The presidential election dominated the nation all week, and the NFL had an impact on it. NFL players, most notably Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, pushed for some stadiums to be used as polling stations. The league and players constantly encouraged viewers to vote.
“It turns voting, for lack of a better term, into a cool thing to do,” Michael Tyler, executive vice president of More Than A Vote, said in an interview last month. “If you’re able to turn voting and civic engagement into the thing that’s actually cool to do, that’s going to take a long way toward combating a lot of the apathy and cynicism and disillusionment that we tend to see with young, Black voters in particular.”
The NFL played Sunday in the aftermath of a momentous election, and the wild endings of the 4 p.m. window alone provided a distraction for anybody who wanted one. The season is now more than halfway over, and this is what to know from Week 9:
The Buccaneers got slaughtered. Sunday night was supposed to be about the Tampa Bay debut of Antonio Brown and the return of Michael Thomas to the New Orleans Saints. Instead, it became about trying to figure out how the Bucs could be so bad and wondering whether they’re a Super Bowl contender or doomed to falter against a quality team with a pass rush.
The Saints annihilated Tampa Bay, 38-3, after leading 31-0 at halftime and took control of the NFC South. The Saints were faster, tougher and stronger, especially when they rushed Tom Brady. The Bucs’ offense has been outstanding when Brady is comfortable. When a pass rush can get in his face as the Saints’ did, the entire operation falls apart.
It’s fair to wonder how much of the Bucs’ problems Sunday night and the previous Monday, when they scuffled to beat the woeful New York Giants, owe to competing visions. The additions of Rob Gronkowski and Brown show the Bucs have ceded at least some organizational control to Brady. As the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin pointed out, Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, entered the stadium wearing Bucs gear and walking among staffers with Tier 1 or Tier 2 access. Is Brady or Coach Bruce Arians in charge?
Tua Tagovailoa has arrived. In his debut last week, Tagovailoa relied on the Miami Dolphins’ defense. On Sunday, Kyler Murray refused to give him that option. Tagovailoa matched Murray play for play as the Dolphins beat the Arizona Cardinals, 34-31, and improved to 5-3.
Tagovailoa showed the combination of talents that convinced the Dolphins to bench Ryan Fitzpatrick for a rookie in the middle of a playoff push. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 248 yards, throwing with poise and precision. He ran when he had to, racking up 36 yards on six carries. In the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa delivered a game-tying drive highlighted by a whirling, spinning escape from two pass rushers followed by a 17-yard scamper.
The Dolphins have already matched their win total from last season, and Brian Flores is one of the leading candidates for coach of the year honors. The future with Tagovailoa is bright in Miami, and the present isn’t too bad, either.
The Steelers are still undefeated — barely. For the second week in a row, Pittsburgh survived a last-snap heave into the end zone by the opposing quarterback that would have won the game. Against the Baltimore Ravens, it felt like a hard-fought win. Against the Dallas Cowboys, it felt like an unnecessary struggle.
Behind quarterback Garrett Gilbert, their fourth starter of the season, the Cowboys nearly pulled the upset of the season as a two-touchdown underdog. But the Steelers took their first lead with 2:19 left, when Ben Roethlisberger hit tight end Eric Ebron and Ebron hurdled a tackler to get into the end zone.
The Cowboys nearly won after Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin decided against a field goal that would have put Pittsburgh up eight points and went for a game-clinching first down. The move was probably smart considering the Steelers’ kicking problems — Chris Boswell missed one extra point and had another blocked. The Steelers have stayed unbeaten at 8-0, a franchise first, despite not playing well the past two weeks.
“We can’t keep having this conversation every week,” Tomlin said, “because one of these weeks, we’re going to be doing it with an ‘L.’ ”
The Cowboys may have also pulled the upset had Coach Mike McCarthy not made a poor decision to kick a field goal near the end of the third quarter on fourth and less than a yard from the Pittsburgh 22. The field goal put Dallas up 10, but it was a missed chance to take command of the game.
