Through 10 weeks of the 2021 NFL season, we’ve learned plenty. Here are the 10 biggest lessons as we head towards Thanksgiving.
– We know nothing about the AFC
The Titans have the best record and resumé. The Buffalo Bills have the most balanced roster. The Baltimore Ravens have the most unstoppable, unique player in football. The Kansas City Chiefs have the best high-end talent and experience.
Who is the best bet come January to make a deep run? Impossible to say. Each of those four teams could win the Super Bowl, or fail to win a playoff game. The AFC is the most wide-open conference we’ve seen in years.
– Tom Brady could make even more history
The oldest player to win NFL MVP? Tom Brady at 40. Perhaps come February, Brady will bump the standard another four years.
At 44 years old, Brady entered Sunday ranking second in passing yardage (2,650), 10th in yards per attempt (7.7), first in touchdown passes (25) and second in QBR (69.0). If the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers win another 12-14 games while Brady notches 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, he’s likely taking home MVP honors.
– No team is more all-in than the Rams
Los Angeles general manager Les Snead isn’t hoping things break right for his Los Angeles Rams. Instead, he’s aggressively buying better percentages now at a high cost to the future.
Snead is without draft picks in the first four rounds of 2022 and the first two rounds of ’23 after trades to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford and edge rusher Von Miller. Los Angeles also has huge contracts paid to a litany of stars including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, corner Jalen Ramsey and edge rusher Leonard Floyd, with Stafford to soon follow.
If the moves result in a parade come February, celebrate. If the Rams don’t win in their window, though, it’s going to be a long rebuild.
– The NFC is a five-team battle
Unlike the AFC, it’s clear who the top teams are in the NFC. The Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, Buccaneers and Cardinals have a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Everybody else is cannon fodder.
The only wild card in the conference is the Seattle Seahawks. If they can sneak into the postseason with a healthy Russell Wilson, they’ll be capable of pulling an upset or two before getting bumped out. Beware Seattle.
– Ja’Marr Chase is the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year
Since 2004, only two receivers have won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award (Percy Harvin, Odell Beckham Jr.). There’s about to be a third. After a brutal preseason filled with drops, Chase has stormed the league with the Cincinnati Bengals, reunited with LSU teammate Joe Burrow.
Through nine games, Chase has 44 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. Combine those numbers with lacking quarterback play from the rookie class and no dynamite running back, and Chase has all but sewn up the hardware.
– The Cardinals might be the league’s best … so far
Yes, even after getting blitzed 34-10 by the Carolina Panthers. At 8-2, Arizona is tied for the league’s best mark and when healthy, have been near unstoppable offensively with a terrific defense. Once Kyler Murray returns, there’s no reason to expect a downturn.
However, much like the Tennessee Titans — more on them below — the Cardinals have skeptics. Arizona has a litany of terrific wins but will it sustain this level of play through January? Impossible to say, but injuries to J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and Murray are concerning. This can’t become a trend for the Cards, who don’t have the requisite depth to survive.
– There will be plenty of coaching vacancies come January
In 2019, five head coaches were fired. Last year, the number rose to seven. Expect the number in that range again.
Barring a surprise final two months, the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers are all missing the playoffs and could make a change. This gives us seven potential openings, and that doesn’t include the Las Vegas Raiders, who saw Jon Gruden re-sign in disgrace and currently have an interim coach. Of course, there’s also Urban Meyer with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While it’s a foolish bet to think all seven aforementioned teams move on, the Bears, Broncos and Vikings are almost compelled to find replacements. If New York continues to crater, Joe Judge is in real trouble. The most fascinating name is Kyle Shanahan, who is seen by many as a great coach and yet has one winning season out of five.
– The NFL needs to revamp the officiating process
No need to go deep here. The officiating has been awful this year, and this isn’t a space which normally attacks the zebras. It’s high time the NFL, a league grossing around $20 billion annually, starts investing more in making sure the right calls are made.
How does it happen? Start with making officiating a full-time job with great pay and benefits. In return, officials should be working year-round, honing their techniques and skill sets during the offseason. Furthermore, the NFL should focus on cleaning up the process of calling certain penalties (taunting, roughing the passer). It’s long past due.
– Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have gone two different directions
Two AFC North quarterbacks entered their fourth seasons looking for extensions. One has proven his worth beyond any doubt. The other has only created doubt.
Jackson has been spectacular, even with his dud on Thursday night. The Heisman Trophy winner has thrown for 2,447 yards with 14 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The yardage is on a pace to obliterate his former high-water mark of 3,127. On the ground, Jackson has 639 yards, easily on course for a third-straight 1,000-yard campaign.
Meanwhile, Mayfield has been hurt and, when healthy, mediocre. The No. 1 overall pick in 2018 has only nine passing touchdowns while the Cleveland Browns languish in last place at 5-5. There’s no reason to do anything but pick up Mayfield’s fifth-year option and wait.
– The Dolphins couldn’t be more out on Tua Tagovailoa
Has any team ever done less to support a first-round quarterback?
Last year, the Dolphins benched Tagovailoa twice for Ryan Fitzpatrick after proclaiming the youngster as a starter. This year, Miami has publicly flirted with trading for Deshaun Watson — who is facing 22 civil suits for alleged sexual assault — and then didn’t do so. For Tagovailoa, the message is clear: we don’t think you’re good.
And maybe the Dolphins are correct. Tagovailoa hasn’t shown a strong arm, he’s been injury-prone since his Alabama days and his numbers of seven touchdowns and five interceptions are backup-level. Still, general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores’ actions have set Tagovailoa up for disaster, and that’s exactly what has transpired.
Top 10 first-overall picks since the AFL-NFL merger
1. Peyton Manning — 1998 — Indianapolis Colts
2. John Elway — 1983 — Baltimore Colts
3. Bruce Smith — 1985 — Buffalo Bills
4. Earl Campbell — 1978 — Houston Oilers
5. Terry Bradshaw — 1970 — Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Troy Aikman — 1989 — Dallas Cowboys
7. Orlando Pace — 1997 — St. Louis Rams
8. Lee Roy Selmon — 1976 — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9. Cam Newton — 2011 — Carolina Panthers
10. Michael Vick — 2001 — Atlanta Falcons
“I took a lot of time in the decision-making, and it wasn’t to build anticipation or nothing. This is my life and I feel like I’ve been through a lot. I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to play football, I’ve dedicated, I’ve sacrificed a lot to be here. It just happened that this felt right in my heart and in my soul.”
– Los Angeles Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on his decision to sign with L.A.
After being rumored to land with a half-dozen teams, the Rams swooped in and signed Beckham to a one-year deal after he cleared waivers. Beckham totaled 17 catches for 232 yards and zero touchdowns over six games with the Browns this year. Now, he gets a chance to prove he’s still an elite player.
With the unfortunate news of Robert Woods tearing his ACL, Beckham needs to acclimate and become a force quickly. If he struggles, the Rams will rely heavily on youngster Van Jefferson to step up.
Going into Sunday’s game with the Denver Broncos, the Philadelphia Egles were permitting a league-worst completion percentage of 75.5. Teddy Bridgewater went 22-of-36 in the 30-13 loss almost exclusively on short throws. Not good enough.
Info learned this week
1. Russell Wilson struggled badly as Seahawks sink further
The Seattle Seahawks got a jolt of life with the news Russell Wilson was returning. Then Wilson played, and the jolt was more like an electrocution.
Wilson and the Seahawks were dismal in a 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. After missing three games with finger surgery, Wilson was a brutal 20-of-40 for 161 yards with two interceptions in his first time being shut out.
At 3-6, the Seahawks have the benefit of a weak NFC wild card field, but the schedule doesn’t get easier this week. Seattle draws the Cardinals and potentially Kyler Murray, if he can get healthy enough to avoid missing a third consecutive game. After that, the docket softens with the Washington Football Team, San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, giving the Seahawks a chance to get rolling.
