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Can The Georgia Bulldogs Finally Win The Big Game?

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At the highest levels of college football, only the slimmest of margins separate the best teams. That’s never been more clear than in the tiny space between Alabama and Georgia.

Entering the 2019 season, Alabama had the highest-rated roster in the country, at 99.3 percent in Bill Connelly’s weighted four-year recruiting rankings.1 Georgia, meanwhile, was almost exactly tied for first, also with a rating of 99.3, behind by mere hundredths of a percentage point. This is only one way of measuring a football team, of course, but it speaks to how close coach Kirby Smart’s program was to the top — and if not for a few close calls in the biggest games, it could have gotten there.

The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since 1980, though they have won double-digit games in a season 13 times this century. That history makes them one of the SEC’s top programs. It may also be their ceiling until they take their offense to the next level.

Last year, the Bulldogs’ defense was their best yet — over the course of the season, they led the nation in win probability added (+0.13) and finished third in expected points added. But the Georgia offense ranked just 121st in win probability added and 42nd in expected points added, inching dangerously into the extreme quadrant populated by teams with stingy defenses and mediocre offenses.

Georgia’s offense will be under the microscope this weekend in a rare regular-season showdown against Alabama, the dynasty that crushed the Bulldogs’ title dreams in 2017 (on an overtime heave from then-freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) and in 2018 (on a stunning effort by backup quarterback Jalen Hurts in the SEC championship game). The teams haven’t played in the regular season since 2015 and won’t meet again until at least 2026, so this matchup represents a valuable opportunity.

The Bulldogs have championship components. They stocked their roster with players from recruiting classes ranked No. 1 (2020 and 2018), No. 2 (2019) or No. 3 (2017). They were No. 2 in the nation in yards allowed per play last season. From 2016 (Smart’s first season) through 2019, they ranked fourth in yards after contact per rush, with running backs like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as 22nd in drop rate and 25th in average yards after the catch. All of the pieces were there but one: an elite quarterback.

It’s not that previous Bulldog quarterbacks haven’t shown promise. From 2017 to 2019, Jake Fromm threw 78 passes for touchdowns against 18 interceptions. But he never quite reached the level of Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa or even Ohio State’s Justin Fields, a Georgia transfer — the top three quarterbacks by total QBR in 2019.transferred to Washington after losing the starting job to Fromm.

“>2 That last piece of a championship-level team has always been close and yet also elusive.

The answer appeared to arrive last offseason in the form of a Wake Forest transfer named Jamie Newman, who inspired hope about what he could do on an elite team. But Newman opted out of the 2020 season because of concerns about COVID-19, and the other options have been uninspiring. Promising recruit D’Wan Mathis started 8-for-17 for 55 yards and an interception. Southern California transfer JT Daniels suffered an injury in camp and has not thrown a pass yet. By halftime of the season opener, Georgia had moved on to a former walk-on named Stetson Bennett (who, while not the answer the team had in mind entering the season, is third in the country in total QBR at 93.1 after three games).

Last offseason, Georgia made one more critical move, hiring offensive coordinator Todd Monken from the NFL. During his three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Monken headed up offenses that led the league in air yards per attempt by more than a full yard. In that sense, he was the perfect candidate to speed up Georgia’s plodding offense, and Smart seemed to know it. “People can say, well, ‘Coach Smart wants to play man ball,’” the coach said after last year’s loss in the SEC championship game, apparently aware of the perception of his offense.

Georgia ranked 102nd in the country in passing routes run and 113th in first-down pass rate (32.9 percent) during the first four seasons of Smart’s tenure, indicating Georgia wasn’t taking advantage of the arsenal it had assembled at the skill positions. Even their best team, the 2017 national runner-up, called pass plays on only 34.9 percent of snaps, the lowest rate of any of the 24 playoff teams to date. Has Georgia changed enough? Saturday may provide an answer.

Smart seemed to sum up football’s offensive transformation when he said last year, “I don’t know that the adage ‘defense wins championships’ stands as much as it used to. When you saw scores from the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and you saw scores of games, it was indicative of defense, compared to now. Now, it’s like, I got to play pretty good defense and I got to score a lot of points.”

Smart’s first four teams played that old-school style of football and won a lot of games. Their next task is to win the biggest ones.

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Do You Buy That … Republicans Should Be Worried About The Early Voting Turnout So Far?

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Takeaways: An U-G-L-Y showing for the Patriots

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Week 6 in the NFL saw a wild division win in overtime for the Titans on Sunday, a Colts comeback victory after a 21-point deficit, the Giants entering the win column on a final-minute defensive stop of a 2-point conversion and the Steelers staying undefeated by handling the Browns in a 31-point rout. Meanwhile, the Patriots fell below .500 and the Falcons dropped 40 points on Minnesota for their first win of the year.

In the afternoon slate, Miami shut out the Jets, while Tom Brady and the Bucs bested Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

All that and more in Week 6‘s biggest takeaways from NFL Nation.

Jump to a matchup:
BAL-PHI | CLE-PIT | HOU-TEN
ATL-MIN | CHI-CAR | DEN-NE
CIN-IND | DET-JAX | WSH-NYG
NYJ-MIA | GB-TB | LAR-SF

Standout performer for LAR-SF: Jimmy Garoppolo, 268 passing yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT

The 49ers aren’t going away just yet. After a blowout loss last week against the Dolphins, the Niners vowed that they wouldn’t let their season snowball out of control. An impressive showing Sunday night against the 4-1 Rams validated that work. “When you get embarrassed like that, you can find out a lot about your team,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I was very impressed with the character of our team.” With the most difficult schedule in the league coming up, it was imperative for the Niners to get back to the things that they have done well over the past year-plus. And while they still have a big mountain to climb to get back in the NFC West race, they don’t intend to give up the crown without a fight. — Nick Wagoner

Next game: at Patriots (4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday)

The Rams made a sweep of the NFC East appear easy. But on Sunday, the 49ers served a cold reminder about the difficulty of the NFC West in the Rams’ first division game of the season. The Rams fall to 4-2 but remain in second place in the division behind the Seahawks. The Rams have two games and a bye week to address issues exposed by the 49ers before they resume division play in Week 10 against Seattle. — Lindsey Thiry

Next game: vs. Bears (8:15 p.m. ET, Monday)


Standout performer for BAL-PHI: Lamar Jackson, 186 passing yards, 108 rushing yards rushing, 2 total TDs