The Chargers are cursed. Last week, Los Angeles blew a big lead and lost when it allowed a touchdown on the last play. Somehow, after a season of groin-kick losses, the Chargers found an even more gutting way to lose this week in a 31-26 defeat to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert took a beating all game, even leaving the field for a two-point conversion after hurting his knee, and he still led a last-minute drive to the Raiders’ goal line. With one second left, Herbert lofted a perfect fade to rookie tight end Donald Parham Jr. Cornerback Isaiah Johnson swiped at the ball. Parham came down with it, the official signaled touchdown — and the Chargers celebrated a season-saving win.
And then came the review. The ball dislodged from Parham’s hands for a split-second. The call — and the game — was reversed.
The 2-6 Chargers have not lost by more than one score all season; their losses have come by one, three, three, five, five and seven points. Herbert is sensational, but his team is snakebit.
Alex Smith became a starting quarterback again in the most cruelly ironic way. In the first half of the Giants’ 23-20 victory, safety Jabrill Peppers rolled into Washington quarterback Kyle Allen’s legs as he sacked him. Allen’s ankle bent at a ghastly angle, and he exited the field on a cart. Into the game came Smith, who overcame a shattered leg and ensuing infections that threatened his limb and his life, back where he once was.
With Allen out for the season, Washington Coach Ron Rivera said Smith will start next week. Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019, was inactive Sunday for the fifth straight week. And so Smith, at 36, will lead a franchise two years after one of the ugliest injuries in recent NFL memory. It will be his first start since Nov. 18, 2018, the day his leg snapped.
Smith nearly led a comeback victory, finishing with 325 yards and a touchdown, but he threw two interceptions that ended what could have been game-tying or game-winning drives in the final two minutes.
The Seahawks’ pass rush is a problem. Quarterback Russell Wilson may be the MVP front-runner for the best offense in the NFC, but it will be hard to take Seattle seriously as a Super Bowl contender if it cannot generate more pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The Seahawks traded last week for longtime Cincinnati Bengals edge rusher Carlos Dunlap, but even against a Buffalo offensive line that lost two starters, the Seahawks failed to make life difficult for Bills quarterback Josh Allen in a 44-34 loss in which Allen passed for 415 yards and three touchdowns.
The Seahawks entered Sunday 21st in the NFL in pressure percentage and 24th in sacks. They sacked Allen seven times, including one by Dunlap, but that is deceiving. Allen usually had ample time, and the sacks mostly came on plays when he held the ball for a long time or was executing a run-pass option.
Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy are having too much fun. Wouldn’t you like to see the plays the Kansas City Chiefs think up that don’t make it on to the field? Their latest brainstorm surfaced Sunday. On Carolina’s 1-yard line in the second quarter, Mahomes lined up in the shotgun, went in motion to the right, came back to the left to catch the snap while on the move, then wheeled back to his right. In all that movement, the Panthers lost Demarcus Robinson, and Mahomes hit him for one of his four touchdown passes.
The Chiefs’ 33-31 victory was closer than expected — Panthers kicker Joey Slye tried a 67-yard field goal as time expired that would have won the game had it not sailed well right. Mahomes passed for 375 yards, and for the season he has thrown 25 touchdowns and one interception for the 8-1 Chiefs. Kansas City is still the Super Bowl favorite, and Mahomes is gaining on Wilson in the MVP race.
The Ravens won ugly, and they needed it. Baltimore’s issues against top teams surfaced again last week when it lost to the Steelers, and this week, before playing at the 5-2 Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens lost top cornerback Marlon Humphrey to a positive coronavirus test.
The Colts aren’t on the same level as the Steelers and Chiefs, the two teams to beat Baltimore this season, but the discussion this week won’t be about how Lamar Jackson can’t beat good teams. The Ravens outlasted the Colts in a 24-10 victory. Jackson completed 19 of 23 passes for 170 yards and ran for 56 yards and the game-sealing touchdown. At 25-5, Jackson tied Dan Marino for the best record by a quarterback through 30 starts.
Dalvin Cook might be the NFL’s best running back. With apologies to Alvin Kamara, Cook is on fire this season. He rushed for 206 yards in the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-20 victory over the Detroit Lions, and in his past two games he has an absurd 478 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns.