Week 5 in the NFL. I don't even know where to begin. I cannot recall a Sunday like it in my time covering the league and that's not all that surprising given how we live amid such constant uncertainty and fluidity.
I find myself constantly monitoring the news feeds to see how Covid-19 affects games we have on Sky Sports and other contests around the league. As I left my home early Sunday afternoon, everything was in place for Week 5 with Denver-New England moving to Monday night and Buffalo-Tennessee shifting to Tuesday.
By the time I had driven 90 minutes to Sky's studios, the Broncos-Patriots game was off the slate for Week 5 and a raft of fixture changes were heading our way.
There were eight in all and here is a perfect example of how challenging this scheduling Jenga has become for the NFL if they want to avoid bubbles, shortened seasons, forfeits and a delayed Super Bowl… The Coronavirus outbreaks were in New England and Nashville, home of the Titans, yet the knock on effect saw the Los Angeles Chargers' bye week moved forward by a month, while four of their upcoming games were also shifted. And to think Anthony Lynn's men were just sitting at home minding their own business.
There was so much news on and off the field on this Sunday that will live long in the memory. Washington quarterback Alex Smith returned from the gruesome leg injury that saw him undergo 17 operations and almost cost him his life in 2018 on a night when Dak Prescott suffered a compound fracture in an equally-horrific injury that left many Dallas Cowboys coaches, teammates and owners in tears on Sunday night. And left Dak wondering what his long-term NFL future and financial security might look like.
The Atlanta Falcons sacked head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after starting the season 0-5 for the first time since 1997. There was a season-ending injury to Arizona Cardinals pass rusher Chandler Jones and the incredible breaking news that New Orleans had suspended star receiver Michael Thomas ahead of their Monday night game with the Chargers after he punched teammate Chauncy Gardner-Johnson during practice.
I'm sure I'm missing something on the news front. It was that kind of night. Oh yes, Jimmy Garoppolo got benched, Patrick Mahomes lost at home for the first time in a year and a Canadian rookie scored four touchdowns in a game!
There were also some amazing games played on Sunday, most notably those Las Vegas Raiders out-scoring the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in a 40-32 showdown at Arrowhead Stadium.
What was most notable to me in this game was the bombs-away nature of the Raiders. It was like a glorious blast from their past. Al Davis would have been looking down with a half scowl and half smile as Derek Carr went toe to toe with Mahomes and threw for 347 yards and three scores.
And there was very little dinking and dunking. Carr was airing it out to the likes of Henry Ruggs (who can flat out fly) and Nelson Agholor with 219 of his 347 yards coming on passes covering at least 20 yards through the air.
I was also shocked at the performance of the Raiders' defense in the second half. At the break, the score was 24-24 and the Chiefs had racked up 310 yards of offense. If you had asked me at that point, I would have said Mahomes would lead Kansas City to 600 yards and 50 points. It felt like the Raiders had no answer on that side of the ball.
But, in the final 30 minutes, the Raiders held Kansas City to 103 total yards and just eight points; registering two sacks and one turnover – a timely Jeff Heath interception with six minutes remaining.
There felt like one final piece of Mahomes magic was just around the corner when the Raiders came up just short on third down while trying to run out the clock in the final moments. Head coach Jon Gruden made the wise decision not to give Mahomes the ball back, sending Carr up the middle on a quarterback sneak to end a thrilling contest.
I came away from this game thoroughly entertained, impressed by Las Vegas' exciting approach and ever so slightly concerned about the Chiefs defense. So much is going to be on Mahomes if the Chiefs are to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and I very much think they can do just that.
Chase Claypool… The Pittsburgh Steelers are off to a 4-0 start for the first time since the 1978 and 1979 seasons, when they went on to win Super Bowls 13 and 14. The Steelers had a couple of outstanding wide receivers in those Super Bowl years in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. And they might have found another if Sunday night is anything to go by – this team continues to churn out tremendous wide receivers with rookie Chase Claypool being the latest. The pride of Canada became the first rookie in NFL history to catch three touchdowns and rush for a score in Pittsburgh's 38-29 defeat of Philadelphia. Adding Claypool to the duo of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson gives Ben Roethlisberger an abundance of passing game weapons. With the defense also recording at least five sacks for the third straight game, it's clear these Steelers are ready to mount a serious challenge this season.