The Ravens are 5-1 for the first time since their 2012 Super Bowl season, but they have plenty to fix during their bye week. Baltimore’s sloppiness on offense (a season-worst 12 penalties) and struggles to stop big plays on defense (28 points allowed in the second half) nearly cost the Ravens against a one-win Eagles team. “Games can’t be that close if we want to be great,” Baltimore safety DeShon Elliott said. The Ravens know they have to play more disciplined when they face the undefeated Steelers after the bye. — Jamison Hensley

Next game: vs. Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Nov. 1)

The Eagles need to give quarterback Jalen Hurts a bigger role. Philadelphia generated 109 yards on six plays out of two-quarterback looks (18.0 average) as compared to 255 yards on the other 58 snaps (4.4 average). The idea Carson Wentz should be benched in favor of Hurts should be put on ice for now. The Eagles are committed to Wentz financially, and he nearly rallied the team back from a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter. What Wentz needs are some playmakers who will loosen defenses up and make life easier while he operates behind an unrecognizable offensive line with a makeshift supporting cast. Hurts, at the very least, offers that. — Tim McManus

Next game: vs. Giants (8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday)


Standout performer for CLE-PIT: Bud Dupree, 2 sacks, 4 tackles, 2 tackles for loss

A week after struggling to get a stop on third down, the Steelers allowed the Browns to convert one of 12 attempts. The Steelers wasted little time emphasizing third-down defense, as safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted quarterback Baker Mayfield on third-and-3 during the Browns’ first drive and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown. “It sent a message to them that third down wasn’t going to be easy sledding today,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said afterward. And it wasn’t. No part of the game was easy for the Browns, as the Steelers’ defense dominated with four sacks and two interceptions. — Brooke Pryor

Next game: at Titans (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

Mayfield had a nightmare performance. He took several shots to his injured ribs and failed to generate anything against the blitz or on third down. Ailing, he was eventually replaced late in the third quarter by Case Keenum. There’s no QB controversy in Cleveland, but for the Browns to finally end the league’s longest playoff drought, they need Mayfield to get healthy and play better. A lot better. — Jake Trotter

Next game: at Bengals (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for HOU-TEN: Derrick Henry, 212 rushing yards, 2 TDs

The explosive plays finally surfaced in the running game. Derrick Henry’s 94-yard touchdown run was the primary example, but he also broke off a 34-yard run, and Jeremy McNichols had a 20-yard run. Before this week, the longest run for the Titans was 16 yards. Now that the rushing attack is rolling, the Titans will be a tough team to stop. Tennessee rolled up 601 yards of total offense — its most in franchise history — and scored 30 or more points for the fourth consecutive week. — Turron Davenport

Next game: vs. Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

The Texans fell to 1-5, but for the second consecutive week, quarterback Deshaun Watson had an impressive performance. He now has six games with at least four passing touchdowns since his rookie year in 2017. Only Patrick Mahomes (9) and Russell Wilson (8) have more such games during that span. There are a lot of reasons for concerns about this team going forward, but Watson showed once again why his teammates feel they’re rarely out of a game if he’s under center. — Sarah Barshop

Next game: vs. Packers (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

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1:02

Ryan Tannehill finds A.J. Brown in the end zone with four seconds left to force OT, and Derrick Henry follows up with a game-winning, 5-yard touchdown.

Standout performer for ATL-MIN: Julio Jones, 137 receiving yards, 2 TDs

The firing of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff initiated an organizational overhaul focused on the long-term future. But Sunday’s victory — albeit over the 1-5 Vikings — suggested the Falcons might still be competitive in 2020. We knew the Falcons’ offense could score, especially after the return of wide receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons’ defense was strong in the debut of interim coach Raheem Morris, and its three first-half interceptions of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins set the tone for the entire game. — Kevin Seifert

Next game: vs. Lions (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

The Vikings are the NFL’s biggest version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A week ago, they took undefeated Seattle down to the wire in a one-point loss. Then they turn around and allow a terrible Atlanta team to build a 23-point lead and get its first win of the season. “It’s just strange,” coach Mike Zimmer said of how poorly his team played. The Vikings’ season is all but lost, and they’ll have to focus on where they go from here after a 1-5 start that brings into question more than a handful of moves they made in the offseason (extensions for Zimmer, GM Rick Spielman, Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook) and whether those are coming back to haunt them. — Courtney Cronin

Next game: at Packers (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 1)


Standout performer for CHI-CAR: Roquan Smith, 12 tackles

The Bears need to be taken seriously. Without question, Chicago has flaws — plenty of them — and the overall offense is not good enough. But what cannot be disputed is the club’s record after six games. The Bears are 5-1 for the first time since former head coach Lovie Smith’s final season in 2012. Entering this year, there were 102 teams that started 5-1 since the NFL went to 12 playoff teams in 1990 and 85 went on to make the playoffs (83.3%), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 teams for 2020. Add it all up and the Bears are in prime position to challenge for their second playoff bid in three years under coach Matt Nagy. — Jeff Dickerson

Next game: at Rams (8:15 p.m. ET, Oct. 26)

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sacked four times and had to scramble a season-high eight times for 48 yards against the league’s No. 1 red zone defense. Perhaps that pressure is why, with a chance to pull even in the closing minutes, Bridgewater missed a wide-open DJ Moore at the Chicago 20-yard line with nobody between him and the goal line. Carolina (2-2) needs to fix its pass protection to remain a factor in the NFC playoff race. — David Newton

Next game: at Saints (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for DEN-NE: Brandon McManus, 6-for-6 FGs

After a 17-day layoff, the Broncos forced three turnovers, got four sacks and saw a 100-yard rushing day from Phillip Lindsay in their win over the Patriots. It was their first three-turnover game of the season on defense and Lindsay’s first 100-yard effort after he missed three games because of a toe injury. Coach Vic Fangio has taken more chances in the pass rush with Von Miller and Jurrell Casey out for the season, including more five- and six-man pressures, and it paid dividends in wins over the Jets and Patriots. — Jeff Legwold

Next game: vs. Chiefs (4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday)

The Patriots hardly practiced over the past two weeks, and it showed in Sunday’s loss to the visiting Broncos. This was U-G-L-Y, one of their worst home offensive performances of Bill Belichick’s 21-year coaching tenure. Maybe injuries and having five players placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list caught up to them. But after watching how the Titans handled a similar situation last week and still trounced the Bills, it wasn’t a stretch to expect more from New England. One thing that stood out: the Broncos devoting extra resources to take away the running game and forcing Cam Newton and the Patriots to win through the air. — Mike Reiss

Next game: vs. 49ers (4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for CIN-IND: Philip Rivers, 371 passing yards, 3 TDs

The Colts head into their bye with a 4-2 record by beating teams with a combined record of 12-22-1 and coming from 21 points down to trip the Bengals in Week 6. But the schedule will get tougher for the Colts, who play six of their final 10 games against teams with winning records, including four teams that went into Sunday undefeated. — Mike Wells

Next game: at Lions (1 p.m. ET, Nov. 1)

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0:19

Philip Rivers’ pass is on the money to Zach Pascal, who makes a sensational catch for a 17-yard touchdown.

