Mike McCarthy and Bill Belichick coached like it’s not 2021. Offenses have never scored more frequently or moved the ball more easily with less than two minutes left, but you wouldn’t know it from watching McCarthy and Belichick navigate the end of regulation in the Dallas Cowboys’ wild, 35-29 overtime victory at the New England Patriots.
McCarthy made the first bad decision. With 2:47 left in regulation, trailing 21-20, the Cowboys faced fourth and two at the Patriots’ 33. McCarthy needed to go for it. Given the rate at which teams have driven for field goals this year, the Cowboys needed to take advantage of the opportunity to drain more clock. They had two timeouts, so they would be able to get the ball back even if they didn’t make it. Plus, a 51-yard field goal outdoors posed risk. McCarthy elected to kick the field goal, and Greg Zuerlein missed.
McCarthy made an even stranger choice later. After a zany sequence in which Trevon Diggs scored a touchdown off an interception and then Mac Jones tossed a 75-yard touchdown pass in response, the Cowboys drove into New England territory needing a field goal to force overtime. On fourth and one, McCarthy bizarrely called a timeout with 24 seconds left rather than letting the clock run.
Zuerlein made the game-tying kick. McCarthy didn’t call for a kickoff in play, which would have forced a return and drained a few seconds off the clock. But Belichick did not punish McCarthy for either mistake. He called a run up the middle, then called his offense off the field to prepare for overtime.
Advancing the ball 40 yards or so in three snaps with one timeout isn’t high percentage, but it’s not impossible unless you don’t try. Even if the Patriots had a 5 to 10 percent chance to win the game, not taking it is inexcusable. Both coaches made completely self-inflicted mistakes. Dallas improved to 5-1 anyway, but New England dropped to 2-4.
The Cleveland Browns might have a Baker Mayfield problem. The Browns, for all intents and purposes, are wedded to Mayfield. They have not given him a contract extension like the one draft classmate Josh Allen received from the Buffalo Bills, but they have picked up his option for next year for roughly $18 million. Even if the Browns actively tried to move on from Mayfield, they would have a hard time replacing him with a better option, especially with a first-round pick in the 20s.
As the Browns attempt to nudge their way into the NFL’s elite, they may at some point start to wonder if they have a championship roster but not a championship quarterback. Mayfield wasn’t solely at fault for Cleveland’s 37-14 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, who remained unbeaten and stacked up another convincing victory over a quality opponent. The Browns played without star running back Nick Chubb, and their offensive line was overwhelmed.
But Mayfield didn’t help, even if he did heave a Hail Mary touchdown pass 57 yards in the air before the half, and even if he played through obvious pain after aggravating a left shoulder injury. Mayfield threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, took five sacks and lost two fumbles. Against another top opponent, Mayfield didn’t play well enough to win. That may seem unfair, but that is the burden of a No. 1 pick. The Browns have limited future options, other than hoping Mayfield can improve.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are proving there’s nothing fluky about their 6-0 start. They have thumped the Los Angeles Rams and Browns by 17 and 23 points. They won Sunday without Coach Kliff Kingsbury, who tested positive for the coronavirus. Between the way Arizona’s defense is playing and how he stepped in Sunday, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph should get head coaching interviews this year.
The Miami Dolphins are providing a lesson for why teams shouldn’t tank. This should have been the season when the Dolphins crept into contention, when their lean years and sell-offs started to pay off. They are two years removed from their worst team, with the quarterback they drafted after bottoming out, Tua Tagovailoa, in his second season.
Instead, after nearly making the playoffs last year, the Dolphins have regressed. They are 1-5 after a loss in London to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars. The Dolphins degraded their roster in 2019, which led to them getting the fifth pick and acquiring a bushel of draft picks in trades. Those assets seemed appealing, but they are finding out that it takes too long to build depth back up and that acquiring a franchise quarterback is fickler than simply drafting one high in the draft.
While fighting injuries, Tagovailoa has shown few signs he will be an elite quarterback — which stings especially as Justin Herbert, taken one pick after him, has become an MVP candidate for the Los Angeles Chargers. To compound their problems, the Dolphins either misjudged their readiness to win or showed impatience when they dealt a 2022 first-round pick to move up six spots in this year’s draft to select wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Even though Waddle has been excellent, the Dolphins have been lousy, and now the Philadelphia Eagles own their first-round pick — which, if the season ended this week, would be a top-five choice.
Three years ago, the Dolphins got worse so they could get better. It’s starting to look like they’re no better off for it.
Tom Brady is an MVP candidate. It’s not just that Brady isn’t slowing down at 44. It’s that he might be better than ever, surrounded by as much talent as he has ever had at his disposal.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Eagles, 28-22, on Thursday night, Brady has passed for 2,064 yards in six games. That puts him on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season record — even if the season was still 16 games long. Brady leads the NFL in passing yards and ranks second in passing touchdowns with 17.
Brady entered Sunday as Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked quarterback. He’s not the clear MVP favorite thanks to Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, but he is in the conversation. Brady has made what he is doing look easy when really it is unprecedented.
The Baltimore Ravens played like a bully again. The Ravens started the season 4-1 with a foreign style. They entered their showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers with the 19th-ranked run defense and the 22nd-best run offense, per PFF. Their defense ranked fourth-worst in yards allowed per play. Typically the league’s most physical team, the Ravens had relied on Jackson’s passing and wild comebacks.
The Ravens found their old selves Sunday in a 34-6 demolition of the Chargers, whose only prior loss had come by one score at Dallas. Baltimore rushed for 187 yards, and all three of its running backs — Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray — scored a touchdown. They held the Chargers, one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, to 208 yards, including just 26 on the ground.
Jackson has played at an MVP level for six weeks. If the Ravens can summon this kind of stout defense, they deserve to be considered on the same level as the Bills as the AFC’s best team.
Aaron Rodgers owns the Chicago Bears. And he’s not afraid to say so. In the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ 24-14 victory at Soldier Field, Rodgers scored a game-sealing rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter. He leaped to his feet and, after strapping an imaginary championship belt around his waist, turned his attention to the fans.
“I own you!” Rodgers yelled, as picked up by television cameras. “I’ve owned you all my [expletive] life! I still own you! I still own you!”
Rodgers improved to 22-5 as a starter against the Bears, playoffs included. Rookie Justin Fields became the eighth Bears quarterback to start and lose against Rodgers. The others: Kyle Orton, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky.
The NFL has a new favorite play. Offenses have found a new way to torture defenses on the goal line. They have been combining a zone-read handoff from shotgun, except instead of a quarterback run as the second option, it’s a tight end or slot receiver streaking behind the line of scrimmage for a shovel pass.
The Carolina Panthers used the zone-read shovel for their two-point conversion that forced overtime. Rodgers hit Allen Lazard with it for a touchdown. It’s spreading around the league, and defensive coordinators will be challenged to come up with a solution. Defenses have to devote players to stop the running back and the quarterback on the edge while also keeping an eye on the shovel pass in the middle, all from a tight formation.
The Raiders won without Jon Gruden. In a strictly football sense, the Raiders remain exceedingly relevant this season. NFL lifer and former special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, 61, took over as the Raiders’ interim coach this week. He led the Raiders to a 34-24 victory over the Denver Broncos. Combined with the Chargers’ loss in Baltimore, the win pushed the Raiders into a tie for first place in the AFC West.
The Raiders have enough offense to challenge for a playoff spot. Derek Carr is second in the NFL in passing yards, and his receiving corps — star tight end Darren Waller, shifty slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, speedy Henry Ruggs III and the emerging Bryan Edwards — will ensure that’s not an early-season fluke.