MINNEAPOLIS – There’s no more questioning whether the Minnesota Vikings are better than their record 1-5.
The Vikings’ 40-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons is reflective of a team that does not have it together. A team that looked like it wasn’t ready to play on Sunday -– at all. A team whose season is in the tank as it heads into their bye week.
If Minnesota wanted to keep its playoff hopes alive, a win against the hapless Falcons, who this week went through coaching and general manager changes and COVID-19 scare that closed down its facility after losing their first five games of the season, was the place to start.
Instead, the Vikings head into their bye with a lot of self-reflecting on their to-do list. A team that went half-in with a rebuild this offseason while executing moves that would suggest they bought into their own win now philosophy was met with a reality check in the first half of the season.
Minnesota figured out it has to be all or nothing. Committing to a rebuild was the path that made the most sense, and the Vikings found out quickly in their first six games of the season that they can’t have their cake and eat it, too.
Now there could be consequences as the Vikings try to overcome their own hubris.
QB Breakdown: Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions in the first half, the only time he’s ever done that in his career, and finished 24-of-36 passing for 343 yards and three late touchdowns when the game was already out of reach.
The optics that come with benching the quarterback you just handed a two-year, $66 million extension in March are really bad. But what did the Vikings stand to lose, especially if they wanted to actually stage a legitimate comeback in the second half? The offense wasn’t responding every time they took the field after a drive ended in despair following an interception, a quick three-and-out or a turnover on downs. Minnesota had one statement drive the entire game that ended with Justin Jefferson stretching for an 11-yard touchdown in the third quarter. This was Jefferson’s third game with 100 receiving yards this season. The last Vikings rookie to record three or more of those? Randy Moss in 1998. Jefferson is a star and gives this team hope that they nailed their search for their next stud playmaker.
But no one should feel good about the play at quarterback and how inconsistent it has been this season. How could Cousins look so good in Seattle (aside from a terrible third quarter) and so dreadful against the Falcons?
Cousins does not look comfortable behind his offensive line, even with the change the Vikings made in Week 6 with second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland starting for Dru Samia (wrist) at right guard. Would Sean Mannion have been a better fit? Who knows. But again, what did the Vikings have to lose? And better yet, if the decision-makers who brought Mannion in to back up Cousins don’t trust him to do that, get a better back-up QB. If Mannion is in Minnesota simply to help Cousins prepare for games and not be a viable option should things go so awry on offense, like they did on Sunday, changes need to be made.
The potential fall out: How busy this bye week will be for the Vikings depends on ownership’s thought process.
Will Mike Zimmer survive the worst start of his career as a head coach? The Vikings haven’t opened a season with a 1-5 record since 2013. After that season, the Wilf’s cut ties with former head coach Leslie Frazier and ushered in a new era under Zimmer.
Sure, Zimmer’s defense has been crushed by injuries, but how long does that continue to be the excuse for poor play? While Julio Jones is one of the best receivers of the last decade, the Vikings allowed him eight catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns and a pair of touchdowns to Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst. Minnesota has to ask itself: Is this simply a personnel problem? Or are there other areas that deserve heavier criticism?
It’s hard to see Zygi and Mark Wilf wanting to cut bait with Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman after giving both three-year contract extensions this offseason, but the question needs to be asked. How can they possibly be OK with the way this season has played out after they bestowed so many resources into the belief that they needed to keep this thing going in order to reach their ultimate goal? When the Wilf’s locked themselves into both Zimmer and Spielman through the 2023 season, they locked this franchise into more of the same from the past few seasons, which resulted in getting as close as they’ve been in decades to a Super Bowl in 2017 but not being able to match that since.
A firing for one or both admits failure and the wrong decision, but it’s possible the Wilf’s want to make changes to the leadership of this team after the way this season started, even with as many financial resources tied into Zimmer, Spielman, Cousins and Dalvin Cook. This could end up being a very active bye week in Minnesota.
Overreactions: Should Mike McCarthy be on the hot seat? What about Cam Newton?
If you finished bagging the leaves early enough Sunday that you got to watch the early window NFL games, you had yourself a treat. Wild finishes, comebacks, close games and star-caliber performances on every screen you could muster.