Under coach Zac Taylor, the Bengals are 1-11-1 in one-score games, which is easily the worst record in the NFL during that span. The lone win was a Week 4 victory against the Jaguars earlier this season, in which a late Jacksonville field goal cut Cincinnati’s winning margin to 33-25. Sunday’s loss to the Colts was perhaps the most troubling of the one-score lapses. The Bengals led 21-0 early in the second quarter and were on the verge of picking up Taylor’s first win in Cincinnati against a team with a winning record. If Cincinnati wants to get out of this rebuilding phase, it must find ways to win close games. “Everybody could have done one more thing to help us get this win,” Taylor said. “That’s all of us. That’s the coaches and the players. Everyone has gotta be accountable to that.” — Ben Baby

Next game: vs. Browns (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for DET-JAX: D’Andre Swift, 116 receiving yards, 2 TDs

The Lions badly needed a win in Jacksonville and to find something with their defense. By bringing more pressure than they had in any of the first four games, they made Gardner Minshew uncomfortable with four quarterback hits and enough chaos to force him into mistakes. It’s just one game against one of the worst rosters in the NFL, but it’s something Detroit can build on after holding Jacksonville to 2.4 yards per carry and Minshew to 56.8% completions. — Michael Rothstein

Next game: at Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

The Jaguars are bad — bad enough they are legitimately in contention for the first overall draft pick next spring. Sunday’s loss to the Lions was their fifth in a row, and they have given up 30 or more points in each of those defeats. They’re also the first team in NFL history to lose three consecutive games to winless teams (excluding season openers). — Mike DiRocco

Next game: at Chargers (4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for WSH-NYG: Tae Crowder, 43-yard fumble return for game-winning TD, 10 tackles

Joe Judge got his first head-coaching win, and the Giants can now say they are one win behind the NFC East leader heading into Monday night, no matter how gargantuan their struggles have been. This win was desperately needed. Several Giants players said last week it was time to produce. Enough talking about making progress. The win also allows Judge some validation to his program. It would have been difficult to continue asking so much of his players without a victory. Now, they finally have one. — Jordan Raanan

Next game: at Eagles (8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday)

Washington needs to do more than show resolve in games. It has to quit allowing big plays on defense. It has to limit turnovers on offense, which now have cost them two games. Quarterback Kyle Allen showed a lot of good and bad against the Giants, but Washington has now lost five consecutive games. At 1-5, Washington needs to start winning. It was in position to do so, but costly mistakes haunt this franchise, and that’ll be the story until the team stops making them. — John Keim

Next game: vs. Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)


Standout performer for NYJ-MIA: Emmanuel Ogbah, two sacks (including a 28-yarder), six pressures

The Dolphins’ rebuild under coach Brian Flores is finally bearing some early fruit. Miami’s turnaround is flourishing, while Adam Gase — the coach the Dolphins fired and the Jets immediately hired — is watching his team crumble and his job security loosen more every week. The Dolphins (3-3) won back-to-back games by double digits for the first time since 2015, and even without playing their best football, they beat down their wounded division rival. That’s what good teams do, and for the first time in the Flores era, it’s time to start asking: Are the Dolphins … good? — Cameron Wolfe

Next game: vs. Rams (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 1)

After another sorry performance, the kind that gets coaches fired, the Jets stand alone as the NFL’s only winless team. They got help from the Giants and Falcons, both of whom picked up victories. This means the Jets control their own destiny for the No. 1 pick in the draft — the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Current New York quarterback Sam Darnold, who has missed two games with a sprained shoulder, will get the second half of the season to right himself and perhaps enhance his trade value. — Rich Cimini

Next game: vs. Bills (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

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0:50

Ryan Fitzpatrick throws for 191 yards and three touchdowns as the Dolphins shut out the Jets 24-0.

Standout performer for GB-TB: Ronald Jones II, 113 rushing yards, 2 TDs

It took six games, but the Bucs put forth their best outing of the season against arguably one of the best teams in the league. Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes, running back Ronald Jones II rushed for two more and tight end Rob Gronkowski finally found the end zone. The defense also did its job, intercepting Aaron Rodgers twice — including a pick-six from Jamel Dean — and getting five sacks to give the Bucs their first signature win in 2020. “As a team, I don’t think we had any penalties, I don’t think we had any sacks [given up], and if we don’t have any turnovers, we’re gonna be hard to beat,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We kind of set a new standard for ourselves in that regard against a quality opponent.” — Jenna Laine

Next game: at Raiders (8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday)

All the momentum the Packers had before their bye week and on the way to a 4-0 start disappeared — and it started in the days before Sunday’s loss at Tampa Bay. It began in practice. Both Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur said the week of preparation was not what it had been the first month. “You practice like crap, you go out and play like crap,” said LaFleur, who took his share of the blame too, saying the Packers got outcoached. The Pack haven’t lost much under LaFleur (five times in 23 games, including the postseason), but four of the five have been by at least 15 points. Rodgers said he thinks the team “needed kind of a kick in the ass a little bit, as a little bit of a wake-up to stop feeling ourselves so much and get back to the things that got us to this position.” — Rob Demovsky

Next game: at Texans (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

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Barnwell’s NFL hot seat ratings: Who could get fired (or benched), plus fixes for each

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The NFL can be a fickle league. Nobody roots for coaches to get fired or players to be benched, but those consequences are a fact of the football universe. We saw Texans coach/general manager Bill O’Brien get fired after Week 4 and Falcons coach Dan Quinn follow him out the door the following week. They’re not the only ones who have come up for discussion; search for any player or coach’s name on social media after a bad game or even a bad moment and you’ll read about how they need to be benched, fired or excommunicated in order for their team to finally get things right.

Of course, most of the time, we’re overreacting. Every week, there’s at least one player or coach who is brought up as a possible candidate to be dumped but has no chance of being let go anytime soon. We also use the word “benched” as a one-size catch-all when it just doesn’t apply. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled against the Steelers and was replaced by Case Keenum in the fourth quarter of a blowout, but he was pulled from the game because he has a rib issue and was taking hits in a lost cause, not because of his performance.

