sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Sunday gave us some wild outcomes in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys put up goose eggs for the first three quarters of a dismantling at the hands of the Denver Broncos; the New Orleans Saints staged a furious comeback in the last eight minutes of their game against Atlanta only to see the underdog Falcons walk off with a win; and the Tennessee Titans intercepted Matthew Stafford twice in 15 seconds in their upset of the shellshocked Los Angeles Rams.
But I’m tempted to spend the entire chat talking about the Battle of Josh Allens. First of all, I’m easily impressed by funny name things. But second … what the heck happened to the Buffalo Bills?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We all thought Josh Allen would be the best player on the field — and that ended up being true.
That was just the 22nd game since 1998 in which a player had at least one sack, one fumble recovery, one interception and five tackles.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Jags defense not only had Josh Allen on their side of the ball — which negated offensive Josh Allen — but also followed a recipe for making life hard on gunslinging QBs by playing a lot of Cover 2. They played 48 percent of their defensive snaps out of that coverage — which uses two deep safeties to try to force opposing QBs to take short throws and march down the field methodically — tops in the NFL in Week 9, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. It worked. Allen had an average depth of target of 6.1 yards and a Total Quarterback Rating of just 26.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Josh Allen the quarterback entered the week as the MVP favorite, but I think we’ve ignored his obvious regression. And we should have seen this game coming: Every player who has appeared on the Monday Night Football “ManningCast” lost his next game, and he was on last week.
Allen has been rescued by touchdown efficiency, but that didn’t save him in Week 9. His yards per attempt for the year is down to 7.0. It was 7.9 in 2020 and 6.7 in 2019. If a defense takes Stefon Diggs out of the game, is this offense robust enough to compensate? I don’t think so.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also, I saw this and thought of Mike:
Salfino: The pressure really got to Allen. If I were a Bills fan, I’d be worried about the offensive line, which is banged up. This team doesn’t have a particularly strong run game, either.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh himself said it best: He played like shit.
Salfino: Unlike the Cowboys game, I don’t think this was just one-off game but rather a game that brought some seasonlong issues into sharper relief.
neil: Um, I think the Cowboys have to be worried, too, but I guess we’ll cover that later.
sara.ziegler: LOL, yes.
It is tempting to write this Bills loss off as just one game, but the Jacksonville-ness of it all makes that harder. There’s just no way a team like the Bills should have lost to a team like the Jaguars.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The NFL is super weird. I’m glad we don’t have to make power rankings after this week … wait.
Salfino: The Bills have scored, but what are they great at? They can’t run, and their passing efficiency is below average.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think many will point to their defense, Mike. And it was still good on Sunday!
Salfino: I agree their defense is good, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on defense. This isn’t the 1985 Bears. Look at what the Titans did to the Bills defense.
neil: The Bills were the first team Jacksonville held to 6 or fewer points since the 2018 Colts.
neil: Let that sink in.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Should we start to worry about the Jaguars’ first overall pick at quarterback, Trevor Lawrence?
sara.ziegler: We should worry for him that Urban Meyer might keep his job.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a pass late that would have sealed the game against the Bills that Lawrence badly overthrew — and the receiver was wide open deep. Would have been pretty nice to see him hit that.
neil: Lawrence is above Zach Wilson and Justin Fields in Total QBR and behind Mac Jones. Given the supporting casts, that’s not surprising. In fact, that might be exactly what we would have expected.
Salfino: I think Lawrence will be fine, but it’s possible he won’t be. Maybe we need to go back to expecting QBs to need a couple of years to develop.
And Neil, who has the best coaching by a million miles of that group?
neil: Not Lawrence! And definitely not Fields.
Salfino: And it’s not just coaching. Bill Belichick found a player-type he’s had success with, a cerebral game-manager. Sort of the pre-2007 Brady. The fit was good, too.
neil: And hey, about the Patriots: they might actually be pretty decent. That 5-4 record is actually worse than their point differential would predict.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Jones should be suspended for that dirty-ass play where he grabbed DE Brian Burns’s ankle and injured him. Absolute clown.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, what was that about?
Tom Brady would never.
Salfino: The Patriots are a dominant defensive, multi-headed committee running team. Rhamondre Stevenson was super impressive on Sunday.
neil: They’re also scoring 26 points per game and only allowing 19. Not a bad formula.
sara.ziegler: I’m still not convinced that Pats are any good — after turning back into a pumpkin, Carolina isn’t exactly the best barometer.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Sam Darnold was the talk of the town, but this is who he really is:
Salfino: The Patriots are back to the old mantra that 80 percent of games are lost and not won, and they’re going to just let their opponents lose them.
sara.ziegler: It’s worked for them before!
