In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, examining an all-time connection that remains as fruitful as ever ...
Rob Gronkowski wasn't supposed to still be this good. The beating he'd taken over the years should've stripped the star tight end of his super powers, making him far less likely to impact games at critical junctures. It speaks to the 32-year-old Gronkowski's greatness that he continues to be a consummate difference-maker. The Buccaneers clearly will need his impact as they brace themselves for another Super Bowl run.
There's no longer any question about whether Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is the greatest to ever play his position. What's becoming just as clear is how much easier his job is when his beloved Gronk is working the middle of the field. Wide receiver Chris Godwin had the monster stat line for Tampa in a 30-17 win over Atlanta on Sunday -- with 15 receptions for 143 yards -- but it was Gronkowski who changed the complexion of that game. Gronkowski had two huge touchdown receptions, both of which left the impression that he's playing some of his best football in years.
It was just two years ago that Gronkowski was enjoying retirement and building a career in television. It was only two months ago that he was sidelined with multiple rib fractures and a punctured lung, and he couldn't finish a Halloween day game against New Orleans because of back spasms. The Buccaneers' offense sputtered in that Saints defeat, and in a loss to the Washington Football Team the following game. Tampa Bay has been on fire ever since, winning three straight and averaging 32.7 points in the process.
Don't think for a second that Gronkowski's return isn't factoring heavily in that turnaround. He's produced 17 receptions for 252 yards and two touchdowns during this winning streak. He's only played in seven games this season, and he's logged 33 receptions for 436 yards and six touchdowns. If Gronk had been healthy for the entire year, he'd be on pace for 80 catches, 1,059 yards and 15 scores.
Those numbers mean even more considering the uncertainty surrounding Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown, another favorite of Brady's. Brown signed with Tampa Bay midway through last season and helped the Bucs immensely during that year's championship push. He's now serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL and NFL Players Association's COVID-19 protocols. If the team decides to release him -- and head coach Bruce Arians has intimated that the franchise hasn't decided Brown's future -- then Brady will be asking even more of other weapons like Gronkowski, Godwin and Mike Evans.
Remember, there's a reason Brady pushed his old pal to leave retirement and come to Tampa. The two have combined for 90 touchdowns, which makes them the second-most prolific duo in league history in that category (after Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison). They won three championships in New England working that magic together. If Gronkowski stays healthy, they're likely to create a similarly lasting legacy in their new home.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Love for the Lions: It feels like Detroit head coach Dan Campbell was building a bit of a national following over the first three months of this season. He spoke from the heart, with unfiltered candor, and he responded to every loss as if somebody was pouring arsenic down his throat. This is why everybody should be happy about the Lions winning their first football game of the season on Sunday. The 29-27 triumph over the Vikings was more than a victory. It was an affirmation of everything Campbell tried to instill in this team as it came into this contest with a record of 0-10-1. Prior to Sunday, the Lions lost in all manner of ways. Their coach kept preaching familiar tenets in the process, harping on the importance of resilience and toughness and all the other principles leaders embrace in hard times. Their beleaguered quarterback, Jared Goff, embodied those traits as he led the Lions on the game-winning drive against Minnesota, which ended with his 11-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown with no time left on the clock. It's hard to know if Campbell can turn around a franchise that has been down for so long. What can't be questioned is the way he's poured his soul into this team, and the way the Lions responded at a point in the season when most players tap out. There's been a lot happening around the state of Michigan this past week, as many people are trying to honor the kids who recently died in a school shooting at Oxford High School. Campbell dedicated his team's first win to that community after the game, which says something about the man, as well. This could've been a moment when he celebrated everything that his team just did. Instead, Campbell used the opportunity to show the world what he wants this team to ultimately be about.
2) Washington's wild ride: The Washington Football Team would be a holy terror if the NFL ever decided to start its football season in November. That apparently is the only time of year when this team figures out how to play its best football under head coach Ron Rivera. They were 2-5 before November last season and wound up winning the NFC East with a 7-9 record. This year, they fell to 2-6 after a loss to Denver on Halloween. The Football Team hasn't lost a game since, as they've racked up four straight wins in the process. What's even crazier about this year is that Washington is finding its groove even as it is fighting major injuries all over the roster. Tight end Logan Thomas hurt his left knee during Sunday's 17-15 win over Las Vegas, and while it appears he did not tear his ACL, it is unclear when he'll be able to return. Pro Bowl defensive end Chase Young already is on injured reserve with a torn ACL of his own, and defensive end Montez Sweat continues to recover from a fractured jaw. There actually have been enough big names go down on defense that it's stunning how well the Football Team has been playing on that side of the football lately. The same unit that was getting lit up earlier this year only has allowed 70 points over the last four games. One of those efforts came against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and spurred Washington into its current winning streak. At 6-6, the Football Team is two games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. It wasn't that long ago that it was laughable to think about anybody but Dallas winning this division. Washington now has two meetings with the Cowboys and two more with Philadelphia in the final five games. In other words, it feels like the Football Team's timing couldn't be better.
