My first three blogs of the 2023 NFL season covered the following:
1. The 3 essential elements of Super Bowl Bound teams. Winning QBs. Defenses that make Key Stops. Rosters that endure.
2. The Statement Games that invariably take place on Opening Day(s).
3. The difficulty of Picking NFL Winners “on any given Sunday.”
Today, let’s talk about NFL Contenders & Pretenders. And let’s revisit points from my first three blogs as they currently apply.
If you’re still wondering when San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy is going to tank it and start playing like Mr. Irrelevant, forget it. This kid is very poised! And Christian McCaffrey’s big plays make Purdy and the rest of San Francisco’s well-designed offense extremely hard to stop.
Amazing the things that a skilled NFL running back can still do in the right system. Kyle Shanahan’s play designs routinely allow McCaffrey to get lost underneath coverage schemes, causing those… “Why is nobody covering him?” moments that confound football fans on a weekly basis. Genius!
Defenders taking their drops assume they’ll be able to rally to the ball and bring McCaffrey down. But time after time, Christian runs through and/or bounces off tacklers on his way to first downs. When defensive coordinators try man coverage or “spy” techniques, Deebo Samuels and George Kittle find themselves with fewer defenders to beat downfield. Kyle Shanahan deserves full credit for all of this.
Can’t wait to see how the Cowboys deal with the 49ers multi-dimensional offense on October 8th in Santa Clara. Because Dallas sure as hell fell apart defensively in Arizona last Sunday against the Cardinals.
If you bet on the Cowboys last weekend, you might want to go back and read my “On any given Sunday” blog. When Arizona’s Rondale Moore scampered 45 yards for a second quarter touchdown, the Cardinals took a 15-to-3 lead. No worries. The Cowboys defense huddled on the sideline to sort things out. After all, hadn’t they dominated the season’s first two weeks? No solutions were discovered.
In the fourth quarter, the Cardinals fifth-year, 28-year-old journeyman quarterback Joshua Dobbs launched a 69-yard pass to Michael Wilson followed by a perfectly-thrown 2-yard TD strike to Marquise Brown—and the Cardinals posted a 28-to-16 victory over “America’s Team.”
No key defensive stops for Dallas on this day. And the Cowboys roster depth failed to compensate for injured offensive linemen as well as cornerback Trevon Diggs, whose absence was apparent on key passing downs. Oh, yea… and as Dallas tried to mount a late comeback, Dak Prescott threw his first interception of the season. That’s what pretenders do when things get tough and game results are on the line.
Dobbs completed 17 of 21 passes for 189 yards and that key fourth quarter TD in his first NFL win as a starting quarterback. “On any given Sunday…”
Dallas’s Arizona flop opened the door for the Philadelphia Eagles to stake their claim to NFC East divisional supremacy on Monday Night Football. And that they did, despite a slow start against a tenacious Tampa Bay defense.
Early in the fourth quarter, Bucs QB Baker Mayfield orchestrated one beautiful scoring drive culminating with a TD toss to Mike Evans. But by then, it was too late. The Eagles controlled the clock in outrushing Tampa Bay 201-to-41 and rolled up 472 total yards to the Bucs 174. The Birds simply wore them out.
Against a previously unbeaten NFC South team, Eagles QB Jalen Hurts finally appeared comfortable with his new offensive coordinator’s play calling, this despite the fact that he played the game with flu symptoms. Perhaps those who predicted Philly’s decline as a legit Super Bowl contender spoke too soon?
Atlanta and New Orleans, the other two undefeated teams in the NFC South, both lost games they could have won. The Saints defeat proved particularly painful.
New Orleans actually took a 17-to-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Green Bay QB Jordan Love led an improbable comeback. After a Packers’ field goal, Love capped off a fourth quarter drive with a fourth down, one-yard touchdown run. When his head coach Matt LaFleur called for a two-point conversion attempt, Love calmly threw a strike to make the score Saints 17, Packers 11. The Fox broadcast team had a field day with the coach’s play call, but guess what?
Late in the quarter, Love’s second TD pass, a picture-perfect, third down fingertip catch by Romeo Doubs coupled with a point after gave Green an 18-to-17 lead! And when Saints kicker Blake Grupe’s 46-yard field goal attempt to win the game sailed wide right, Lambeau Field erupted in joyous celebration.
Clearly, LaFleur wanted a win, not a tie. One key defensive stop by the Saints would have terminated Green Bay’s chances. But Jordan Love made the winning plays necessary when it counted most. Saints QB Derek Carr left the game with an injury, and his backup Jameis Winston failed to score a fourth quarter point. Contenders tend to make those plays and to score themselves when in matters most. New Orleans did not.
In the AFC East, is anybody else wondering when the Jets are going to realize they are going nowhere with Zac Wilson at quarterback? Please, admit that he’s one of many first-round-bust quarterbacks who just doesn’t have the talent and/or the tool set needed to compete at a high level in the professional game. Please, New York Jets, don’t sacrifice the season on wishful thinking. Trade for a competent passer.
Speaking of quarterbacks, I’m ready to include New England’s Mac Jones in that same “not ready for prime time QB” category. Good thing the Patriots can run the ball a bit. It kept Wilson from further embarrassment, set up some Patriot field goals, and reminded us all how hard it is to lose a Hall of Fame QB (Tom Brady) and remain on top. Unless something changes, these two teams s most likely will bring up the rear in the AFC East.
In the AFC South, the Indianapolis Colts backup QB did rally his team to victory.
Last season, Gardner Minshew performed respectably in several key late season contests for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. Last Sunday, substituting for the injured Anthony Richardson, Minshew kept pace with Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson for 4 full quarters, until Justin Tucker—arguably the greatest place kicker of all time—missed a 61-yard, last-second field goal attempt that would have won the game and bailed out the mercurial Ravens’ offense again.
In the overtime period, despite suffering five sacks and seven hits on the day, Minshew threw a 34-yard pass to Michael Pittman, Jr., the longest completion by either QB on the day. That throw led to Matt Gay’s fourth 50+ yard field goal of the day, the clincher in a 22-to-19 upset victory. The Colts now lead the AFC South. Baltimore dropped into a tie with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North.
Last, but certainly not least, I give you the AFC’s scariest offensive football operation: the Miami Dolphins.
It’s been 57 years since an NFL team scored 70 or more points in a regular season game. Last Sunday, Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins crushed Sean Payton’s Denver Broncos 70-to-20.
Two things about this game stood out. First, Jaylen Waddle, Miami’ s second fastest receiver and big-play threat, didn’t even play! Secondly, once the Dolphins took a commanding lead, they seemed to be running the ball with simple offensive designs—and Denver still couldn’t slow them down!!!
Old school purists suspected Miami might have been running up the score. What were the Dolphins supposed to do—snap the ball then take a knee? Furthermore, what were Payton and his QB reclamation project doing while all this was going on? There’s something rotten in the state of Denver, folks. I referred to Payton’s “bad karma” in my recent book. I foresee no sudden miracles for Russell Wilson and the Broncos.
As for Miami, if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa remains healthy and the Dolphin defense continues to make key stops, I’m wagering that this team’s speedy roster may prove to be too much for the rest of the AFC—and quite possibly, for whoever has to travel to Miami for a playoff game.
After three weeks, they certainly have left no doubt that they are, indeed, serious and legitimate Super Bowl Contenders.