“It’s not something you can teach,” Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said earlier this season. “It’s an innate ability that comes with a lot of hard work. He just feels it. He sees it.”
Football has the dreadful capacity to snuff out the best stories, to turn dazzling promise into agony at any instant. Sunday afternoon, a jumble of humanity bowled into Burrow’s left leg as he planted it to throw. His knee collapsed and bent backward at a terrible angle. A cart came to whisk him away.
This NFL season so often feels like a year to endure, not to enjoy. Stadiums are mostly empty. Coronavirus tests are a constant presence. But even the good parts, such as the rise and performance of Burrow in his rookie season, are at the constant, ever-present risk of football. CBS declined to show a replay of the hit Burrow absorbed because it was so gruesome.
Burrow’s season is over. The full extent of his left knee injury could dictate the immediate, if not long-term, course of his career and Cincinnati’s franchise. Quarterbacks can come back from a lot; the opposing quarterback at FedEx Field, Alex Smith, could attest to that. For Sunday, it was one more sad moment in the 2020 NFL season, buoyed only by Burrow’s own optimism.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers still haven’t lost, and Patrick Mahomes narrowly reminded the Las Vegas Raiders who’s boss in the AFC West. Here is what to know.
Taysom Hill will be just fine in Drew Brees’s place. Sean Payton made the surprising decision to start Hill over Jameis Winston, which according to an ESPN report was an unpopular choice in parts of the New Orleans Saints’ locker room. The answer to who should fill in for Brees is that the Saints have an awesome defense and it hardly matters.
Hill’s first start as a quarterback suggested he will be an adequate caretaker, for reasons pertaining to his performance and aside from it. Hill completed 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards in a 24-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, more than 10 yards per attempt despite a rare drop by Michael Thomas, who still caught nine balls for 104 yards. Hill also ran for 51 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. He had his blemishes, taking three sacks and fumbling after a long run that could have put the game away. But Hill’s bruising running fits well with how the Saints play.
And that’s the real reason the Saints will be fine while Brees misses several games with broken ribs: New Orleans is built foremost on a great defense. The Saints have the best run defense in the NFL, and on Sunday they sacked Matt Ryan eight times while intercepting him twice. Hill simply doesn’t have to do that much other than take care of the ball. The Saints won easily even as Alvin Kamara carried only 13 times and didn’t catch a pass for the first time in his career. Payton certainly seemed confident immediately after the game.
The Baltimore Ravens’ loss left a mark. Facing the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens had a chance to right their season and exorcise some demons. The Titans broke them in January in a stunning playoff upset, and they were tied with them this weekend in the AFC wild-card standings. Before the game, Coach John Harbaugh jawed with Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler, with Tennessee Coach Mike Vrabel eventually joining the discussion, and referees had to separate the teams.
After celebrating a touchdown pass to Mark Andrews that put the Ravens up 21-10 in the third quarter, Lamar Jackson bumped Butler’s shoulder on the way back to the sideline. Then the Ravens’ tackling fell apart, particularly against star running back Derrick Henry, and they squandered the lead. They received the ball first in overtime, only to go three-and-out. The Titans marched downfield, and Henry ran through several Ravens’ arms at the line as he burst for a 29-yard touchdown to win it.
The Ravens now find themselves outside the playoff picture at 6-4 and suffering an identity crisis. They pride themselves on their toughness and ability to bully opponents. They have been manhandled while losing three out of four. Running back J.K. Dobbins said the Titans “gave more effort.” Jackson said the Titans “wanted it more.” Both comments were stunning coming from Ravens players.
“We just can’t put 60 minutes together as a football team,” defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. Wolfe surmised that the Ravens’ preponderance of youth may contribute to that, that the team is not “battle-hardened.” Knocking off the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving night would restore the Ravens’ belief in their toughness. Right now they’re reeling, and last year seems awfully long ago.
The Philadelphia Eagles have some big Carson Wentz questions to answer. Wentz continued his year-long spiral in the Eagles’ 22-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns, throwing two more interceptions to nudge his league-high total to 14. The first pick he threw was abysmal, a prayer he heaved as a pass rusher hit him that Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
The Eagles’ passing game has been perhaps the NFL’s worst. Wentz ranks 32nd out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in adjusted yards per pass attempt, a stat that takes interceptions, sacks and yardage gained into account. He is ranked 31st in passer rating.