3) Connected Cardinals: Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray lost a realistic shot at winning the league's MVP award thanks to a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the previous three games. The irony here is that the Cardinals gained more in his absence than they probably ever imagined. Arizona only lost once without Murray, who returned to action in a win over the Bears on Sunday, and that means they're still very much in control of the top spot in the NFC playoffs. That stretch without Murray could've been an ideal time for this 10-2 team to show some serious flaws. They had their issues in a 34-10 defeat to Carolina, but they also claimed two key divisional wins over the 49ers and Seahawks. So now we can confirm what's been becoming clearer with each passing week: This team is built to last. It's true that the Cardinals have a blossoming superstar in Murray, who had an efficient day in his return to action (he completed 11 of 15 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns while running for 59 yards and two more scores). It's even more accurate to say head coach Kliff Kingsbury is coaching as a complete a roster as you'll find in the league. They've found ways to win without Murray and J.J. Watt, and even when a COVID-19 outbreak hit their team prior to a victory at Cleveland. All those setbacks will help the Cardinals in January, when they'll have to get through a group like the Packers or Buccaneers to reach the Super Bowl. The Cardinals may have felt like a one-dimensional squad built around an exciting offense a year ago. The look every bit like a team that can sustain this consistency when January finally arrives.
If the Steelers are going to make any kind of noise down the stretch, it's going to be with their star pass rusher playing like he has been lately. Watt had 3.5 sacks in Sunday's 20-19 win over Baltimore. He's had 11 sacks in his last six games, four of which have ended with Pittsburgh victories. The 6-5-1 Steelers obviously will need a lot of things to go right to stay viable in the AFC playoff picture, especially on offense. Watt going off on a weekly basis will go a long way toward helping that cause.
The Los Angeles Chargers earned a huge win in Cincinnati, largely because their defense decided it was tired of being gashed every week. A defense that ranks 31st in the NFL against the run only allowed 96 on the ground against the Bengals. Now, some of that had to do with the Chargers jumping out to a 24-0 lead to start the game, putting Cincinnati in a position to lean on its passing attack, but whatever. The point is that Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who gained 288 yards in his previous two games, wound up with just 54 on 19 carries on Sunday (even though Joe Burrow had a huge day in trying to rally the Bengals to a comeback). There are a lot of reasons to think Los Angeles can win the AFC West. Playing inspired defense will be one of them.
The Eagles are about to have a quarterback controversy because of what Minshew just did in a 33-18 win over the Jets. Minshew went 20-of-25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns while filling in for injured starter Jalen Hurts, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Hurts has played well enough in a revamped offense -- the Eagles have been running the ball like crazy lately -- that the Eagles actually are contending for a playoff spot. Minshew just showed what this offense can do when a more talented passer is under center, as he led the Eagles on seven straight scoring drives. It is important to say this came against one of the worst teams in the league. However, this is also Philadelphia, which means there will be plenty of debate this week.
It didn't take long for Hill to show why he couldn't beat out Jameis Winston as the Saints starting quarterback after Drew Brees retired. Hill's first start of the season -- in last Thursday's 27-17 loss to Dallas -- was one more painful reminder of how New Orleans has veered off the rails, especially since Winston went down with a torn ACL in Week 8. It wasn't just that Hill threw four interceptions (although he did run for 101 yards). It's that there still isn't much evidence he can be more than a nice changeup when it comes to playing quarterback at this level.
The good vibes swirling around the Vikings a few weeks back -- after consecutive wins over the Chargers and Packers -- have evaporated with losses to the 49ers and Lions. The defeat at Detroit should be especially troubling for Zimmer because the Vikings can't afford to drop winnable games at this time of year. They've also now had all seven of their losses decided by 8 points or less (and it's still impossible to understand why the Vikings played such soft coverage on the game-winning pass against the Lions). It's bad enough that injuries and inconsistency have prevented the Vikings from improving a defense that was problematic a year ago. But this is starting to feel very much like a team that simply can't deliver when it counts most.
The Seahawks safety didn't finish Sunday's win over San Francisco because of a shoulder injury. It's the same shoulder he injured last season, which became such a problematic issue that it required surgery. Seattle is still waiting for a firm diagnosis about this situation, but it's fair to say this is one more indication of why the mega-trade that landed the ex-Jet in Seattle last July hasn't paid off for the Seahawks. It's not that Adams isn't a tremendous talent. It's that the Seahawks gave up two first-round picks to acquire him, and his impact on this team's fortunes simply isn't there.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
SCOUT FOR AN AFC TEAM: "They're starting to feel the impact of everything they've been dealing with this year. Losing (pass rusher) Matthew Judon in free agency hurt, and then they lost (cornerback) Marcus Peters before the season (to a torn ACL). Those are huge hits to any defense. You could always move the ball on them on the ground, but their ability to get off the field on third down with exotic blitz packages is what really set them apart. Losing one cover guy who can win one-on-one really made them vulnerable. They don't have that dominant pass rusher they can rely on, and they can only scheme up so much to protect a weaker back end. And that's not a knock on (outside linebacker) Odafe Oweh. He's been really good as a rookie, but he's not on the level of Judon right now. You also can't underestimate what losing a safety like DeShon Elliott does to your secondary. (Elliott went on injured reserve with a torn biceps and pectoral injury in early November.) When you run some of the stuff they do, you expect a certain number of busted coverages to happen. But they've probably had more communication issues with Elliott out. They still have (quarterback) Lamar Jackson and a great coach (John Harbaugh), but their offense is struggling more lately. I don't know how they sustain their success without the kind of defense they're used to playing."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 14 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Packers over Patriots.