However, even with the 5-5 Carolina Panthers currently occupying the No. 7 seed in the NFC, Seattle has to get rolling. It’s fair to wonder if Wilson came back too early and if he did, will he continue struggling at this level?
The Seahawks need to hope this was rust, and nothing more.
2. Patriots announce themselves in AFC by crushing Browns
The New England Patriots are back to being a menace.
After being punchless in 2020, New England topped the league in money spent in free agency before selecting rookie quarterback Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall pick. The results were on full display Sunday, with a 45-7 hammering of the Browns.
At 6-4, the Patriots are only a half-game back of Buffalo in the AFC East with the two teams having a pair of matchups remaining. With the Atlanta Falcons up next on Thursday night, New England has a chance to be 7-4 as we approach Thanksgiving.
As for Jones, he’s been extremely efficient. Against Cleveland, Jones threw for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 8.6 YPA. Nothing amazing, but only four incompletions. New England is built to run the ball, play defense and have Jones pick up third downs and convert within the red zone.
Right now, all phases are operating wonderfully.
3. Chiefs blow out Raiders to vault atop AFC West with well-rounded showing
By their standards, the Kansas City Chiefs have been a mess all year. Now? In first place.
After humbling the Las Vegas Raiders by a 41-14 count on Sunday Night Football, KansasCity finds itself alone in the AFC West penthouse. Patrick Mahomes snapped out of his midseason funk, throwing for 406 yards and five touchdowns without a turnover.
And while Mahomes is deservedly the storyline, the Chiefs’ defense is the long-term story.
Everyone reasonable believed Mahomes would eventually find himself. The same for Kansas it’s offense. Yet over the first five weeks, it appeared Kansas City’s defense was a lost cause. Ranking at or near the bottom of the league in literally almost every category, the unit couldn’t find any calling card.
However, through the past five weeks, the Chiefs are 4-1 and have been led by a defense averaging 15.6 points per game against. Many believed the improvement was a byproduct of playing Washington, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers and the Giants. On Sunday, though, Kansas City harassed Derek Carr, forced two turnovers and shut down Las Vegas’ rushing attack.
The story here isn’t Mahomes being Mahomes. That’s normal. The story is Kansas City’s defense becoming a much more reliable unit as the weather turns.
4. Ravens’ loss is brutal with tough schedule ahead
Not all losses are equal. The Baltimore Ravens understand all too well.
After losing 22-10 to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the Ravens fell to 6-3. While they play the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field this week, the Ravens’ final seven games are a gauntlet. Starting in Week 12, Baltimore takes on the Steelers and Browns twice apiece, while also drawing the Rams, Packers and Cincinnati Bengals. Each of those teams has a winning record.
Had Baltimore beaten the Dolphins, it would’ve likely only needed to handle the Bears and then won two more games to ensure a playoff berth. Now, the AFC North is wide open once more and with a. bad stretch against a hellacious schedule, the Ravens could conceivably be fighting for their postseason lives come January.
5. Rams, 49ers meet in critical MNF affair
For the Rams, Monday night is about getting back into the race for home-field advantage in the NFC. For the San Francisco 49ers, it’s about survival.
At 7-2 but coming off a hideous loss to the Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles is trying to reestablish in the brutal NFC West. With Arizona leading the division and having a road win over the Rams from Week 4, L.A. can’t afford to lose ground. Additionally, the schedule doesn’t let up with rematches agents Seattle and Arizona ahead, along with the aforementioned trip to Baltimore.
As for the Niners, it’s the witching hour. San Francisco is 3-5 and has only one win since starting 2-0 against the Detroit Lions and Eagles. With a loss on Monday, one would imagine Jimmy Garoppolo rides pine the remainder of the year in favor of rookie Trey Lance, who is raw but with immense talent.
With one of the NFL’s oldest rivalries meeting again, there’s plenty at stake.
Take Chicago to cover the six-point spread at home against Baltimore on Sunday.
The Bears are off a bye and Justin Fields looked dramatically improved against a good Pittsburgh defense on Monday night. Meanwhile, Baltimore is one of the league’s worst pass defenses and the offense is completely reliant on Lamar Jackson being Superman. Take the points.