Wentz is having a terrible season. The Eagles have to ask themselves why this has happened. Is Wentz, an MVP candidate throughout the 2017 season, just bad? They drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round and have shown no inclination to significantly use him as a change-of-pace quarterback, which suggests they had some doubts about Wentz’s future back in April.
The Eagles also have to wonder how much blame Coach Doug Pederson deserves for Wentz’s regression. Wentz has not been the same player since offensive coordinator Frank Reich left after 2017 to become the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach. Philadelphia’s offense frequently lacks coherence and uses personnel in odd ways.
Wentz has a dead cap hit of $59 million in 2021, which makes cutting ties with him difficult to envision. But Wentz, once one of the most promising players in the NFL, has bottomed out — even though the Eagles still somehow lead the NFC East.
The NFC field is just about set. With six weeks left in the season, the entire NFC outside of the harebrained NFC East is effectively playing for playoff seeding or draft position. Every team in the East has three wins, and one of them will win the division and (pause for exceedingly long and deep sigh) host a playoff game.
The other six NFC spots, presuming all 17 weeks are played and the NFL does not add an extra playoff team, are locked up practically, if not mathematically. The Saints, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals will all have at least six wins after this week, and it’s hard to see any other NFC teams cracking that group.
The Chicago Bears are 5-5, but they have lost four straight and their offense has turned to the sludge that clogs your gutters when it rains in the fall. The San Francisco 49ers are 4-6 and have seen their conference title defense devastated by injuries. The Minnesota Vikings had been making a run before they lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 31-28, to drop to 4-6. The Detroit Lions are also 4-6, and, well, let’s be serious.
The 8-2 Saints took command in the race for the top seed and the lone bye when the Packers fell, 34-31, in overtime to the Indianapolis Colts.
Patrick Mahomes makes the brilliant routine. Late Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs took over on their 25-yard line with 1:43 left in the fourth quarter. They trailed by three against the Las Vegas Raiders, who had dealt the Chiefs their only loss of the season back in Week 5. “We had to show them why it runs through Kansas City when you talk about that AFC West,” Mahomes would tell NBC’s Michele Tafoya later.
Most quarterbacks would be frenzied. With the urgency of a man picking tomatoes in his garden, Mahomes steered the Chiefs 75 yards in seven plays, finding tight end Travis Kelce for a 22-yard touchdown. The Chiefs faced only one third down, on a third and one. Mahomes completed six of the seven passes he threw, to four different receivers. The Chiefs beat the Raiders, 35-31, and Mahomes made it look easy.
And that is, in a way, the problem with assessing Mahomes. He has inured everyone to his greatness. Mahomes so often makes mind-blowing plays that receive little notice because he makes them so often. In the third quarter, Mahomes spun away from a pass rusher who broke free up the middle, darted to his left, threw off the wrong foot, away from his momentum, across his body, over the middle for a first down. NBC’s broadcasters treated the play as if he had pitched a simple square out. Mahomes is the best player in football, and his skill has blinded us to how wide the margin is.
The Miami Dolphins’ bandwagon blew a tire. Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa won his first three starts, validating Coach Brian Flores’s bold move to bench Ryan Fitzpatrick in the middle of a playoff push. The transition became far more complicated Sunday as the Dolphins lost, 20-13, to the middling Denver Broncos and Tagovailoa played so poorly that the Dolphins benched him early in the fourth quarter.
Tagovailoa completed 11 of 20 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown while taking six sacks. Denver Coach Vic Fangio is known for exotic schemes and blitzes, and he made Tagovailoa, who had been defined by his poise and decisiveness, look like an uncertain rookie. Flores made clear that even though Tagovailoa’s leg twisted on a late sack, he made the move because of performance, not injury. He also said Tagovailoa will be the starter next week.
Fitzpatrick provided only a slight upgrade as he attempted to erase a 10-point deficit, completing 12 of 18 attempts for 117 yards and an interception. The Dolphins fell to 6-4, and what had been a joyful season of surpassing expectations behind an emerging franchise pillar is now freighted by a quarterback controversy and a challenging path back into the crowded AFC playoff picture.