The Lions pulled out an impossible victory over the Falcons with a last-second touchdown. The Steelers held off the Titans in a battle of the unbeatens. The Panthers made the Saints sweat it out. Baker Mayfield beat Joe Burrow in a back-and-forth battle of No. 1 picks. Heck, for a little while it looked as if the Jets might upset the Bills.
And also, the Cowboys played.
If you missed the Cowboys’ game, congratulations. It was pure garbage. Sunday’s early window slate was a museum hall filled with Picassos and Rembrandts, and the Cowboys’ 25-3 loss to Washington was a spot on the wall where somebody sneezed. They were out of it almost immediately, falling behind 2-0 — quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled into the end zone on a sack — and never really challenged.
Dallas ended up with 142 total yards, which is a lower number than the individual Sunday yardage totals of Davante Adams (196), A.J. Brown (153) and Alvin Kamara (148). The Cowboys possessed the ball for 23 minutes, 36 seconds of the game’s 60 minutes and had 12 first downs to Washington’s 21. They were outclassed, uninterested and embarrassed.
In short, they were practically begging to lead this week’s overreaction column.
Mike McCarthy will be one-and-done in Dallas
Oh, there are plenty of excuses. Dallas is missing four starting offensive linemen and its starting quarterback. Backup quarterback Andy Dalton got knocked out of the game because of a concussion on a dirty hit and was replaced by rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci. The Cowboys clearly have not picked up new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme, which must involve some sort of hyper-advanced calculus that Nolan just invented this past March or something.
There are plenty of reasons why the Cowboys are 2-5 and ahead of only the Giants in the historically weak NFC East, but regardless of any or all of them, they expected to be a lot better than this.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, Jerry Jones’ reputation as an owner who fires coaches willy-nilly is outdated and, frankly, was never really deserved when you look at the history. And no one likes to admit a mistake. But if we get to the end of the season and the NFC East champ has only six or seven wins and the Cowboys aren’t it? They would have to be considered the biggest failure of any team in the league.
McCarthy was brought in, after a year off from coaching following his firing in Green Bay, to replace longtime coach Jason Garrett. The issue with Garrett was that his teams were generally good but not good enough. McCarthy was supposed to get them over the hump. This team has somehow got itself stuck under the hump.
Admitting a mistake can be tough, but isn’t it worse to double down on one? We have more than half a season to go, but if the Cowboys get to the end of it and still look like this lackluster bunch that hasn’t connected with the new staff, it’s not at all wild to think McCarthy could end up being a footnote in team history.
The Patriots need to bench Cam Newton and find out what they have in Jarrett Stidham
Newton was terrible on Sunday, for the second game in a row, and he didn’t have two weeks’ worth of COVID-related rust to blame this time. The 49ers scored 33 points in Foxborough — five more than the total number of points the Patriots have scored over their past three games combined. In those three games, New England has turned the ball over 11 times and scored only two touchdowns. The run game that was so impressive in the season opener mustered only 94 yards on the ground Sunday.
Newton didn’t even finish the game — it was so out of hand in the fourth quarter that Bill Belichick put Stidham in at quarterback. Asked after the game whether Newton was still the starter going forward, Belichick said, “Yeah, absolutely.”
But the Patriots are 2-4, in third place in the AFC East, 2.5 games behind the first-place Bills, whom they play next week in Buffalo. If they lose that game, they could be too far behind to think about the postseason. And if that’s the case, they need to think about whether they need to draft a quarterback or find one in free agency. Knowing what they have in Stidham could help them make that decision.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. As long as he’s healthy — and he insists he is — Newton still gives the Patriots the better chance to win. They have a run-based offense, and the running threat Newton presents enhances the run game when it’s working. New England isn’t out of it yet, and a win next week in Buffalo would change the narrative.
What it does at quarterback next year remains a mystery. Newton is on a one-year deal and Stidham hasn’t shown much, so all options are on the table. But a team that has won its division 11 years in a row and 17 of the past 19 isn’t in a position to give up on its season and think about the future while it’s still mathematically alive in the playoff race.
While his old team was getting smoked by the Niners, Brady was in Vegas throwing four touchdown passes in a 45-20 victory over the Raiders. (He ran one in, too.) Nine different players caught passes from Brady on Sunday. Four different Bucs caught touchdowns. He’s not even using Mike Evans, really. The leading receiver in Sunday’s win was Scotty Miller.
But the rich get richer, and last week the Buccaneers agreed to terms with Brown, the former Steelers, Raiders and Patriots receiver who’s serving an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Brown, who was the best receiver in the NFL not long ago, is eligible to join the Bucs in Week 9 assuming no more league discipline is coming.
Tom Brady connects with Rob Gronkowski, who goes up to take the ball away from the defender and score a 5-yard touchdown to give the Buccaneers a 14-10 lead over the Raiders.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Brown is a luxury in Tampa, not a necessity. Coach Bruce Arians can say whatever he wants about “Tom had nothing to do with this,” but the facts are that Brady and Brown have stayed in touch and Brady was so impressed with Brown in the one game he played with him last season that he’s eager to work with him again.
What that means for the rest of the Buccaneers’ receivers is anyone’s guess. Brady probably will keep throwing to whomever’s open, and more games where he spreads it around like this are likely with or without Brown. What it means for the Bucs’ competition probably isn’t very good. If Brown is even 80 percent of what he was two or three years ago in Pittsburgh, he’s the final Infinity Stone that should empower Brady to wipe out half the universe with a snap of his fingers. Or at least get the Bucs to the Super Bowl.
After a week in which outside speculation (though no inside information) had Mayfield in danger of being benched for Case Keenum, the Browns’ quarterback started Sunday’s game against the Bengals 0-for-5 with an interception. Worse, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left the game early because of a knee injury.
Mayfield rebounded and went 22-for-23 after that rough start, including 21 completions in a row, with five touchdown passes. The last of the five put the Browns ahead for good with 11 seconds left after Burrow had put the Bengals ahead a minute earlier. It was the kind of game the Browns need to see from Mayfield — one in which he put the team on his back and delivered in the clutch without his running game carrying him and without his best receiver.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. What are we talking about here? Mayfield isn’t going to complete 21 passes in a row and throw five touchdowns every week. And the Browns’ offense will function better when running back Nick Chubb returns from injury and they can lean on the ground game. But Mayfield’s coaches have stood by him through the tough parts of this season, and they believe he can be the quarterback they need him to be.
Sunday was evidence that they might be right. The Browns are 5-2 and in the hunt for the postseason. There’s no reason to do anything with Mayfield but keep working to make him better and more consistent. Which is their plan, and has been all along.
Todd Gurley is the reason the Falcons lost Sunday
Let’s set the scene: Atlanta trailed Detroit 16-14 with the ball at the Lions’ 10-yard line and just over a minute to go in the game. The Lions had used all of their timeouts, which meant that the Falcons could run down the clock run to almost zero, call their own timeout, and kick a winning chip-shot field goal.
Instead, Gurley ran 10 yards for a touchdown — he tried to stop at the goal line — to put the Falcons ahead. A 2-point conversion gave them a 22-16 lead, but it also left Matthew Stafford the 1:04 he needed to take the Lions down the field for the winning touchdown.
It was the Falcons’ third loss this season in a game in which they had at least a 98% chance to win, according to ESPN’s win probability metric. The other 31 teams in the NFL have played a total of four such games this season.
Todd Gurley bursts up the middle toward the end zone and tries to stop himself from scoring in an attempt to run time off the clock, but the ball breaks the plane of the goal line for a touchdown.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. I never like the idea of not scoring when you’re behind. The short field goal is nearly automatic, sure, but it’s not actually automatic. What if the snap goes wrong? What if it’s blocked? You’re behind and you have a chance to take the lead, you do it. Plus, there’s nothing in the rules that says the Falcons’ defense isn’t allowed to stop anybody in a big fourth-quarter situation.
The Falcons told Gurley not to score there, so yeah, that’s a bonehead play by him. But it’s tough to rein in a player’s instincts (especially one who scores as much as Gurley does) to get to the end zone. And again, they were behind in the game. If they were tied or ahead, I see the logic. But when you’re behind and you have a chance to take the lead, I have always thought the right thing was to do it.
Takeaways: Big days for Baker, Rodgers — but not the Cowboys
Week 7 in the NFL was wild. The Steelers survived a late comeback attempt from the Titans to move to 6-0. The Seahawks fell from the ranks of the undefeated in a crazy overtime loss to the Cardinals. The Browns edged by the Bengals on a huge, go-ahead TD with 11 seconds remaining — Baker Mayfield‘s fifth of the game. A Panthers tying field goal attempt from 65 yards came up just short, helping the Saints get a big division win. The Lions beat the Falcons with a touchdown pass on the final play of the game after an eight-play, 75-yard drive in the final 64 seconds. Washington kept the Cowboys to three points, and Green Bay dropped 35 on Houston, thanks to another strong day from Aaron Rodgers.