Let’s work through the various coaches, players and executives who have been on the hot seat over the past few weeks. What’s going on with them? Is there any chance that their team is about to make a move? And since we don’t want people to lose their job, what can they do to get back on track? I’ll start with the hottest seats and work my way down to the folks who don’t really have anything to worry about:

Jump to a guy on the hot seat:
Kirk Cousins | Sam Darnold | Kenyan Drake
Clyde Edwards-Helaire | Nick Foles | Adam Gase
Dave Gettleman | A.J. Green | Baker Mayfield
Matt Patricia | Carson Wentz | Mike Zimmer

Seats are aflame

Adam Gase, coach, and Gregg Williams, DC, New York Jets

The entire Gase era in New York has felt like a game of “Can you top this?” for weird, oft-unforced errors. The latest came this week, when Williams blamed some of the defense’s struggles on the offense. Gase responded after Sunday’s 24-0 loss to the Dolphins by suggesting that he wasn’t happy about his defensive coordinator’s comments.

Now, most defensive coordinators wouldn’t typically throw their offense under the bus for their defense’s problems, but after watching Sunday’s game, the former Saints defensive coordinator might have a point. Williams’ defense allowed three touchdown passes to Ryan Fitzpatrick early in the game, but the Jets intercepted Fitzpatrick twice, held the Dolphins to a lone third-down conversion and won the turnover battle. They still lost by 24 points.

Gase’s offense has been comically bad, but even the numbers undersell just how poorly the Jets have played. They have scored seven touchdowns in six games, which is bad, but take a closer look. One of those touchdowns was a pick-six. Two were scores in the final two minutes of the game when they were trailing by multiple touchdowns. One was a 46-yard Sam Darnold scramble for a touchdown on a play when none of his receivers were open. Another was a 69-yard Jamison Crowder touchdown on a third-and-7 screen where the Bills missed two tackles. Plenty of teams score touchdowns on scrambles and in garbage time, of course, but the Jets virtually only score those sorts of touchdowns.

ESPN Daily podcast: Barnwell breaks down Week 6 in the NFL.

At 0-6, the Jets are now the only winless team. Over the next three weeks, they will play the Bills, Chiefs and Patriots before their Week 10 bye. The ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Jets a 51.2% chance of hitting their bye at 0-9. They have a 57.4% chance of finishing with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which would theoretically give them the right to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. (I say theoretical because they were once burned by a quarterback unexpectedly staying in college for one final season the last time they had the first overall pick.)

Even among 0-6 teams, the Jets are particularly awful. They’ve been outscored by 110 points, the ninth-worst mark for any 0-6 team since the merger. After the game, veteran back Frank Gore was fuming that the team didn’t get its offense going until the fourth quarter and that it can’t afford to wait until the final quarter again next week. The second-saddest thing about that phrase is that Gore was highlighting a quarter where the Jets were shut out as the offense they need to embody in the weeks to come. The saddest thing is that Gore was right, as they looked much better in the fourth quarter than they did at any point earlier in the game.

If they did want a glimmer of hope Sunday, they could have looked toward the opposite sideline, as the 2019 Dolphins were one of the eight teams with a worse point differential after starting 0-6. Brian Flores’ team started 0-7 and then won five of its last nine games. After blowing out the 49ers and Jets in consecutive weeks, the Dolphins are now 3-3. They’ve gone from embarrassingly bad to average in a year.

Of course, the Dolphins got there by amassing draft picks, committing to their rebuild and keeping the faith with Flores. The Jets appear set to the keep the faith with Gase, but I wonder if it’s for another reason …

The fix: In most cases, I want to try to come up with a scenario where a player or coach could turn things around. Here, though, I think the Jets might be smarter than they seem. The best thing for their future is to finish with the worst possible record and draft Lawrence. With that in mind, the best thing for the organization might be to keep Gase around through the end of the season, given that the overmatched coach hasn’t come close to winning a football game this season. It would take an unlikely 6-1 or 7-0 run after the bye for Gase to keep his job for a third season, but his best chance to make it through the year might be to keep losing and make the job so toxic that nobody else would want it, even on an interim basis.

Very hot seats

Zimmer’s Vikings have a win, but at 1-5, it came over a fellow 1-5 team in the Texans. Zimmer, 64, has built the Vikings into an excellent defense since he became the coach in 2014, but with the team rebuilding its secondary and starting the season without star pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, they can’t seem to stop anybody on that side of the ball in 2020. They are allowing opposing teams to score 2.85 points per drive, which ties them with the Cowboys for the second-worst defense in football.

Sunday added to their totals, with the previously winless Falcons dropping 40 points at home in Raheem Morris’ debut as Atlanta’s interim coach. Matt Ryan threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns, with Julio Jones running through arm tackles and past stalled defenders for 137 yards and two scores. In key situation after key situation, Ryan had no trouble finding an open receiver for a big gain.

On Atlanta’s first touchdown of the game, the Falcons faced a third-and-11 at the edge of the red zone. Ryan had as many as four viable receivers open for a catch, and despite the fact that he drew the attention of two defenders in quarters coverage and had one of them commit (uncalled) illegal contact, Jones managed to easily shake the defense for a 20-yard score. This just can’t happen.

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0:18

Matt Ryan throws it to an open Julio Jones, who easily gets across the goal line for a touchdown.

The Falcons were able to get mismatches throughout the game. Jones converted a third down against cornerback Harrison Hand, who was playing his seventh defensive snap as a pro. Ryan found Brian Hill out of the backfield for a big game when he was matched up against defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on a sim pressure. The Vikings struggled with picks and communication, leading to Hayden Hurst going totally uncovered on a fourth-and-1 leak concept for a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Oddly, one thing Zimmer has been criticized for is the least of his issues. The former Bill Parcells disciple took flak for going for it on fourth-and-short twice over the past two weeks, and I have no issue with either call. The decision to go for it last week on fourth-and-1 to try to seal the game against the Seahawks was an easy call, especially given how effective Minnesota had been on the ground.

The Vikings then failed on fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter while trailing 10-0 Sunday when Mike Boone was stuffed on a direct snap from the 1-yard line. Again, I don’t have a problem with it. The Falcons’ defense has been awful, and Minnesota was already trailing by 10 points. It was going to need points to win the game. You can take issue with the decision to use Boone on a direct snap as opposed to a different playcall, but that would be on Gary Kubiak, not Zimmer.