Let’s talk about Dallas quickly, because I need someone to explain the Cowboys to me. Dak Prescott looked … not good. Where’s Cooper Rush when you need him?
neil: Even granting that Denver is a good defensive team … that was ugly. Uglier than the final score suggested, even.
Salfino: This is a good stat:
I remember that Brady game. The Patriots pulled out gadget plays and threw everything at Peyton Manning and the Colts. But there were no tricks in this game. It was just a manhandling.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Dak completed fewer than half of his passes, a little over 13 percent less than what we would expect given the throws. And 22 percent of them were off target. I think we can say he’s either not healthy or extremely rusty.
Salfino: Dak missed a wide-open CeeDee Lamb for a long touchdown on fourth down early in the game.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Cowboys had a rough day on fourth down early, and went 0-4 on fourth on the day with an interception and two fumbles, with one fumble lost. Variance got them.
Salfino: The Broncos felt insulted. They haven’t gotten the analytics memo.
sara.ziegler: We need to work that into the fourth-down go-for-it models.
The DISRESPECT factor. (Backronym to come.)
neil: Imagine how the Eagles feel today.
sara.ziegler: LOL — can you feel disrespected when the other team has kickers who can’t make extra points?
Salfino: So you guys don’t think this was just one of those games and are worried that the Cowboys aren’t good?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Cowboys fans feel a lot like this guy, and they should probably be worried:
neil: Anytime I see Dallas’s defense struggle, I have flashbacks to previous years. This was their worst defensive game of the season.
So much of their improvement this season has revolved around, yes, a healthy(ish?) Dak, but also an improved D. Letting Teddy Bridgewater and Javonte Williams carve you up at home isn’t a good sign for that.
Salfino: That’s a good point. Maybe an offense can have one of those days more than a defense can. But eventual Super Bowl teams have stinkers. I mentioned the 1985 Bears, who got slaughtered by Dan Marino. The Bucs last year got crushed by the Saints. The 1994 Niners famously were pummeled by the Eagles, etc.
I mean, the Titans defense looked incompetent against the Jets and now have won five in a row — including four against playoff teams from 2020.
sara.ziegler: Well, let’s talk about the Titans. Tennessee got Stafford to throw nearly the same pick Carson Wentz did a week earlier, and the pick-a-palooza in the second quarter really decided the game. The Titans managed only 194 total yards of offense, so it wasn’t like they were running away with it. But they have now beaten the Bills, Chiefs, Colts and Rams in the past four weeks. Even without Derrick Henry, is this team a force to be reckoned with?
Salfino: I still don’t believe in them!
joshua.hermsmeyer: They’re about the same team they were with Henry — not a Super Bowl contender but a team that will likely make the playoffs and could win a game.
neil: Did that game say more about the Titans or the Rams?
Tennessee is not known for its strong defense, but L.A. couldn’t really do anything offensively in that game.
Salfino: Sacks were the story of the game, along with the turnovers. But they’re related. Stafford had been sacked seven times all year and was dumped five times Sunday night. It’s not like the Titans even have a big-time pass rush.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I just started taking the L on Stafford after his hot start and he does this, so I’m just going to sit this one out.
Salfino: As for the Titans offense without Henry, I don’t see 194 yards as a positive harbinger.
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sara.ziegler: As Mike mentioned, this is still the same Tennessee team that lost to the Jets. Over their next four games, the Titans face the Saints, Texans, Patriots and Jaguars. It’s not that hard to imagine them losing two of those.
Salfino: In fairness, Sara, I keep looking at the Titans schedule and counting losses that end up being wins.
neil: Well, back then we thought Tennessee was in a small group of teams that could maybe be good but were also highly confusing. Now practically every contender fits that description.
sara.ziegler: What a weird season.
Salfino: Yes the story of Week 9 is massive regression to the pack of the so-called “best teams.”
sara.ziegler: One team that did not fall into that trap was the Arizona Cardinals. They were without gunslinger Kyler Murray and all-world wideout DeAndre Hopkins, and yet they really made short work of San Francisco (who had tight end George Kittle back from injury). Yes, the Cards did lose to Green Bay the week before, but are we feeling good about them now?
neil: Colt McCoy now has a slightly higher QBR (63.8) for Arizona this season than Murray (63.0).
joshua.hermsmeyer: As expected.
neil: Yep, nothing weird there.