Baltimore's defense… A Randy Bulluck field goal with 32 seconds remaining robbed Baltimore of a shutout but there was plenty of outstanding defensive play to get excited about in a 27-3 beatdown of the Cincinnati Bengals. Seven different defenders recorded sacks of Joe Burrow and rookie linebacker Patrick Queen, who has played well all season long, had a breakout game. The first-year defender recorded nine tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, running one of them back 53 yards for a score. Like so many defenders who arrive in Baltimore, Queen has hit the ground running and that is testament to the culture of a team steeped in defensive DNA. The Ravens have now scored eight defensive touchdowns since the start of last season – the most in the NFL.
Ryan Fitzpatrick… Heading into Miami's Week 5 game out on America's west coast, this was the first time we had heard serious and continuous whispers about when the Dolphins would start Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback. The bearded wonder that is Ryan Fitzpatrick heard those whispers and shut them down in emphatic fashion as Miami romped to a stunning 43-17 victory over the struggling San Francisco 49ers. Fitz dialled up close to a perfect game as he hit on 22 of 28 passes for 350 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. His passer rating was 154.5… just short of the perfect rating of 158.3. The Dolphins are in safe hands with Fitz at the helm and Tua can learn from one of the most intelligent, team-first, caring and giving players in the NFL today. That's a good situation that will serve the young passer well once the wily vet has passed over the baton. But that's not going to happen just yet so enjoy the Fitzmagic while it lasts.
Jimmy Garoppolo… It was not a glorious return from injury for San Francisco's QB1. Jimmy G struggled badly in completing seven of 17 passes for just 77 yards and two interceptions before being benched for C.J. Beathard. Kyle Shanahan said the benching was "to protect him." I'm sure it was and I don't think a threat to Garoppolo's job currently exists on San Francisco's roster. But I can say with equal certainty that the 49ers jury is now most definitely out on Jimmy G and an interesting 2021 offseason story could yet unfold. Off the back of his missed throw to Emmanuel Sanders to win the Super Bowl and the ensuing offseason interest in Tom Brady, this was always going to be a massive year for Garoppolo. And now he has to right this ship and prove his own worth in very difficult circumstances as the injury-hit Niners are now three games off the division-leading pace set by Seattle. It's a tough mountain to climb.
Philip Rivers… I'm not sure how much gas is left in the tank of the Indianapolis Colts' 38-year-old quarterback. I like Rivers a lot as a person and as a competitor who has always been one of the smartest players in the game and an accurate and timely deliverer of passes. But his game has regressed and I think he is only going to enjoy a short-term stay in Indianapolis. I cannot see Rivers getting any better aged 39, 40 and beyond. He was pretty poor in Sunday's 32-23 loss to Cleveland, throwing two interceptions and compiling a quarterback rating of just 60.5. Rivers' limitations really show up in the redzone, which is why the Colts have kicked far too many field goals this season instead of touchdowns. The Colts need a new quarterback option for 2021.
New York football… What a time to be a football fan in New York – the Jets and Giants are a combined 0-10 on the season. Adam Gase is surely the next head coach out of the door behind Bill O'Brien in Houston and Dan Quinn in Atlanta. At least the Giants made a few plays on Sunday night, but it was against the Cowboys' terrible defense so was that a mere anomaly? Of the two Big Apple sides, I would take the Giants right now – at least they have a few guys stepping up and making plays. The Jets, on the other hand, appear in a world of hurt while starting a year 0-5 for the first time since 1996. And things didn't look any better with 'Off Broadway' Joe Flacco subbing for the injured Sam Darnold on Sunday night.
The Fast Five…
- I had mixed emotions when I saw Alex Smith run onto the field for Washington on Sunday night. I knew how much it meant to him personally to come back from all those operations on a broken leg that very nearly cost him his life. But I also saw the nerves on the face of his wife, Elizabeth, who was sitting in the stands with their children. I don't know if I can ever watch Smith play again without wincing every time he gets hit. And get hit he did, as he was sacked six times in just over one half – four times by Aaron Donald. That aside, this is one of the greatest comebacks in the history of all sports. Incredible stuff.
- Matt Rhule earned a reputation for turning struggling programmes around in college and it looks like he is on a similar course with the Carolina Panthers, who have now won three in a row after an 0-2 start. And all three of those victories have come without injured superstar running back Christian McCaffrey. Mike Davis continues to serve as a wonderful deputy as he racked up 149 yards from scrimmage and scored one touchdown in Carolina's 23-16 win at Atlanta. The Panthers are feisty.
- The signing of Andy Dalton looks like being a shrewd move for the Dallas Cowboys. Following the horrendous injury suffered by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys were on the emotional ropes in a game they had to win against the Giants. Dalton stepped into very difficult circumstances and went nine of 11 for 111 yards while setting up Greg Zeurlein's game-winning 34-yard field goal as time ran out. Dalton was efficient but rarely exciting with the Bengals – but he rarely had weapons like this in Cincinnati.