While the raw numbers dislike the Vikings, advanced metrics are a little more generous. They ranked 15th in defensive DVOA heading into Sunday’s loss, and while they’ll drop after the Falcons lit them up, this defense is closer to league average than it is to awful. Minnesota has played one of the toughest slates of opposing offenses in the league, including the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks and Titans. Seven of the 11 defenders who started in the wild-card win over the Saints in January weren’t in the lineup Sunday. I don’t think Zimmer has done all that bad of a job given the circumstances.

The fix: The problem for Zimmer is that it’s easier to fire him than it is to fire the other people who show up later on in this list. Assuming that the Vikings don’t make a move during their bye week, things get a little easier after they play the Packers in Week 8. The next five games include the Lions, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars. If Zimmer can turn things around over that stretch, the team should move forward with him.

If he gets embarrassed by the Packers and loses a couple more divisional games, though, a 1-8 start could lead to change. Firing a coach one year removed from a playoff victory seems harsh, but both Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier were fired in the year after playoff appearances, including an NFC title game for Childress.


Let’s get to a player and talk about one of the league’s most exciting backs from 2019. Drake came into the season as a borderline first-round pick in fantasy football as the focus of a potentially dominant Cardinals offense. In advance of Monday night’s game with the Cowboys, Drake has instead been … ordinary. His 85 carries have produced 314 yards and just two touchdowns, but most notably, he has caught just six passes for 22 yards. He has barely been a part of the passing attack.

In addition to the missing receptions, Drake hasn’t been hitting any big plays. The former Dolphins back hasn’t run for more than 16 yards once all season after hitting an 80-yard touchdown against the Seahawks a year ago. Big plays can just be random and require reps. Derrick Henry didn’t have a play longer than 16 yards before Sunday and then rolled off a 94-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Texans and a 53-yard catch-and-run in overtime. Drake hasn’t looked great, but one big play breaking his way probably would change our perception.

In the process, it has been his backup who has been more impressive. Chase Edmonds‘ 19 carries have produced 95 yards and a touchdown. More significantly, Edmonds has basically absorbed all of the receiving work out of the backfield, as the third-year man has caught 18 passes for 129 yards and two more touchdowns. Edmonds has run 71 routes to Drake’s 81, but the two were at an even 15-15 split during last week’s win over the Jets.

Drake fantasy drafters — as well as the man himself — have a few reasons to be optimistic. The Cardinals have actually been slightly better when their offense has had him on the field, with the Cards averaging 0.12 EPA per play with him on the field and Edmonds sidelined and 0.11 EPA per play in the opposite scenario. Drake’s role also really hasn’t declined, as he has played between 65% and 71% of the offensive snaps in each of the first five games.

What is concerning, though, is that Edmonds’ role is growing. Edmonds jumped from playing one-third of the snaps over the first three weeks of the year to 37% in Week 4 and 45% against the Jets. It would be one thing if the Cardinals had been in a situation in which they were trailing and wanted to throw Edmonds the ball, but they were leading from start to finish against Gase & Co. They were more willing to use Drake and Edmonds on the field at the same time, and when they do, the Cardinals seem happy to throw the ball to Edmonds. Drake is a free agent after the season, so the Cardinals would not be upset if Edmonds broke out, given that the 2018 fourth-rounder is on his rookie contract through the end of 2021.

The fix: Drake needs to produce a couple of big plays, either as a runner or receiver. His schedule over the next two weeks is friendly, as he gets a Cowboys team that hasn’t been able to do much at all on defense and then a possible shootout with the Seahawks. Kliff Kingsbury can help by dialing up some screens or designed passes to get Drake more involved in the passing game.


Let’s go with the first running back taken in this draft class. Edwards-Helaire isn’t in danger of being cut or removed from the roster, but his current role in the offense is clearly under threat after the Chiefs added Le’Veon Bell last week. The LSU product hadn’t been an every-down player over the first month of the season, and the Chiefs dropped his snaps down to 60% during the Week 5 loss to the Raiders. Darrel Williams, who hasn’t been effective this season, assumed a larger role and was rotating with Edwards-Helaire throughout the second half.

As great as Edwards-Helaire looked during that Week 1 win over the Texans, he just hasn’t been an effective runner over the ensuing four games. The first-rounder has carried the ball 56 times for just 206 yards and eight first downs. The only back with at least 40 carries over that time frame who has run for first downs less frequently is Melvin Gordon. Edwards-Helaire also doesn’t have a run of more than 17 yards since the opener.

If you don’t break big plays or move the chains, the one thing you need to do is score touchdowns, and Edwards-Helaire hasn’t even been doing that. Every back with more than five carries inside the 1-yard line this season has scored at least one touchdown on those carries, with those regulars combining to score on just under 38% of their carries with five yards to go. The only exception to the bunch is Edwards-Helaire, who has failed to score on seven carries inside the 5-yard line, including six in the opening game against the Texans alone.

If you want to blame a struggling Chiefs offensive line for Edwards-Helaire’s issues, it would be fair. His backups haven’t been good, and the line has also struggled to protect Patrick Mahomes. I’ve found red zone performance and goal-line performance to be mostly random from year-to-year, and I suspect that Edwards-Helaire would score a couple of times if Andy Reid gave him seven more carries inside the 5. In the long run, I still think he is going to be just fine.

In the short term, the Chiefs didn’t sign Bell to have the former Steelers and Jets back sit on the bench. I would expect him to take Williams’ role and immediately take 35-40% of the offensive snaps as the lesser end of the running back rotation. For fantasy purposes, though, Bell’s touches might be more valuable. The Chiefs can split Bell out as a receiver and stretch teams with their Empty package, which they’ve only used 16 times this season. Bell will probably get a significant cut of the goal-line work and do better than Edwards-Helaire, in part out of sheer randomness. The three-down bellcow role Edwards-Helaire seemed set to enjoy after Damien Williams opted out is certainly up in the air.

The fix: Bell is inactive for Monday’s game against the Bills as a result of the COVID-19 protocols, so this is Edwards-Helaire’s chance to make the Chiefs think twice about handing a significant workload to Bell. He needs to succeed near the goal line, and it would help if he could break off a big play or two. That’s tough against what is typically a stout Bills defense, but injuries have the Bills ranked 27th in DVOA before the game.


The good news for the Giants is that their stop of Kyle Allen on a 2-point try inside the final minute sealed New York’s first win of the season. It also led safety Jabrill Peppers to do two celebratory backflips, and while we’ll never personally know the joy of winning an NFL game, the idea of doing two backflips to celebrate a one-point win over Washington to make it to 1-5 seemed sadder than not doing any backflips at all.