All that and more in Week 7‘s biggest takeaways from NFL Nation.
Standout performer for ARI-SEA: Kyler Murray, 360 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT. 67 rushing yards, 1 TD
The Cardinals showed on Sunday night, in front of a national TV audience, that they had what it took to hang with the big boys. In a game that had nearly everything you could ask for, including nearly an extra 10 minutes of overtime, the Cardinals had a coming-of-age showing — from Kyler Murray to Kliff Kingsbury. It was the type of win that might be looked back on in December or January as the defining moment of the season and one that could set the tone for the rest of the season — including putting them in the thick of the NFC West race. — Josh Weinfuss
Next game: vs. Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Nov. 8)
With as leaky as their defense has been, the Seahawks needed Russell Wilson to play near perfect football for most of their 5-0 start. On Sunday night, they found out what happens when he doesn’t. Wilson had plenty of brilliant moments but three bad ones in the Seahawks’ overtime loss to Arizona. That exceeded a narrow margin for error thanks to the Seahawks’ defense allowing 519 yards and not getting so much as an official hit on Kyler Murray. Wilson tossed two interceptions in regulation and a third in overtime to set up the Cardinals’ game-winning field goal. That was after Arizona erased a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, pushing to overtime a game that should have ended as a rare stress-free win for the Seahawks. Of their last 22 regular-season games, 17 have been decided by one score. The Seahawks were living on the edge so much that they were bound to fall over it eventually. — Brady Henderson
Next game: vs. 49ers (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for PIT-TEN: Diontae Johnson, nine catches, 80 receiving yards, two TDs
Thanks to a fast start and scores on their first four possessions, the Steelers outlasted a Titans fourth-quarter comeback to remain undefeated and set up a huge AFC North showdown next week in Baltimore. But even with an unblemished record, the Steelers have things to fix after the late-game meltdown, beginning with limiting splash plays by the opponent. “We have goals so high for ourselves because we know what we can do when we feel like we can be a truly special defense,” linebacker T.J. Watt said. “And that’s why no one’s really satisfied after today. We need to do a lot better job, especially in the second half. But it starts with the run. And even though we did a good job in the first half, we got to continue and roll it over into the second half.” — Brooke Pryor
Next game: at Ravens (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
The Titans made a valiant effort in the fourth quarter to make the game close, but their inability to stop the Steelers early was too much to overcome. Tennessee couldn’t force the Steelers to punt in the first half. It gave up seven first downs on all seven of Pittsburgh’s third-down opportunities in the first two quarters. Now the Titans sit at 5-1, which is still best in their division, but they need drastic improvement on third downs — starting with the Bengals next week — before they get into the tougher part of the schedule. — Turron Davenport
Next game: at Bengals (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for CAR-NO: Alvin Kamara, 83 rushing yards, 65 receiving yards
No Michael Thomas. No Emmanuel Sanders. No problem for the Saints’ offense — which had its prettiest performance of the season from start to finish. New Orleans’ defense still has major problems preventing big plays and stopping teams in the red zone, but this was an awfully nice way for the Saints (4-2) to reboot their offense after the bye, something they’ll need to carry over into an even stiffer test next week at Chicago. — Mike Triplett
Next game: at Bears (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday)
Another amazing day from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was spoiled by the defense’s inability to make plays on third down. The Saints started 8-of-8 on third down, and at one point, they were 11-of-12 before finishing 12-of-14 in the victory. That’s inexcusable, even with a secondary depleted by injuries. The worst was a third-and-14 pass to running back Kamara that should have been stopped for a short gain. The Panthers entered the day ranked 29th on third-down defense, and if they can’t solve this problem, there’s no way they can keep pace with New Orleans and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. — David Newton
Next game: vs. Falcons (8:20 p.m. ET Thursday)
Standout performer for GB-HOU: Davante Adams, 13 catches, 196 receiving yards, two TDs
It wasn’t the criticism the Packers faced after their blowout loss to the Buccaneers last week that drove them Sunday at the Texans. “It was more so we felt like we owed it to ourselves,” said receiver Davante Adams, who had a career-high 196 yards receiving. Yes, it came against a one-win team and a bad defense Aaron Rodgers picked apart. And next week they face another one-win team in the Vikings. But Sunday’s game got the Packers (5-1) back to doing what they did during their 4-0 start and gave them confidence they can win without running back Aaron Jones and All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari. — Rob Demovsky
Next game: vs. Vikings (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
With another loss that dropped the Texans to 1-6, the team is likely in sell-now mode headed into the bye with the trade deadline on Nov. 3. While Houston’s front office is not interested in a fire sale without getting proper value in return, it is at the point where this team needs to look toward the future, even after signing quarterback Deshaun Watson to a lengthy contract extension. — Sarah Barshop
Next game: at Jaguars (1 p.m. ET Nov. 8)
Aaron Rodgers throws for 283 yards and four touchdowns as the Packers defeat the Texans 35-20 to avoid a two-game losing streak.
