to the playoffs, but I am staying they’re not going in the jar. It's not a stretch to wake up in a month and find them 9-4.
4. Ryan Tannehill did more than win another game. He won a job. He’s 3-1 in four starts, with all three victories game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Never, however, did he look better than on that four-play, 61-yard series that capsized Kansas City in the last minute. And never did he look tougher than we he ran through a defender to score a critical two-point conversion. The Titans are his team now. Marcus Mariota, adios.
5. Adam Gase isn’t the only New York coach on the hot seat. Welcome, Pat Shurmur. The Giants are on a six-game losing streak, and Shurmur is 7-19 in his two years there. Worse, he’s 17-42 as a head coach. He says he’s not concerned about job security, but those numbers say he should be.
1. Maybe Baltimore’s John Harbaugh was on to something when he said the NFL hasn’t seen anything like the offense he was about to unleash. We knew Lamar Jackson could run. What we didn’t know was that he could pass. Well, now we do.
2. Big win for Minnesota. Bigger win for Kirk Cousins. He proved he could win a playoff-caliber game on the road. Prior to Sunday night, he was 0-10-1 as a Viking when trailing in the fourth quarter and 6-13 with Minnesota and Washington in prime-time road games. In short, he was a ready excuse for why the Vikings aren't legit playoff threats. But all that changed in Dallas, with Cousins calling it "a step in the right direction."
3. Someone please contact me when you locate Cooper Kupp. I couldn’t find him Sunday in Pittsburgh. Neither could Jared Goff.
4. Might as well add New England as another weekend winner: Kansas City (6-4) lost and so did Buffalo (6-3).
5. Let’s hear it for Progressive home insurance. They’re the outfit that has Baker Mayfield doing commercials that included the tag line, “It’s Your House. Protect It.” One problem: Baker Mayfield couldn’t … not until Sunday. The Browns lost their first three home games this season. :
6. I can’t remember a mid-season defensive deal that made as much of an impact as Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick. In his last three games with the Steelers, he has four interceptions and two returns for touchdowns—including one Sunday. After a 1-4 start, the Steelers are on a four-game tear, and connect the dots. I have. Which is why I make Fitzpatrick a Defensive Player-of-the-Year candidate.
7. Buffalo’s Josh Allen is right when he said, “I didn’t make enough big plays for our team.” Of course, that’s been a problem since he took over a year ago.
8. Matt Nagy is fortunate he didn’t have to face Matthew Stafford. There is no way the Bears win if he plays.
9. That’s six missed extra points this season for Adam Vinatieri, and with every Colts' game this season decided by one score that's more than noteworthy. It's the beginning of the end for one of the game’s greatest kickers.
10. Even when the Dolphins win, they lose. According to Tankathon.com, by beating Indianapolis, Miami now ranks fourth in the 2020 draft order. Worse, the Fins are now two games behind front-running Cincinnati.
11. Attention, Halas Hall: It’s OK to turn on the TVs.
12. Giants’ receiver Golden Tate implores fans to “be patient” and “trust the process.” To which I’d ask: Why?
13. Did the Jets’ Sam Darnold actually say, “We still have a chance at the playoffs?” He did. Somebody dial concussion protocol.
14. Too bad Carolina coach Ron Rivera paid more attention to analytics than common sense. Otherwise, he never would’ve gone for two when he down 24-16 early in the fourth quarter.
15. I don’t care that Tampa Bay ended a four-game losing streak or that Jameis Winson threw for 358 yards. The guy commits far too many turnovers for the Bucs to succeed.
16. I don’t know where the Packers would be without Aaron Rodgers. Then again, I don’t know where Aaron Rodgers would be without Aaron Jones.
17. Put out an APB on Chicago's Khalil Mack. The guy has one sack the past five games. He had four-and-a-half in the first four.
18. Sean McVay is such a genius he has punter Johnny Hekker play quarterback on fourth-and-1. Result: Interception. We don’t make ‘em up, people.
19. So now the NFC East is a dead heat, and here's why I don't trust Dallas: The Cowboys are 1-3 vs. opponents with winning records, and three of their next four games are against teams over .500. Then again, here's why I might: That one win? It was over Philadelphia and big ... 37-10.
20. Jalen Ramsey says “with all due respect” that the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster is not Antonio Brown. On behalf of Steelers' Nation let me just say ... thank God.
RAYMOND BERRY REVISITED
The Cowboys' Amari Cooper made two leaning, toe-tapping sideline receptions Sunday night -- including one for a touchdown -- that so dazzled spectators that one news outlet termed
them "circus catches" ... and that's accurate. But the circus has been to town before. No question, Cooper's receptions were marvelous and the product of one of the game's top receivers ... and to fans who weren't around 50 years ago something we haven't seen. Except we have. It was Raymond Berry, deja vu. The former Baltimore Colts' star and Hall-of-Fame receiver made a career of receptions like that ... so much so that when a Hall-of-Fame selector several years ago described one of that year's finalists as "the best sideline receiver I ever saw," two of us immediately said, "Have you seen Raymond Berry?" Well, you did. Sunday night. All that was missing was Johnny U.
MY TOP FIVE
1. SAN FRANCISCO …Jimmy G's 16-2 as a starter, baby.
2. NEW ENGLAND … Doomsayers called it: Second straight week without Pats’ win.
3. BALTIMORE … Ravens rolling. Post restraining order vs. Peter Angelos.
4. NEW ORLEANS … Offensive line with more leaks than Big Easy dikes.
5. SEATTLE … Trying to catch up to MLS champion Sounders.
MY BOTTOM FIVE
32. AL RIVERON … It’s time the NFL paid the ransom and take back the game from officials.
31. CINCINNATI … Mike Brown petitions league for London move; thanks Dean Spanos for getting out of the way.
30. WASHINGTON … Trent Williams shut down for season; team follows.
29. N.Y. GIANTS … Trump says governor and NYC mayor forced his move from New York. He can add these guys.
28. MIAMI … Two problems: Tua Tagovailoa isn’t coming to town but Donald Trump is.
STAT THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME
That was the first time in the Drew Brees era that the Saints scored fewer than 10 points at home. It also ended a streak of 110 straight home games where the Saints scored 10 or more points, and, yep, that’s startling. Worse, it happened vs. Atlanta which, as a 13-1/2- point underdog, pulled off the year’s biggest upset.
ONE THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
Only three teams have leads in every game this season: San Francisco (8-0), Kansas City (6-4) and Detroit (3-5-1).
AND ONE THAT MAY INTEREST BOTH OF US
One half of the NFL -- or 16 teams -- have started more than one quarterback this season. Backups are 22-20, with New Orleans' Teddy Bridgewater the most successful. He was 5-0 before yielding to starter Drew Brees.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET WINNER
BALTIMORE QB LAMAR JACKSON. He was the fifth quarterback chosen in the 2018 draft, and he may be the best. All he did Sunday was miss on only two of 17 passes, throw for three touchdowns and run for 65 yards – most of it coming on a career-best 47-yard TD run that coach John Harbaugh people will be watching for years. Oh, and did I mention he produced a perfect (158.3) passer rating? It was the second time he’s done that this season, making Jackson the second player in NFL history (Ben Roethlisberger was the first) to have multiple perfect ratings in the same year. Ozzie Newsome, take a bow. He’s the guy who had the foresight … and maybe the courage … to see Jackson as a difference maker at quarterback.
GOLD JACKET QUOTE
“That’s not us. We’re better than that.” – New Orleans QB Drew Brees.
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