The bad news is that the core of talents Gettleman expected to build his team around continues to struggle. Fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas was benched for the first quarter of Sunday’s game, and while it was later revealed to be for a violation of team policy, the fact that most onlookers originally thought it was a straight-up benching for poor play should tell you how Thomas has played to start his career. Despite being taken before Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs, Thomas hasn’t been up to their standards at left tackle this season.

Gettleman’s other first-rounders aren’t blowing anyone away. Gettleman traded up to grab Deandre Baker in 2019, but the Georgia corner was one of the worst regulars in football as a rookie before being charged with armed robbery and losing his job in September. Saquon Barkley, who saw his 2019 season compromised by a high ankle sprain, is out with a torn ACL. Dexter Lawrence has been a solid two-down defensive tackle and came up with a hit on Allen to seal up the game Sunday, but that’s not something you need to use the 17th overall pick in the draft to find.

Most crucially, quarterback Daniel Jones seems lost. There are moments when he seems to click and does something special, like the 23-yard touchdown pass he dropped in for Darius Slayton or his 49-yard run in the second quarter. There’s no doubting Jones is a talented athlete.

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Daniel Jones pulls the ball back on the fake handoff, then takes off for a 49-yard gain.

Giants fans who were hoping to see signs of growth from Jones in 2020 would also be generous to suggest he is even playing as well as he did a year ago. He continues to have little feel for the opposing pass rush and seems frozen in the pocket while taking hits. His decision-making is spotty and occasionally disastrous, as we saw Sunday, when a pressured Jones threw up a prayer into triple coverage in the end zone for a Kendall Fuller pick. The Giants were able to take advantage of short fields to score 34 points against a disastrous Cowboys defense last week, but they scored 13 points on six meaningful drives on Sunday.

The fix: The Giants need to show signs of life on offense, particularly in the red zone. Jones & Co. have turned just 25% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, a figure that only the Jets have failed to match this season. Red zone performance is inconsistent, which should help the Giants regress back toward the mean out of sheer randomness in the weeks to come, but if Jones doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback at the end of the year, Gettleman is probably going to walk. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone will help this offense look more professional and give Jones more confidence.

Moderately hot

When they franchised him this spring, the Bengals hoped that they would be getting back the Green who once terrorized opposing defenses and looked like a future Hall of Famer. The guy who has shown up this season hasn’t been anything close. Through five games, Green had caught just 14 passes on 34 targets for 119 yards, averaging a dismal 3.5 yards per target. Only two players since 1992 have averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per target over a full season.

After Week 5, Green seemed like he might be on his way out of town sooner rather than later. Against the Ravens, his only target came on an interception, and he was then criticized for failing to try to tackle Marcus Peters before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Green had been playing about 68% of the snaps over the first month of the season, and his snap count fell to just 42% in the Ravens game. There was serious talk of a Green trade if the Bengals could find a suitor, although it was going to be difficult to find one for even the prorated portion of Green’s $18 million franchise tag.

Then, on Sunday, we finally saw glimpses of the old Green. The 2011 first-rounder caught eight of the 11 passes thrown in his direction for 96 yards. It wasn’t a perfect day, as he dropped a bomb from rookie Joe Burrow which might have resulted in a 44-yard touchdown, but that pass was also underthrown and brought Green back toward defending corner Rock Ya-Sin. Overall, this was a big step in the right direction for the 32-year-old.

Crucially, Burrow repeatedly looked for Green in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, including a fourth-and-9 conversion that kept Cincinnati’s hopes alive before a Burrow interception. It’s easy to tweet that Green’s washed or ready for retirement, and based on his numbers through the first five games of the year, it would have been hard to put up much of an argument. It’s telling that Burrow looked toward Green and not any of his other weapons late in the game. Blowing a 21-0 lead against the Colts has to be a disappointing loss for Cincinnati, but seeing signs of life from its star wide receiver is a positive to take away from the contest.

The fix: More games like Sunday. Green’s size and catch radius is still a mismatch for smaller corners, and the Bengals were able to take advantage of that on slants and other in-breaking routes. Ya-Sin isn’t the fastest corner in the league, but it’s also a good sign that Green was able to create a touchdown opportunity by running past him.


Very few of the players on this list are on winning teams, let alone teams that are 5-1. Foles is the exception. Superficially, you could try to manufacture enthusiasm about what he did to help the Bears win Sunday against the Panthers. While he did throw an interception, the former Super Bowl MVP threw a touchdown pass and snuck one in on the ground. Any game in which you’re kneeling at the end is typically a victory, and Foles kneeled three times to end a 23-16 win.

At the same time, Foles was not holding up his end of the bargain. He was 23-of-39 passing for just 198 yards, an average of just over 5 yards per attempt. Nobody has thrown more ducks than Foles this season, and while he has usually managed to have two or three defenders run into each other while they try to pick the pass off, he finally had one of those ugly throws intercepted by Jeremy Chinn. Foles’ CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) for the week was negative-5.9%, and by the NFL Next Gen stats model, his 39 pass attempts produced a total of 0.1 EPA. Chicago’s receivers didn’t always help him out, as there were a number of drops, but he was lucky to leave the game with just one interception.

Avoiding turnovers is going to be what keeps Foles in the lineup. The Bears only benched Mitchell Trubisky once he started to really struggle with giveaways. Trubisky had three picks in seven or so quarters of football when the team benched him for Foles. The 31-year-old has exactly one interception in each of his first four games, but not for lack of trying. The Bears haven’t moved the ball well at all in each of Foles’ three starts, although the defense has done enough to win games against the Bucs and Panthers over the last two weeks.

While I suspect Chicago’s coaching staff and front office would like to tell you that there is a coherent plan here, the reality is that they’re just going to react to what they see that Sunday. Foles isn’t playing well, but as long as he gives the Bears enough of a chance for their defense to win them games, he’s going to keep the job. If Foles struggles to protect the football, they will push Trubisky back into the lineup.

The fix: Stop throwing up desperate passes into double/triple coverage. Foles doesn’t need to propel the Bears to victories with heroball. They are going to win by relying on their defense and protecting the football while hoping David Montgomery or Allen Robinson break a big play.


Matt Patricia, coach, and Bob Quinn, GM, Detroit Lions

For the first time since last season, the Lions managed to get an early lead without losing it shortly thereafter. It’s unclear whether the franchise would have seriously considered making a move with Patricia or Quinn if they had lost on the road to Jacksonville (1-4 heading into the game), but the possibility was worth exploring. It seemed like the Jaguars had the Lions where they wanted them when Jacksonville fell down 17-3 at halftime, but Detroit added 17 points after the break and slowed down Gardner Minshew‘s primary options in a 34-16 victory.

