LONDON -- There is no longer a question about whether an NFL team could succeed in London. The only uncertainties left are whether any NFL owner has the combination of desire and circumstance to move there, and whether the owners as a whole will prioritize laying the groundwork for that move as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.
Watching Sunday's Bucs-Panthers game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a.k.a. Spurs Stadium, a.k.a. Hot Toddy, a.k.a. The Big Tot, I was struck by the unvarnished enthusiasm of fans in the UK loudly cheering a seemingly meaningless Bucs touchdown that cut the Panthers' lead to 37-26. Jameis Winston completed his most Winstonian afternoon yet this season -- seven sacks, five interceptions and two fumbles (one lost) -- and still, the entire crowd stuffed with jerseys of all 32 teams stayed glued to their seats until the final snaps of an otherwise sloppy affair, gamely cheering the final first downs heading to nowhere. It was remarkable to see the Bucs playing in front of such a rapt, packed "home" crowd, especially late in a desultory loss.
Even if the right team emerged to leave for London, the logistical complications are myriad. The league would need buy-in from the NFL Players Association, which is why I'm curious to see how the owners handle the London question during the ongoing negotiations for the new CBA, which figure to heat up in 2020, with the current CBA set to expire after the 2020 season. The Tottenham facility -- built in part for the NFL -- is too loaded with amenities and massive NFL-only locker rooms to only be used twice a year. The Rams and Raiders, moving into new facilities next year, won't be willing to give up home games so easily in the future, which further complicates matters. Whether the league winds up eventually taking games away from Wembley Stadium, which has hosted 21 of the NFL's 26 UK games thus far, or examines an even bigger London slate of games, the NFL doesn't want a growing market to stagnate.
The initiative to begin playing regularly overseas in 2007 has gone better than even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could have imagined, bearing fruit in a new generation of zealous fans. They are ready for the next step. Is the league?
As we transition from Week 6 to Week 7, here are six more takeaways from around the NFL:
Winston, chosen first overall four years ago, and Mariota, chosen second, are playing out the final years of their rookie contracts, and it's hard to imagine Winston returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Mariota returning to the Tennessee Titans in 2020. They limit their offenses in such different ways, although a lack of clarity and a 2-4 record for their two teams ties them together. Winston is so hesitant for a player who turns the ball over so much (68 picks, 19 fumbles lost in his career), befuddled by what the Saints and Panthers have shown him the lasttwo weeks. At least Winston mixes in a few pretty throws that trick the mind into thinking better days are ahead.
Mariota's tendency to hold on to the ball without making big plays creates a low ceiling for his potential and an even lower floor, as witnessed Sunday in Denver, when he averaged under 3 yards per dropback, completing only 7 of 18 passes for 63 yards and two interceptions while taking three sacks. The Great Mariota-Winston Debate of 2015 has come down to whether you think six turnovers is worse than 0 points.
Mariota is in greater danger of losing his job immediately and is less likely to stay with his team long-term. In Ryan Tannehill, a former first-round pick in his own right (by the Dolphins in 2012) who came in after Mariota was benched Sunday, Titans coach Mike Vrabel has a capable, if similar, backup he could turn to. Vrabel said Monday he had yet to decide on this week's starter against the Chargers. Usually, a non-answer early in the week means a change is coming, which shouldn't be a huge surprise.
UPDATE: Tannehill will start in Mariota's place this Sunday, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
Mariota failed to lead the Titans to double digits in scoring in three of his last four games, with the only exception being a 24-point first-half outburst in Atlanta in Week 4, a total that should be adjusted down to account for the inflation of playing against the Falcons' 26th-ranked defense. There are always mitigating factors to Mariota's struggles, but three head coaches and four offensive coordinators have tried to unlock the Hawaiian hero's potential without results; Mariota has yet to top 3,500 yards in a season, and his career touchdown total of 76 ranks last among QBs to have started 60-plus games since 2015. Even if he gets another chance to rally this moribund Titans offense, Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson are likely to start over at the position come January.
Winston has a better chance to stick in town, at least for now. Bruce Arians said he came back to coaching partly because he believed in Winston as a franchise quarterback, and he said Monday that Winston won't be benched. After all, there's no reason to believe backup Ryan Griffin could turn around a team that ranks 30th in points allowed this season. GM Jason Licht, who received a surprising extension of his own this offseason, entered this season hoping to sail away into the future with the quarterback he took No. 1 overall. Winston, so indecisive on the field Sunday in London, is making the choice for him.