Standout performer for DET-ATL: Matthew Stafford, 340 passing yards, one TD
For years, Stafford had been building the reputation as a comeback king, among the quarterbacks you wanted to face least with him holding the ball and time winding down. It had gotten away from him the past two-plus seasons, with Detroit struggling to win games and too often losing leads in the fourth quarter instead of pulling off improbable comebacks. Then came Sunday, when Stafford drove Detroit 75 yards in 64 seconds, capping it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson with no time remaining to set up the extra point that gave Detroit the win. The comeback king, picking up fourth-quarter comeback No. 30 and game-winning drive No. 36, pulled it off at a time when Detroit needed it the most, to get back to 3-3 and keep his team relevant toward midseason. — Michael Rothstein
Next game: vs. Colts (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Is it bad luck, poor decision-making or execution that has hurt the Falcons the most this season? Regardless, the Falcons are now the only team with three losses in a season — over the past 20 seasons — after having a win probability of at least 98%, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Atlanta could have won its second consecutive game if Todd Gurley II would have gone down before scoring an ill-fated touchdown that left the Lions enough time to come back and win the game. And Gurley realized it after running 10 yards to the end zone. “Ah f— it, I shouldn’t have scored,” Gurley said postgame. The Falcons had a 98.7% chance to win after Stafford’s incompletion with 57 seconds left, per ESPN’s win probability model, and still managed to lose. — Courtney Cronin
Next game: at Panthers (8:20 p.m. ET Thursday)
Standout performer for BUF-NYJ: Cole Beasley, 11 catches, 112 receiving yards
This might have been Buffalo’s most impressive defensive performance to date. After a shaky first half, the Bills allowed four yards of total offense, holding the Jets scoreless while their own offense continued to score, three points at a time. Factor in five sacks and two takeaways, and for the first time this season, the Bills’ defense carried the load — a burden that had fallen on their offense through the first six games. It’s a positive sign both sides of the ball are capable of winning games. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Next game: vs. Patriots (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
New playcaller, same result. Coach Adam Gase handed the playcalling to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, but the Jets managed only 25 yards on 23 plays after taking a 10-0 lead. They made no adjustments, resulting in six total sacks. It will get worse for the Jets (0-7), who face the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on the road next week. — Rich Cimini
Next game: at Chiefs (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for CLE-CIN: Baker Mayfield, 297 passing yards, five TDs
After throwing an interception on his first passing attempt for a second consecutive game, Mayfield rebounded with one of the finest QB performances in Browns history. Mayfield broke a franchise record with 21 consecutive completions and threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, lifting Cleveland to a comeback victory. This version of Mayfield is what could elevate the Browns into more than just a fringe playoff contender. And Cleveland will need more of this from him — especially if wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s knee injury proves serious. — Jake Trotter
Next game: vs. Raiders (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Even though the Bengals failed to pick up the victory, Sunday was another reminder Cincinnati has its quarterback of the future. With three offensive starters sidelined with injury, Joe Burrow was still able to post a career-high 406 yards on 35-of-46 passing, three touchdowns and one interception. He also had a rushing touchdown in the Bengals’ third consecutive defeat. Entering the game, the Bengals were without injured running back Joe Mixon (foot). Throughout the day, left tackle Jonah Williams (neck), center Trey Hopkins (concussion) and right tackle Bobby Hart (undisclosed) also went down at various points. That didn’t stop Burrow from nearly pulling off the first comeback win of his career. — Ben Baby
Next game: vs. Titans (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Harrison Bryant reels in a 3-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. Later in the third, Baker Mayfield finds Bryant again for another score.
