The Wrap - Week 8

The big NFL clash on Sunday night saw the Pittsburgh Steelers remain as the league's lone undefeated team with a 28-24 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

It was as good as advertised with moments of high drama and plenty of big hits that have come to epitomise the league's best rivalry. But, in key situations, this game also showed which quarterback would stay calm amid the pressure-cooker intensity and it was Ben Roethlisberger, of the Steelers, and not Baltimore's Lamar Jackson.

Earlier this season, Jackson said that the Kansas City Chiefs were his "Kryptonite." But maybe it's just elite teams that give him fits. He was at his breath-taking best at times, but also made several key mistakes in a game that was decided by just four points.

Jackson threw a pick six on the game's opening drive. His second interception in the third quarter gifted the ball to Pittsburgh at the Baltimore 21-yard line and Eric Ebron scored a touchdown two plays later. That's 14 points right there. Jackson also lost a first half fumble at Pittsburgh's four-yard line following a sack – that's another potential seven points gone. And he fumbled just after the two-minute warning on fourth down, although he was coming up short on that play anyway.

Jackson was a key part of a Ravens' ground attack that rushed for 265 yards on 47 attempts. But he came up short as a drop-back passer on too many occasions, including on the potential game-winning touchdown pass to Willie Snead that always looked like being broken up by the Steelers' defensive backs.

By contrast, Big Ben displayed a cooler head and played better with the game on the line. After a poor first half, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 21 second half points and 157 total yards, compared to seven points and 64 yards before the break.

His game-winning strike to Chase Claypool was right on the money and the veteran quarterback delivered as a drop-back passer when needed. That is the mark of a franchise quarterback and that is something we still need to see become a regular part of Jackson's game.

On the whole, I think everyone would agree that these are two of the best teams in the league and could very well split this series (they meet again on Thanksgiving). And they could meet in the playoffs. It could, of course, be a different outcome if Jackson and the Ravens can tidy up some of their mistakes.

Those are going to be big moments in the young career of Jackson because he and his team – which has shown it can be excellent and dominant at times – is going to need to knock off elite talent such as the Steelers and the Chiefs if they are to win the Super Bowl. At the moment, they are losing to high-end teams and beating everybody else.

And given the intensity that these two teams play with and the history and tradition surrounding these two proud franchises, anything less than a Super Bowl win is going to be deemed a failure in this 2020 season.

That heaps just a little more pressure on Jackson come January as he seeks his first playoff win knowing he has already lost to Kansas City and Pittsburgh this season.

Who's Hot…

Dalvin Cook… Only eight teams in NFL history have overcome a 2-5 start to reach the playoffs, so there is still a long way to go for the Minnesota Vikings. But Sunday's 28-22 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field at least showed Mike Zimmer's men the way out of their current predicament. Kirk Cousins attempted just 14 passes, completing 11 of them, on a day when Dalvin Cook touched the ball 32 times for 226 yards and four touchdowns. This Minnesota attack simply must go through their running back and the longer that offense is on the field, the better they can play on the defensive side of the ball. It's all connected.

The Miami Dolphins… It was all about Tua Tagovailoa heading into Miami's game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, yet he threw for just 93 yards and one touchdown in a forgettable first start. But the Dolphins beat a quality opponent 28-17 despite being out-gained 471 yards to 145. That Rams' yardage is misleading because, of course, much of that came when chasing a game that was out of hand. Brian Flores bullied Jared Goff as New England's defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 53 and he did the same again on Sunday. Goff was harassed by a fierce and growing Miami defense as the Dolphins forced four first half turnovers while building a 28-7 lead. Miami scored on defense and on special teams and are becoming a team to keep an eye on in the AFC as winners of three straight.