The most promising thing for the Lions is that we saw Patricia make a change on the defensive side of the ball. During his time in Detroit, the Lions have been one of the most man-intensive teams in the league, eschewing zone coverage to try to lock down opposing receivers across the field. The Patriots are the only other team in the league that has played more man coverage since Patricia joined the Lions, but his former employers have Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty.

Detroit has invested heavily at cornerback by signing Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant as free agents before drafting Jeff Okudah with the third overall pick in 2020, but the three are yet to take a snap together. The Lions have been down to backup corners for most of the season, and while that would typically lead coaches to play more zone coverage and take responsibility away from those cornerbacks, Patricia isn’t a typical coach.

Before the bye, despite missing all three of his cornerbacks for some of the time, Patricia continued with the man coverage, playing man-to-man 71.3% of the time per ESPN’s coverage analysis. That was the highest rate in football by more than eight percentage points. In Detroit’s first game after the bye on Sunday, though, Patricia flipped the switch and played man just 39.9% of the time, the lowest man-to-man rate of any single game in the Patricia era.

The Detroit offense has been inconsistent, and the Lions still seem entranced by whatever leads to bad teams, giving Adrian Peterson 12 to 15 carries for 45 to 60 yards each week, but the defense has been at fault for blowing most of their leads. Yes, rookie running back D’Andre Swift dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone that would have won the game in Week 1, but the Lions’ defense allowed the Bears to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come back and win the game, all while playing man coverage with replacement-level cornerbacks. It’s possible that they just go back to their old ideas next week or whenever they get Trufant and Coleman back from injury, but I’m hoping that this is a new, flexible side of Patricia.

The fix: More variation on defense and more Swift, who carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns during Sunday’s win. The schedule is actually pretty light for the Lions over the next few weeks, as a game against the Colts is surrounded by matchups against the Falcons, Vikings and Washington. Getting back to form and topping .500 by the end of that run would probably be enough to earn Patricia a fourth season at the helm.


The guy on the other side of the field might be the one in more trouble after Sunday. Wash stayed on staff after Gus Bradley was fired and was the defensive coordinator when the Jaguars rode their dominant defense to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, but nine of the 11 starters from that defense are gone, including all five of the Pro Bowlers. The Jags are rebuilding and have used each of their four first-rounders since that loss to the Patriots on defense, so Wash’s job is to mold the young talent into possible stars.

Injuries have denied Wash the steady services of two of those first-rounders in edge rusher Josh Allen (who sat out Sunday’s loss to the Lions) and corner CJ Henderson (who returned after missing a game with a shoulder injury), but even by rebuilding standards, the Jags haven’t been good. They ranked last in defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA heading into Week 6, then allowed the Lions to run for 180 yards on 39 carries on Sunday. The prior week, Wash’s defense allowed Deshaun Watson to throw for 359 yards and three touchdowns, albeit with two picks. The week before that, the Bengals became the only team all season to throw for 300 yards and run for 200 yards in the same game.

The scary thing for the Jags is that this was supposed to be the easy part of their schedule. They’ll face the Chargers in Week 7 and then hit their bye. Afterward, they get what could be a very difficult run of offenses with the Texans, Packers, Steelers and Browns. This is a young defense, so the Jags are obviously hoping they will get better as the season goes along, but any improvement might be masked by the difficulty of their schedule in November.

The fix: Trust Doug Marrone. The Jacksonville coach said after the game that he had no intention of firing Wash as long as he was in control of that decision. At the same time, history is lined with coaches who said they didn’t want to fire their assistant coaches and then did so when it was absolutely necessary to keep their own jobs. Marrone, who has gone 12-26 over the past three seasons, is a hot-seat candidate himself. Unless Wash can turn around a struggling defense, both might be in trouble.

Lukewarm

These guys are all only in modest danger or no danger of having their situation change, so I’ll be mostly be discussing why that’s the case.

Let’s start with one of the most disappointing quarterbacks of the season. For the second time in 2020, Cousins posted big numbers in garbage time, but it wasn’t before putting the Vikings’ defense in an impossible bind. The Michigan State product threw three interceptions against the Falcons, and while the third pick wasn’t his fault, the first two were bad decisions. Four quarterbacks had posted a Total QBR of 80 or more against the Falcons this season. Cousins finished the day with a 28.

Really, he has had four solid games mixed with two disastrous performances against the Falcons and Colts, during which he has thrown six interceptions. He now has 10 picks in six games, which is as many as he threw in 16 games in 2018 and three more than he threw over a 15-game campaign last season. Cousins himself suggested that he wouldn’t finish the season as the starter if the interceptions continued.

While Cousins has struggled, the stats are a little misleading. Two of his picks were on what amounted to Hail Mary plays. A third came on a pick-six in which it looked like Justin Jefferson ran the wrong route. Seven interceptions is still too many if you throw out those three, but the numbers aren’t quite as bad as they seem.

More than anything, I’m not sure I see what benefit the Vikings are going to get from benching Cousins. The only other quarterback on the active roster is Sean Mannion, who has three picks on 74 career pass attempts and threw two in a Week 17 start for the Vikings a year ago. Cousins has $21 million in fully guaranteed base salary due next season and $35 million in 2022, which becomes fully guaranteed if he is on the roster three days into the 2021 league year. Unless the Vikings want to eat $41 million in dead money next year or somehow find a trade partner for him, they’re going to be in the Cousins business for years to come. Benching him now isn’t going to solve anything.

The fix: Play another game or two. Cousins should be better after the bye, given that his next six games include five middling-or-worse defenses outside of the Bears. Getting away from the subpar performance should help matters. The Vikings should keep disastrous guard Dru Samia out of the lineup and use more play-action, given that Cousins’ play-action rate has dropped by about five percentage points.


Garoppolo, on the other hand, seemed to turn things around Sunday night against the Rams. Look at his final numbers and you see a solid performance, as he went 23-of-33 passing for 268 yards with three touchdowns. It was the sort of bounce-back Garoppolo might have been hoping for after being benched for health and performance reasons a week ago.

If you watched the game, of course, his performance wasn’t quite as effective as those numbers might seem. Garoppolo missed a number of receivers with inaccurate throws, put others in a position where they couldn’t gain YAC and nearly tossed at least one critical interception. He made some excellent throws, but the inconsistency was a problem. He doesn’t feel the effects of the high ankle sprain at times and makes tight throws over the middle of the field, but when the ankle does bother him, his passes sail and create interception opportunities.