Standout performer for DAL-WSH: Antonio Gibson, 128 rushing yards, one TD
Washington still has a lot of issues that won’t be resolved any time soon, but it can feel good about one thing: It’s a lot better than Dallas right now. Washington played its best all-around game. And the more running back Gibson matures, the more Washington can start to develop a consistent ground game. But Sunday’s game also showed the kind of mindset coach Ron Rivera wanted to see. After five consecutive losses — four by 14 points or more — and a crushing one-point defeat a week ago, the team responded. For Washington to truly generate momentum, it must come out the same way after the bye week. This was a good win, but if it’s just a one-game blip, it won’t mean a whole lot. — John Keim
Next game: vs. Giants (1 p.m. ET Nov. 8)
The Cowboys are 2-5. Forget about how bad the NFC East is. Where do the Cowboys start to fix their problems? Is it on defense, which has been terrible since Week 1 and has been shredded on the ground? Or the offense, which has scored one touchdown in two games without Dak Prescott and can’t play a game without a turnover? Quarterback Andy Dalton was knocked out of the game in the third quarter because of a concussion, but he was not given much help by an offensive line that looked like a preseason group. This has turned into a nightmare scenario Mike McCarthy never envisioned when he was named coach in January. — Todd Archer
Next game: at Eagles (8:20 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for NYG-PHI: Carson Wentz, 359 passing yards, two TDs, one rushing TD
The Eagles aren’t a good football team, no matter their odds to win the NFC East, but the positive signs they’re getting from quarterback Carson Wentz hold significance. He has turned it on over the past three games after a sluggish start, and again showed a penchant for late-game heroics with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown throws to save Philadelphia from an embarrassing loss to the Giants. The Eagles now have a 61% chance to win the division, per the ESPN Football Power Index. That’s nice, but what’s really important is that their franchise quarterback is once again beginning to play like one. — Tim McManus
Next game: vs. Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET Sunday)
The Giants still can’t beat the Eagles or Cowboys. And they still can’t compete in a division that appears destined to be historically bad. The Giants (1-6) lost their eighth straight to the Eagles and have now dropped 15 consecutive games combined to Dallas and Philadelphia. It’s hard to compete in the NFC East if you continually lose to those two teams. The Giants blew an 11-point lead in the final five minutes, committing three penalties on the winning drive. Had tight end Evan Engram not dropped what could’ve been the clinching pass with a little over two minutes remaining, the Giants would have won. But it all proves the Giants are still not good enough. — Jordan Raanan
Next game: vs. Buccaneers (8:15 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 2)
Standout performer for TB-LV: Tom Brady, 369 passing yards, four TDs, one rushing TD
The Buccaneers cleared one major hurdle this season, with their first signature win last week against the Packers, playing one of their best games of the past decade. The next hurdle: How would they handle winning on a weekly basis with a growing target on their backs as favorites in the NFC? The answer: A 45-20 win over the Raiders on the road. This wasn’t an error-free performance for the Bucs, with their second-half struggles earlier in the season resurfacing in the third quarter. But a three-TD scoring explosion in the fourth quarter has this team at 5-2 and atop the NFC South. — Jenna Laine
Next game: at Giants (8:20 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 2)
When you can’t run the ball and your defense cannot get any pressure on the QB, it’s going to make for a long day. Although the Raiders did creep to within four points of the Bucs early in the fourth quarter, they were physically run over the rest of the way to fall to 3-3. Rest versus rust was the debate for an offensive line that finished with two backups and a third-stringer. Trent Brown should return from COVID-19 (coach Jon Gruden said Friday that he was feeling better), and Richie Incognito is coming back from injured reserve, so the line should have some semblance of normalcy before the team heads on the road to play the Browns and Chargers the next two weeks. — Paul Gutierrez
Next game: at Browns (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Tom Brady connects with Rob Gronkowski, who goes up to take the ball away from the defender and score a 5-yard touchdown to give the Buccaneers a 14-10 lead over the Raiders.
