Ten thoughts encapsulating the first eighth of the season:
1. It’s not hard to shut out the Dolphins these days, but the Patriots, in their last three games (including Super Bowl 53), have not allowed a touchdown. New England’s given up 3, 3 and zero points.
2. Patrick Mahomes is averaging a 410-yard passing game. He had a four-touchdown second quarterSunday.
3. Quarterbacks never get beat up anymore, but Drew Brees (thumb) and Ben Roethlisberger(elbow) will have MRIs today, Sam Darnold will miss a month or so with mono and Carson Wentzmight have a rib issue.
6. In eight days, the Ravens have taken ownership, basically undisputed, of the AFC North.
7. Most impressive first two weeks (non-New England division): San Francisco going on the road to Tampa Bay, Youngstown (practicing for the week at the home of the Youngstown State Penguins) and Cincinnati, and winning by 14 and 24, mostly due to third and fourth running backs and a stout defense.
8. The Steelers, 0-2, have two tough West Coast trips (Niners, Chargers) and a match with Baltimore in the next month. If they have to navigate that road with Mason Rudolph instead of Roethlisberger, it could get late early in Pittsburgh.
9. Kyler Murray is up and down and raw, but I’d pay to watch him play.
10. Antonio Brown has hijacked the first two weeks of pro football’s 100th season, and not much should change this week as allegations of assault against him are investigated by the league. In other news, he’s a good football player. He dominated a couple of series at Miami with four days of practice on a new team. If he plays, he easily could be a redux of the 2007 Randy Moss in New England.
The Bills Can’t Wait to Get Home
You’re going to love my factoid (I hope) about the Bills opening the season with identical road trips to Jersey City/East Rutherford. New Jersey, said quarterback Josh Allen, “started to feel like home, I’m not gonna lie. But now we get to go to our real home, and the crowd will be fantastic for us next Sunday against Cincinnati. At home, you don’t have to use your silent snap count, and you can just focus on playing.” Check out the slate for the 2-0 Bills between now and Nov. 3: Cincinnati home, New England home, at Tennessee, bye, Miami home, Philadelphia home, Washington home. Five of six in the land of Bills Mafia. It’s dream-like, but is there any reason this team can’t be 6-2 at the halfway point?
One of the things I noticed watching Allen on Sunday, intermittently, is he seems to be getting out of the habit of forcing the ball. Late in the game against the Giants, trying to add to a 21-14 lead, he rolled right and really wanted to hit one of two targets in the end zone. But they windows were too small. He threw it away. “We were up seven, and a field goal puts us up two scores, and the defense can finish it off for us,” he said. “The big lesson for me this year is be smart with the football. I feel like [offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll and coach [Sean] McDermott have spent a lot of time teaching me how to play football. They’ve really coached me in the little things.”
“Have you noticed the Patriots have won their first two games by a thousand points?” I asked.
“That’s not on our radar,” Allen said. “I’m focused on enjoying this one and playing Cincinnati.” Good answer.
The Rams Showed Who They Are
Watch that incredible 66-yard Cooper Kupp catch and run from the fourth quarter of the Rams’ 27-9 win over the Saints in Sunday’s NFC title game rematch.
At first, it looks like Kupp is Mark Bavaro circa 1986. But run it back a few times. Kupp was outstanding and physical and instinctive. But he had help. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, two stars, were sprinting along with him like they were running for the end zone. At the Saints’ 40, Woods leveled safety Marcus Williams. At the 26, Cooks blocked corner P.J. Williams off the play. Near the goal line, Woods hit linebacker A.J. Klein, deflecting him while he was trying to tackle Kupp.
Before I watched it 12 or 15 times, I talked to Kupp from the Rams’ locker room. “I’ll tell you what—watch that play over a few times,” he said. “You’ll see Cooks and Woods go down and make blocks downfield. They’re sprinting with me. That is the essence of the team, the connectivity of the team. That play says they care about the team, even when they don’t have the ball in their hands.”
It’s exactly as Kupp says. To see Cooks and Woods blocking the length of the field for Kupp isn’t something you see out of every receiver group, particularly out of receivers who’ve arrived, as those two guys have. But Sunday was Kupp’s turn for the big numbers—five catches, 120 yards—and he had 13 yards more than Cooks and Woods combined. That’s okay. They know they’ll get theirs another Sunday. It’s also a good example of the culture Sean McVay has set up.
The 49ers Can Win in Different Ways
How far the Niners go this year probably depends on the continued maturation of Jimmy Garoppolo, who started his 12th NFL game at 27 on Sunday in Cincinnati. Garoppolo threw touchdown passes of 38, 39 and two yards to three receivers, showed a good command of the Kyle Shanahan offense, and was cool with being a co-star on a 41-points, 572-yard day.
“What was the play you were most proud of?” I asked Shanahan.
“When he didn’t throw it—and he ran for the first down,” Shanahan said. That was on San Francisco’s second scoring drive. First quarter, third-and-six from the Niners’ 34, and Garoppolo took off up the middle. “He’s never scrambled a ton, but you want him to be comfortable enough to do when he has to. And coming off the ACL, it’s good to see him have the confidence to make a play like that.”
What I think is really good for this team: with Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman injured, the third and fourth backs, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, combined for 204 rushing yards on 25 carries Sunday in Cincinnati. On the other side, the 49ers held two good backs, Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard, to 23 yards on 17 rushes. “What’s good about these two wins is we’ve won two different ways, with two different styles,” Shanahan said. “We’ve gotten a lot better on defense, and young guys like [linebacker] Fred Warner and [cornerback] Ahkello Witherspoon, who got forced into playing early, are now better players because of it.”
The negative: A very good left tackle, Joe Staley, suffered a broken leg Sunday and will miss six to eight weeks. Sixth-round rookie Justin Skule will step in, but he’s got the Steelers and the Rams on the horizon in two of the next three games. For San Francisco, 2-0 is good, but with four games against Seattle and the Rams, and road shows at Baltimore and New Orleans, this is going to be a tough road to the first playoff berth of the Shanahan/Lynch era.
Vinatieri Might Have Hit a Wall
Colts coach Frank Reich said he has “zero concern” about Adam Vinatieri after another bad game for the 46-year-old kicker in the Colts’ 19-17 victory over the Titans in Nashville. At the same time, Pro Football Talk reported Sunday night that “signs are pointing toward a retirement announcement on Monday.” Vinatieri missed a PAT and two field goals last week, and he missed two of three PATs on Sunday. Going back to the last game of the last season, when Vinatieri missed two more PATs, he’s missed an alarming seven kicks in the last three games.
This is sure a how historically sure a foot Vinatieri has had in his career: The only other time he missed seven kicks in a three-game span happened in his second, third and fourth NFL games, in September 1996 in New England. That was 23 years ago. He was 23 then. Half his life he’s kicked for two NFL teams, the Patriots and Colts. We’ll see if he has anything left.
Imagine. The last time he was this shaky was in games 2, 3 and 4. His last three were games 384, 385 and 386. Surely he has to be crushed by his recent performance. But his legacy, regardless what this week brings, will end with a yellow jacket and bronze bust.