- Like so many around the NFL, I am absolutely gutted for Dak. I've never met him, but I've heard a great many people say great things about him. And he is now living proof of why NFL players should chase every dollar they can, when they can. Dak has been chasing a long-term deal in Dallas and it never came about this summer. Instead, he played on a one-year franchise tag that paid him handsomely at $31.4 million. But he would, of course, have secured much more financial security with a long-term deal. He took on the injury risk playing under the tag for 2020 and now you have to wonder how he comes back and what kind of financial deal will be on the table when he does return.
- Another week in the NFL and another game in which Russell Wilson steps up big for the Seattle Seahawks, ignoring a man in his face on fourth and goal with just 15 seconds remaining. Wilson fired a strike to D.K. Metcalf to lead the Seahawks to 5-0 on the season with a 27-26 victory over Minnesota that looked very much to be shaping up as a loss in the first half. Wilson has many physical skills of note, but his greatest asset is a mental one… he simply never knows when he is beaten.
Fact of the Week
Romeo Crennel became the oldest man to serve as an NFL head coach in league history on Sunday as he led the Houston Texans to a 30-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at the age of 73 years and 115 days. The interim head coach broke a record previously held by legendary Hall of Famer George Halas, who last coached in 1967 at the age of 72 years and 318 days.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Joe Hirst (@joehirst97) Following the injury to Dak, the Cowboys with Andy Dalton will… boast enough offensive firepower to take a poor NFC East. But I think Dak's injury is a massive blow for the Cowboys and I cannot see Dallas being able to make a serious postseason run when they get there. How can they topple a team like Green Bay with that defense? But if Dalton can lead a genuine challenge, it will be one of the big stories of this crazy 2020 season.
From David Boyes (@guruhd1) The team that is trying the hardest to draft Trevor Lawrence is… the Atlanta Falcons. And it might not be as ridiculous as it first sounds for the Falcons to move on from Matt Ryan. They are in salary cap trouble and a total rebuild is surely coming with the head coach and general manager having been fired. Look for Julio Jones to get traded this month and also there is potential for Ryan not to be the starter in 2021. If you're starting again with a new power structure, having a new and young quarterback to lead the way makes sense.
From Freddy Harper-Davis (@FreddyHarperDav) The last undefeated team will be… the Green Bay Packers. I think it comes down to the two NFC unbeatens because they have truly elite quarterbacks who are in the form of their life in Aaron Rodgers, of Green Bay, and Seattle's Russell Wilson. The Packers are rolling at an average of 38 points per game and I think they could move to 10-0 with wins over Tampa Bay, Houston, Minnesota, San Francisco and Jacksonville before a testing divisional game against Chicago at the end of November. In that same time span, the Seahawks play the tricky Cardinals twice, as well as Buffalo and the Los Angeles Rams. I like the AFC unbeatens, but I don't think they last until mid or late-November without suffering a defeat
From Steve White (@SteveWhiteBIBA) Derek Carr is… screaming at his critics to shut the hell up. He is also benefiting big time from the speed that has been added through first-round receiver Henry Ruggs. The rookie can blow the doors off a defense and that has opened up so much for Carr, who clearly has the arm talent to take full advantage. His pocket presence could be improved, but it's clear Carr is in position to put up some big numbers this season and to lead what is clearly an ever-improving Silver and Black team.
From Matthew P. Dingwall (@Dingwall88) Sam Darnold… wants an NFL do-over. This stuff in New York is no longer fun for him. If he is sticking around, the best thing for his career would be a change of coach and a complete rebuild. If not, I think he flounders for years to come and it is not easy for players to force trades, which would be his other option if the structure at the top doesn't change. If he could force his way out, I'm sure the Colts would be willing to have a conversation.
The Cleveland Browns are 4-1 for the first time since a certain Bill Belichick was in charge in 1994. So it feels right to give a nod of appreciation to the current head coach who has overseen an impressive revival since an opening day hammering at the hands of Baltimore. Kevin Stefanski has these Browns averaging 38 points per game in their winning streak. The Browns have topped 30 points in four straight games for the first time since 1968 and they are doing it with an old school/new school vibe. They seem quite content to line up and smash people in the mouth – through the running game on offense and Myles Garrett on defense – yet they are also dynamic and creative with wide receiver passes becoming a regular thing. I'm not sure how well quarterback Baker Mayfield can operate when it's all on him – that's why the running game is so important – but it does appear these Browns are going to stay the distance and be in the playoff picture come December. It's been a long time since anyone typed that!