Standout performer for KC-DEN: Byron Pringle, 102-yard kickoff return TD
Le’Veon Bell appears to be more than a running back at the end of his career. He is a running back who can produce for the Chiefs. He showed his trademarks of patience and vision on a pair of 16-yard runs Sunday. He split time as the featured back with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, an arrangement that should continue next week against the Jets and beyond. — Adam Teicher
Next game: vs. Jets (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
In the ninth start of his career, quarterback Drew Lock showed that he has plenty of work to do and that it won’t always be smooth sailing as he goes through some very public on-the-job training. His pick-six interception Sunday gave the Chiefs momentum and led to Denver’s 10th consecutive loss to the Chiefs. Lock repeatedly passed up shorter completions in favor of riskier plays that didn’t work out, as he continues to try to find the line between risk and reward. At 2-4 in the AFC West, it already might be too late for Lock and the Broncos, who trail Kansas City by four wins. — Jeff Legwold
Next game: vs. Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for SF-NE: Jeff Wilson Jr., 112 rushing yards, three TDs
After an embarrassing loss to the Dolphins, the 49ers have rediscovered their identity the past two weeks, just in time for their most difficult stretch of schedule. The Niners rode a dominant running game complemented by an efficient play-action passing attack and a stingy defense all the way to the Super Bowl last season. Although injuries have taken their toll this season, the 49ers seem to have found that formula again in a pair of impressive victories, including Sunday over the Patriots. “How it’s been the last two weeks is how we obviously hope every week is,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you play defense the way our guys have been playing, running the ball like we have been, just how physical all of our guys have been playing … I was very impressed with the character of our guys individually, which adds up collectively.” With Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans up next, the 4-3 Niners will need that to continue if they are going to make another run at the postseason. — Nick Wagoner
Next game: at Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday)
Stunningly noncompetitive. Those are words you never expect to use to describe a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team, but that’s what it looked like Sunday. Cam Newton (three interceptions) was never comfortable, and the Patriots hardly seemed to put up a fight. In recent weeks, they are learning a hard lesson about sloppy quarterback play, which they seldom had to worry about with Tom Brady. In their 2-4 start, the Patriots have thrown three touchdown passes (fewest in the NFL) and 11 interceptions (most in the NFL). It’s hard to win with QB play like that. — Mike Reiss
Next game: at Bills (1 p.m. ET Sunday)
Standout performer for JAX-LAC: Justin Herbert, 347 passing yards, three TDs, 66 rushing yards, one rushing TD
Rookie Justin Herbert continues to impress. He threw a career-high 347 yards and three touchdowns while adding another touchdown on the ground to get the Chargers back on the winning track after several frustrating near misses. Will this win help the Chargers turn their season around as the schedule lightens? Who knows. The Chargers had lost four consecutive games, and the Jaguars were on a five-game skid, but a strong finish to Sunday’s game for Los Angeles — after squandering a 16-point first-half lead — potentially saved its season. — Shelley Smith
Next game: at Broncos (4:05 p.m. ET Sunday)
With his job potentially on the line, coach Doug Marrone said he wanted to be more aggressive than he normally is against the Chargers. He called four fourth-down attempts and three 2-point conversion tries in an effort to energize a team that entered the weekend with five consecutive losses and without several key defensive players because of injuries. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Jaguars lost for the 13th time in 16 trips to the West Coast. If owner Shad Khan is going to make a change, it likely will come in the next few days because the Jaguars are on their bye. — Mike DiRocco
Next game: vs. Texans (1 p.m. ET Nov. 8)
Passan: Clayton Kershaw repairs his playoff legacy with Game 5 win
ARLINGTON, Texas — Cali Kershaw, 5, a nuclear bundle of energy, jitterbugged around the room, under the table and over it, side to side, everywhere space permitted. Her little brother Charley, 3, tried to keep up, to the point that their father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge/apology. “You guys are maniacs,” he said.
It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.
A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.
The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.
Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.
He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”
What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.
This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30 ⅔ innings, 23 hits, five walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5 ⅔ innings, five hits, two runs, two walks and six strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.
The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”
Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manny Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.
And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.
As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5 ⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.
“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”
Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him may have an inverse relationship with talent but it’s got a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.
The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.
“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”
Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.
For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.
This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion may have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.
Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only without a ring.
Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.
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