There was talk of the 49ers making a change at quarterback on a more significant basis after Garoppolo struggled in Week 5, but it’s not realistic. Garoppolo was really benched for playing poorly with an injury as opposed to just straight-up playing poorly. The first guy off the bench for the 49ers heading into the season would have been Nick Mullens, but the 2018 part-time starter was benched after a disastrous run of turnovers against the Eagles. Benching Garoppolo for third-stringer C.J. Beathard doesn’t make sense.

Unlike Cousins, the 49ers could cut their ties with Garoppolo after the year, although it wouldn’t make sense unless they had an obvious replacement. San Francisco would only owe $2.8 million in dead money if they cut Garoppolo, saving $19.1 million on their cap in the process. Kyle Shanahan reportedly wanted to reunite with Cousins in the past, and the 49ers could swing a trade with the Vikings if they cut or trade Garoppolo, but is absorbing that much in guaranteed money really worth it for what might be the same quarterback? I don’t think Garoppolo is going anywhere.

The fix: Rest. Garoppolo will be better once his high ankle sprain heals. The problem is that the 49ers don’t have their bye until Week 11, meaning Garoppolo will have to go up against the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints before he can finally take a week off to heal.


While Wentz has also had his issues with turnovers, there’s just no logical or realistic way for the Eagles to make any significant changes at quarterback. He would hold $59.2 million in dead money if the Eagles decided to make a change after this season, and while that can be reduced by a trade, they would only be in shape to do that if they could trade Wentz after June 1. I don’t see a team waiting until after June to make a franchise-altering trade at quarterback.

Being stuck with Wentz isn’t really a problem. His giveaway spike has been drastic and unprecedented given his prior interception rates, but the second overall pick from 2016 is doing this in an offense with virtually none of its other starters remaining. By the end of the game against the Ravens on Sunday, Wentz was joined by just one other summer starter in center Jason Kelce. The Eagles are down their five other best offensive linemen, at least two starting wide receivers, their top two tight ends and their best running back after Miles Sanders was injured.

Despite this, Wentz nearly had the Eagles back in the game. He was playing heroball and making it work during a furious fourth-quarter comeback, where he went 10-of-20 passing for 93 yards but threw two touchdowns and mixed in a long pass interference penalty. It’s one thing to do that with DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz. It’s another with Travis Fulgham and Richard Rodgers. Wentz isn’t perfect, and he made mistakes Sunday, but he has kept the Eagles competitive over the last few weeks.

The fix: Get the starters back around Wentz and hope that the interception rate regresses toward the mean. Philly’s next three games are all against the NFC East, so Wentz will be facing weak competition in the weeks to come.


Likewise, the Falcons are going to struggle to move on from Ryan, who showed Sunday that he wasn’t part of the problem. Ryan finished with 371 passing yards and four touchdowns in a rout of the Vikings. It was a good way to finally claim Atlanta’s first win and rebound after a rough stretch for the 2016 league MVP. While the defense was mostly to blame for Atlanta’s disastrous 0-5 start, Ryan missed his fair share of throws. Passes that could have either put the Falcons up by more early or sealed up victories were narrowly short or long.

Ryan got back on track, but even if he hadn’t, it’s difficult to see the Falcons moving on from their starter anytime soon. They would owe nearly $50 million in dead money on their cap if they cut or traded Ryan before June 1 next year. A post-June 1 trade would create $23 million in room, but again, who is waiting until after June to trade for a starting quarterback unless they’re absolutely desperate?

The earliest the Falcons could realistically move on from Ryan, 35, is 2022, when they could free up more than $15 million in cap space. The end of next year is when we might actually want to have a serious talk about Ryan’s future. Until then, it’s really an academic conversation.

The fix: Get short fields. Atlanta has routinely inherited long fields from its defense over the past few seasons. On Sunday, with Morris’ defense intercepting Cousins three times, the Falcons got the ball four times on Minnesota’s side of the field and scored three touchdowns and a field goal. The Falcons’ defense doesn’t need to be good, but if it can create a takeaway or two to help out the offense, it’s going to give Ryan a much better chance of winning.


Joe Flacco went 11-of-24 passing for 71 yards in the first three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. The Jets will welcome Darnold back into the starting lineup the moment he’s ready to make a return, because while the former USC star has been inconsistent, he at least gives them a shot.

The fix: Get healthy. There’s no sense in Darnold playing at something less than 100% for a Jets team going nowhere. After that, what happens next depends on where the Jets finish in the draft order.


As I mentioned in the intro, Mayfield was benched Sunday because he was clearly less than 100 percent and taking hits the Browns didn’t want him to take. Pittsburgh’s front seven dominated that game, and there was no sense in exposing Mayfield to more rib shots. Cleveland has a fifth-year option for Mayfield in 2022 that they’ll need to exercise next offseason, a move that isn’t guaranteed given his inconsistency.

His questionable future makes it more important that the Browns gather as much information as possible on him as a starter and long-term contributor before this offseason. He followed three great games against the Bengals, Washington and Dallas with two middling performances against the Colts and Steelers. What comes next is a lighter run against the Bengals and Raiders before the Week 9 bye.

The fix: Get the ribs right. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Browns to sit Mayfield on Sunday behind Case Keenum given the competition, but every rep from Mayfield is more information for the Browns.

Let’s finish with another quarterback who impressed on Sunday. It looked like the Colts would have to put the game on Rivers’ back when they went down 21-0, but the veteran responded with his best performance in an Indy uniform. He went 29-of-44 passing for 371 yards with three touchdowns and a pick, leading touchdowns on four drives out of a five-drive run to put the Colts back in front of the Bengals. For whatever chatter there was about his arm after he threw two interceptions against the Browns, he was 4 of 8 for 114 yards with a touchdown, that pick and a QBR of 96.3 on deep throws Sunday.

In the long term — after 2020 — the Colts are likely going to move forward with another quarterback. In the short term, talk that they might consider benching Rivers for Jacoby Brissett seemed unlikely. Indy already made the move to replace Brissett with Rivers this past offseason, and while it liked Brissett as a backup, Rivers offers a much higher ceiling with his ability to pick apart opposing defenses. I still like the idea of the Colts trading for Sam Darnold as a 2020 backup and 2021 starter, but Rivers’ performance would have been better than anything Darnold has done so far this season.

The fix: More games like Sunday.

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