The Titans deserve a deeper look.
As mentioned above, Tennessee has a terrific resumé. The Titans are on a six-game winning streak with victories over the Colts twice, Bills, Chiefs, Rams and Saints. All of those teams are either at or better than .500. At least half our legit Super Bowl contenders.
Yet why does it feel nobody wants to buy in nationally? Perhaps it’s the injuries to Derrick Henry and Julio Jones. Maybe it’s Ryan Tannehill, who has become a good quarterback but falls short of elite. Maybe it’s Tennessee being a small market without a history of Super Bowl victories. Whatever it is, it’s not based in what we’ve seen this season.
Of course, the NFL is about December, January and a weekend in February. The Titans will have their doubters until they get into the playoffs and beat Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and/or Patrick Mahomes in the biggest moments.
Still, give respect to the Titans. They’re winning against quality opponents without their stars. The defense, much-maligned to begin the year, hasn’t allowed 30 points since beating Buffalo in Week 6. It’s a unit with stars at every level.
It’s fair to wonder how the Titans will hold up in the crucible of the postseason. But right now, there’s no disputing what they’ve done to this juncture.
Inside the league
Every year at either the Senior Bowl or Scouting Combine, the previous season becomes the conversation. And every year, the same refrain is mentioned.
Before Thanksgiving is for seeding. After Thanksgiving is winning time.
Sounds simple, or perhaps even short-sighted, but that’s reality in the NFL. Over the first 10 weeks or so, general managers and coaching staffs are figuring out what they have, and more importantly, what they lack. It’s a time to figure out what is needed and from a scouting standpoint, what can be exploited in upcoming opponents both in the remainder of the regular season and potential playoff matchups.
With Thanksgiving only 10 days away, the time for pressing has come.
For evidence of this theory, the last two campaigns provide ample proof. The Buccaneers were languishing at 7-5. They never lost another game. In 2019, it was the Chiefs at 6-4 and scuffling. Then 10 straight wins and a title.
To this juncture, teams have been jockeying. Some have played their best football already. Others are warming up as the weather cools down.
It’s the latter group which will make history come February.
On Saturday, Sam Huff passed away at age 87. He’s one of the pillars this game is built upon.
A third-round pick of the Giants in 1956, Huff won his only title as a rookie, when Big Blue smashed the Chicago Bears, 46-6. Over his 13-year career, the West Virginia native notched five Pro Bowls and six All-Pro honors, earning himself a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As importantly, Huff brought football to Americans in a new way. During a 1960 CBS special entitled The Violent World of Sam Huff, he was wired for sound during an exhibition game. It showcased the burgeoning pastime to a nation yearning for more, and Huff’s ability to play and speak eloquently helped fuel the NFL’s growth in the decade.
Huff, traded to the Washington Redskins in 1964, finished up his career there. Retiring before the 1968 season, Huff returned in ’69 to play for head coach Vince Lombardi, who was his defensive coordinator for his first three seasons in New York.
Huff belongs in both the New York and Washington Rings of Honor, and was a member of the 1950s All-Decade Team.
If you’re telling the story of the NFL, you can’t do it without mentioning Sam Huff. Rest easy.
Cam Newton is back where he belongs.
Last week, Newton signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal to return to the Carolina Panthers. After being cut in the preseason by New England, Newton was a free agent for better than two months before landing in a familiar place.
While it would make for great copy, Newton’s return isn’t likely to spark a playoff run. The Panthers are 4-6 and the offensive line is a mess. However, with Sam Darold hurt and P.J. Walker being a backup, Newton will perhaps get to finish his career where it began.
There’s no reason to make this more than it is. Newton is on his last legs, beat up from a decade in the arena. He’s a shadow of the player who won the 2015 NFL MVP, leading Carolina to its second Super Bowl appearance with a 15-1 record.
And yet, Newton returning is impactful. He’s the most recognizable Panther of all time, in the Mount Rushmore with Julius Peppers, Steve Smith and Luke Kuechly.
It’s always nice to go home. For Newton, a potential storybook ending to a great career.