2) The Rams are in deep trouble in the NFC West. Sean McVay's offensive line is a problem that won't go away, made worse by the brilliant success of the team's division rivals. It's as if the 49ers were genetically engineered to end McVay's golden run atop the division. On Sunday, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa pushed around the Rams' front with an overwhelming dominance that was almost tough to watch. The Rams' hearts were taken out after they were stuffed on the goal line late in the first half. The Rams netted zero yards over their next six drives combined, including minus-19 yards in the third quarter.
3) The AFC South may not be so wide open after all. Just two weeks ago, the AFC South appeared to be as open-ended as any division in football, with all four teams sitting at 2-2. A few followers of Godner Minshew have started to lose faith in the meantime, while the Titans have scored a total of 7 points in two straight losses. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, meanwhile, has helped his team rack up 84 points in back-to-back Texans wins, including Sunday afternoon's fireworks show in Kansas City. If not for drops and his teammates' self-inflicted mistakes, the Texans, who didn't punt once, might have scored on every possession against the Chiefs. The team is as balanced as any in the AFC, with a strong running game to support Watson and a defense that improves by the week. The excellent pass protection I wrote about in Week 3 against the Chargers has stayed excellent since. The Texans head to Indianapolis this week, with a chance to open up a lead in the division they may never surrender. Power Rankers -- like my podcast poobah, Dan Hanzus -- don't need to look any further for the AFC's next legitimate challenger to the throne.
4) Consider the Cam Newton report by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport to be a warning shot. I've seen enough Sunday morning news bombs to read between the lines. Rapoport's carefully worded report regarding the starting quarterback job before Carolina's victory in London didn't exactly require an Insider-Speak-to-English Dictionary to translate, anyhow. The Panthers are going to let Kyle Allen, who's started four games (going 4-0) since Newton stepped away to deal with a foot injury, keep starting at quarterback as long as he's winning. After one of his cleanest games, it would be shocking to see Allen benched when the team returns from its Week 7 bye. The Panthers can massage how this is handled publicly based on Newton's health, and I still fully expect to see Cam start again this year. But it is fascinating that a coaching staff whose jobs are on the line likely want to keep seeing what Allen can do. A steep upcoming test against the 49ers defense could be Allen's best chance to lay his claim to his job for now, which is about as long as any NFL job is promised for.
5) The moratorium on "trusting" the 49ers probably should have ended a while ago. The Fighting Kyle Shanahans entered Week 6 ahead of the Patriots in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which measures overall efficiency. The two teams are lapping the field, which nicely matches the eyeball test. The mark of great teams is not an ability to win close games but the ability to absolutely destroy other NFL teams. The 49ersdid it Sunday to the Rams, more than doubling their rivals in points (20-7) and yards (331-157) on the road. The 49ers dispatched with the Browns and Bengals by halftime in each ofthose games, while even San Francisco's close win over the Steelers came with an asterisk: They had to be dominant to win a game in which they turned the ball over five times.
Shanahan has done an incredible job with an offense that still is dealing with serious injuries to its two talented starting tackles, so the ride figures to get bumpy at some point before Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey return from injuries. But the 49ers have already built a nice cushion at 5-0 with the Redskins up next, and there's every reason to believe they are among the Super Bowl favorites this season, if not the NFC favorites. Change happens fast in the NFL, and sometimes you just have to trust what the numbers -- and your eyes -- are telling you.
Injuries have played a big role, but the Chargers have fallen off a cliff defensively this season despite a mostly forgiving schedule. They have already lost as many games as they did all of last year and are unable to find one part of the team to rely on. The team's running game and scoring have declined since Melvin Gordon returned in Week 5, and they have to deal with unwelcome crowd noise in all 16 games. Philip Rivers is set to become a free agent after this season, with the team heading into its new stadium in 2020. I worry.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Against the Browns on Sunday, Wilson became the first player since 1950 to throw more than 13 touchdown passes without throwing a single interception in his team's first six games. He also made Cleveland's early 20-6 lead at home disintegrate with ease. Over Seattle's three scoring drives in the second quarter, Wilson completed 8 of 12 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, pulling the Seahawks to within 2 points at halftime, then carried his team to its third straight win.
HONORABLE MENTIONS:Vikings WR Stefon Diggs has been targeted four times or less in nine career games, and three of those games came this year. Against the Eagles on Sunday, he reached double-digits in targets (11) for the first time in 2019 and rewarded Minnesota with 167 yards and three touchdowns. Panthers DT Gerald McCoy recorded 2.5 sacks against his old Bucs teammate Jameis Winston, his highest-single game total in six years.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.