Robert Spillane… Next man up. That's the NFL motto adhered to by all 32 teams. For the Steelers, Robert Spillane is just that type of man, stepping into the breach in the last couple of weeks following the torn ACL suffered by Devin Bush. Last week, Spillane went face mask to face mask with Derrick Henry on a brutal goal-line tackle. And on Sunday, the young defender who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2018 was a star against the Ravens. Spillane scored the game's first touchdown on a pick six and recovered Jackson's fumble inside the game's final two minutes. In between, he led the Steelers with 11 tackles and has already become a key performer for Mike Tomlin's side.

Who's Not…

Jimmy Garoppolo… I'm not buying the whole 'Jimmy's ankle is still bothering him' talk. I just don't put Garoppolo's poor form – or the fact that his head coach Kyle Shanahan has to coach around him every week – down to a lingering injury. I think we have seen a lack of faith in Jimmy G in San Francisco dating back to last season's playoff run. A lack of faith compounded by a poor showing in the Super Bowl loss to Kansas City. I don't think Garoppolo is good enough in the downfield passing game and I don't think he is the long-term answer in San Francisco. Garoppolo's deficiencies as a passer were highlighted further by being on the same field on the same day as Russell Wilson. The two quarterbacks were worlds apart.

Sam Darnold… In just his third NFL season, Darnold is in a fight to save his job with the New York Jets and, given the futile coaching and offensive talent help he receives each week, he is embarking on that scrap with one hand tied behind his back. Darnold threw for just 133 yards on Sunday as the Jets fell to 0-8 with a 35-9 loss at Kansas City. The young passer has not thrown a touchdown pass since September 27 and only has three on the year. The Jets are the leaders in the race for Clemson star Trevor Lawrence and that will definitely end Darnold's spell in the Big Apple… which might not be the worst development for him.

Detroit's running game… The Lions have lacked offensive balance for many years, but it was still jarring to see how poor they were when attempting to run the football during Sunday's 41-21 home loss to Indianapolis. The Lions gained just 29 yards on 13 ground attempts. D'Andre Swift carried six times for one yard, while Adrian Peterson added five rushes for seven yards. No wonder the Lions felt compelled to call 47 passing plays for Matthew Stafford. There were two reasons for that… one, they trailed for much of this game and needed to air it out and two, they absolutely sucked in the running game.

The Fast Five…

  • Cam Newton looked a little more dangerous on Sunday as he rushed for 54 yards and one touchdown. But he lost a fumble late that handed Buffalo a 24-21 win over his New England Patriots. Newton once again failed to throw a TD pass and his Pats have now lost four straight games for the first time since 2002. Whichever way we slice and dice the numbers, Cam is suffering through his worst season as a pro and the dreaded vote of confidence from Bill Belichick will have done nothing to lift his mood.
  • I love the swagger that Joe Burrow plays with on a weekly basis for the Cincinnati Bengals and he was outstanding once again in leading his team to an upset 31-20 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 8. Burrow was playing behind a line missing four starters from the previous week and threw for 249 yards and two scores. Cincinnati only have two wins on the season, but a brighter future lies ahead.
  • It was a day for the ground attacks in Cleveland due to 35 miles per hour winds whipping in from all angles (check out Daniel Carlson's curling missed field goal early in this game). And that saw Josh Jacobs come to the fore for a Raiders team that has now won three out of four on the road this season. Jacobs rushed for 128 yards on 31 carries in a 16-6 win that keeps the Silver and Black in the AFC playoff race. It's hard to judge Baker Mayfield fully given the weather conditions but it was a down day in an up and down season for Cleveland's quarterback, who still has his doubters.
  • Philip Rivers loves a pass into the flat but when Nyhiem Hines is waiting out there to take the football the distance, that is not a bad plan of attack. Rivers is warming up for the Colts with six touchdown passes in his last two games. He has his physical limitations at 38, but he and the Colts are well aware of them and seem to have an effective plan to work around them. Unlike Jimmy G in San Francisco, the Colts are still willing to let Rivers have the ball in his hands as he threw 33 times in a 20-point road win in Detroit.
  • Patrick Mahomes needed a numbers-boosting game after a tough couple of weeks affected by bad weather (rain in Buffalo and snow in Denver). Enter the New York Jets! Mahomes shredded the Jets as he threw for 416 yards and five scores. In a contest that probably held all the intensity of a training camp scrimmage for the Chiefs, Mahomes got all of his guys involved in the fun as the tossed touchdown passes to Tyreek Hill (2), Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and DeMarcus Robinson. Mahomes' passer rating of 115.0 for the season is a career high.