Salfino: The Cards were super lucky. The Niners had two completions for first downs turn into fumbles in Arizona territory. Heading into Week 9, fumbles on receptions had happened once every 184 catches.
Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 8.2 yards per attempt but was just sacked too much.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s fair, Mike, but also this was a game the Niners had to have, and they literally fumbled it away. Kyle Shanahan deserves to be on the hot seat, I think.
Salfino: And Shanahan didn’t go for 2 down 31-13, and then he punted down 31-17 from the Cardinals 39 in the fourth quarter.
As a head coach, Kyle Shanahan is a good offensive coordinator.
sara.ziegler: I’m not sure it’s fair to Arizona to just write off this win as the Niners blowing it. The Cards’ defense has been impressive, no?
neil: Right, I was going to say, I’m not sure luck plays that outsized a role in a 31-17 game.
The Cardinals had +11.3 schedule-adjusted EPA on offense without Murray or Hopkins. That is impressive however you cut it.
Their defense was also +5.1 and now ranks second in the NFL on the season.
Salfino: I was more impressed by the Cards offense and alarmed by the Niners defense. I think the pitiful play of the defense is the reason why the Niners lost that game and are such a disappointment this year. But of course, you have to give Arizona credit to play well with all the injuries. The Cards were also down A.J. Green and lost Chase Edmonds in the first quarter.
McCoy is also the perfect backup QB. Credit for getting him.
joshua.hermsmeyer: There was an Arizona fumble that Fred Warner had in his hands and let slip away, to your point about the Niners D, Mike. I think Arizona deserves credit for sure, but when the division leader is hobbled with the QB and best WR out, you have to take advantage.
Salfino: Exactly my thoughts, Josh.
sara.ziegler: And then there was the Kansas City-Green Bay game, which was kind of just painful to watch. Jordan Love acquitted himself fine in the absence of Aaron Rodgers, though he’s obviously not quite ready to lead a team to glory. But Patrick Mahomes, guys.
neil: Yeah — they won, against the Rodgers-less Pack, but the slump continues.
Salfino: Three straight games with a yards-per-attempt number under 6.0, and I count two in his regular-season career heading into 2021.
neil: The throw Mahomes made to seal the game was classic Mahomes, but those have been few and far between recently.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Teams have a recipe for the Chiefs now, and they need to come out and beat the scheme. It’s mostly two-deep and four-deep defenders playing zone underneath, forcing Mahomes to be patient. And Kansas City doesn’t have the type of short area guys that can win with quicks.
Salfino: Josh, I think the Chiefs need to run teams out of that but they can’t.
I’m also not feeling that Love was fine. He was up against a bad defense, albeit one playing better of late, but he looked completely undone by the blitzes. He could not convert third downs. If I’m Green Bay, I’m not thinking “we’re good” if Rodgers leaves. I know Love hasn’t played for real in years, but that didn’t stop Mike White. Love didn’t seem to utilize his time as an apprentice. At all.
neil: “That didn’t stop Mike White,” LOL.
Salfino: I’m saying he was competent despite not having played for years. So how is that an excuse for Love?
sara.ziegler: I don’t feel like Love gets much opportunity to learn in that mess of a situation, though.
Salfino: That’s a fair point, Sara.
neil: New rookie metric.
Salfino: He’s not a rookie!
neil: Oh sorry, first-time starter.
What even is a rookie anymore, anyway.
sara.ziegler: Who can say?
Salfino: I know. That was my point. Not playing for years is not really an excuse.
Carson Palmer didn’t play his entire rookie year. Steve McNair didn’t really play for two years. Love didn’t prove he’s bad, but the Packers needed him to show more, in my opinion, to feel good about the program going forward.
neil: Rodgers would have had that same excuse behind Brett Favre anyway. Has the situation Rodgers created for Love now surpassed the one Favre created for Rodgers? (In terms of needless drama.)
Last week’s revelation that Rodgers kinda-sorta fibbed about his vaccination status might have put it over the top.
Salfino: I think it has, Neil. Rodgers is a real diva.
sara.ziegler: That’s the real lesson from all of this.
Salfino: Love is like a backup singer trying to step out of the shadows.
neil: If history is any indication, Love is going to put — IDK, Arch Manning? (that’s the only high school QB I can name) — through hell in 10 or 15 years.
sara.ziegler: Here’s hoping!
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