Fact of the Week

Russell Wilson had four more passing touchdowns on Sunday as the Seattle Seahawks improved to 6-1 for the second time in team history — the first being their Super Bowl-winning 2013 season. Wilson has 26 passing touchdowns in 2020, the second-most by any player in his team's first seven games of a season in NFL history (Tom Brady had 27 passing touchdowns in the first seven games in 2007).

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 Dean Faccini (@DeanFaccini) The quarterback who should be most worried is… Cam Newton in the short term because he is not getting much done as a passer and if this develops into a lost season, the Patriots are surely going to be tempted to see what they have – if anything – in Jarrett Stidham. In the longer term, I would worry about Garoppolo in San Francisco, as I mentioned earlier in this column; Darnold in New York and even Kirk Cousins with the Vikings and Mayfield with the Browns. Both of those last two guys still have something to prove. If not in 2020 and 2021, certainly by the time we head into the 2022 campaign.

From Chaz Albrecht (@CAlbrecht89) Most media outlets sleep on the Dolphins because…_ they have been bad for quite a while now and it can take time to convince people that a turnaround is imminent. Miami are now 4-3 and can make a run for the playoffs – they have some winnable games left on their schedule and they are incredibly well coached by Brian Flores. I think Tua growing on the job might actually end up being the undoing of a playoff run but we'll see on that front.

From Matthew Rider (@MattRider199) The Seahawks opponent in the NFC Championship Game will be… the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But there is a long way to go and a lot of football to be played before we can be sure that either team makes it to the Super Bowl semi-final. What about the New Orleans Saints once they get their top two wide receivers back to fitness in Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders? And which other teams are going to get hit by the injury bug. I will say this, the NFC seems a little more clear cut when it comes to predicting its elite and dangerous teams. The AFC playoffs are going to be fraught with danger and intrigue this January.

From Philip Hart (@philharttab) Jerry Jones shoud… accept that this season is effectively a write off given the level of key injuries and poor play in Dallas. But he should also use this second half of 2020 to seriously consider a future without Mike McCarthy. It's embarrassing for any owner to move on from a head coach after one season because it is an admission of getting it wrong in spectacular fashion. But to stick with a coach who has lost the team and who is not inspiring the players would only serve to compound the problem in Dallas. It might be time to start over.

Final Thought…

I want to end this column asking you all to spare a thought for Los Angeles Chargers fans this morning. It is not only the Atlanta Falcons who are capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory this season. The Chargers led 24-3 in Denver but lost 31-30 on the final play of the game – a Drew Lock touchdown pass to K.J. Hamler followed by a Brandon McManus extra point. Since Justin Herbert took over at QB, the Chargers have lost 23-20, 21-16, 38-31, 30-27, then they beat Jacksonville before losing by a point on Sunday. They have twice blown 17-point leads and also an 11-point advantage and now 21. Head coach Anthony Lynn is surely going to be sitting on a hot seat soon. Here are a few comments from a Chargers fan friend of mine this morning to sum up the pain being felt right now. His name has been left off these quotes to avoid the public ridicule

"I was thinking, 'How will we lose this one?'

"We can't lose this many close games. Teams know we will get edgy if winning. The Seahawks have a way of winning tight games."

"It's annoying because if we got into the playoffs, we could upset some teams. But not sure we could do that for four games. We have a good one in Justin Herbert, at least."

The Chargers have found their new franchise quarterback but this is still shaping up to be a frustrating season because they could very easily be 5-2 this year and in the playoff mix.