Ten Things We Learned in the NFL This Week: Week 10

1. The Concussion Protocol isn’t working very well.

To be more specific, it seems to be working poorly when games are on the line. This week we saw not one, not two, but three instances where the league’s vaunted concussion protocol failed to protect players properly. This doesn’t mean that all of those players have concussions, but in all three cases, the player in question should have been sidelined for a full evaluation. Russell Wilson’s case was likely the most problematic, as he was sent off by the referee following a helmet-to-helmet hit. He sat out only one play before returning to finish the series. After the series was over, he was fully checked out and cleared, but his return to the field was ill-advised at best. Colts QB Jacoby Brissett was cleared for return during the Colts nail-biter with Pittsburgh, but was placed in the concussion protocol after the game was over. Philip Rivers self-reported symptoms the day after the Chargers lost an overtime game against the Jaguars and is now in the protocol as well. Note one very obvious thing…all three players are quarterbacks without, shall we say, a go-to backup. Perhaps less obvious, but probably more importantly, all three were involved in close games at the time of the injury, with the Colts and Chargers eventually losing by three and the Seahawks winning by six. I know no one wants to hear this, but the concussion protocol does apply to important players, and it needs to apply when the game is on the line. If that means that Scott Tolzien is taking meaningful snaps in the fourth quarter, so be it.

2. The Vikings might have a QB controversy

And by that, I mean that they absolutely, positively do. An unspoken rule in the NFL is that you don’t lose your job because of an injury, Drew Bledsoe excepted. After his long recovery and the tears of joy he shed to be back in uniform, Tedy Bridgewater is ready to go, so he’s going to start next week, right? Pump your brakes. Probably not. With the Vikings at 7-2 with Keenum under center for all but one win, I think it’s fair to say that if Keenum keeps up his winning ways, the Vikings will continue to wait and see. Bridgewater will only benefit from additional time to strengthen, and Keenum was more than serviceable against Washington this week, throwing for four touchdowns and over 300 yards. If Keenum struggles in next weekend’s marquee matchup against the Rams, that’s another story. The NFC North isn’t guaranteed just yet, but the Vikings do have some wiggle room to see what happens.

3. Seattle just got a lot weaker on defense

We all know that the NFL hasn’t done a great job putting their best foot forward on Thursday nights schedule-wise, and we’ve seen some evidence that Thursday Night Football is a bad idea from a performance standpoint. That’s not what’s important, though. Players seem to be getting injured more frequently in these games, and last Thursday was no exception, with seven, count them, seven Seattle Seahawks getting injured during the game. Putting aside any financial repercussions from Russell Wilson’s non-concussion, only one is likely to have a lasting effect, but it’s a doozy. Richard Sherman was playing on a slightly gimpy Achilles tendon that probably needed more rest than the short week could provide. The resulting non-contact injury was hard to watch, even as he walked off under his own power, knowing full-well that his season was over. Sherman is the emotional and intellectual core of the legion of boom. They’re in a world of trouble without him. Last week, I said that Seattle was flawed badly this year, and playing without their defensive captain is going to test them. They’re already chasing the Rams in the division and without Sherman, I’m not sure they’ll be able to compete with the Rams head-to-head in week fifteen. Heck, they might even fall out of contention before then. As for Thursday night games, unless the league ups the complexity significantly and schedules them only after bye weeks, I don’t see any way that they could get better. The NFLPA should make this a major point of their next agenda.

4. Either the Chargers are the unluckiest team ever, or…

Nah. I’m kidding. There’s no doubt. They are just wildly, crazily, bizarrely unlucky. How unlucky? Start with this. They are exactly ten points from being 7-2 instead of 3-6. There are only five teams in the entire AFC with a better point differential (-5) than the Chargers. Moreover, the Titans lead their division with a whopping -8. So the Chargers, by that measure (and it’s a good measure, stat fans) should be pretty good at winning football games. And yet, here we are after another Chargers single digit loss…in overtime…
They played the Jaguars tough, managing to load the box and stifle Leonard Fournette in his return, carrying a three-point lead to the two-minute warning. What unfolded next was probably the oddest, and worst, two minutes of football in history outside of Pop Warner. I could go on and on about this little piece of game, because it was simply too bizarre, the football version of a Salvador Dali painting. I’ll streamline it for you: Chargers intercept a Blake Bortles pass and need simply kill clock to walk away with a big win. Instead they immediately fumble the ball, having run only three seconds off the clock. But that didn’t really matter, as Bortles almost immediately threw his second INT to Tre Boston within the span of thirty seconds. The Chargers immediately went three and out, punted, and watched helplessly as the Jags drove for a tying field goal. In overtime, the inevitable happened, as Philip Rivers, previously concussed or not, threw a contested ball that was intercepted and the Chargers lost on the resulting field goal. Just to make it all a little more absurdly Charger-ish…they blocked the kick, and it still went through the uprights. That’s gotta hurt.

5. Houston, we have a problem.

Okay, you can make the argument that the Texans would have lost this week’s game to the Rams even with DeShaun Watson. The Rams look really, really good. That’s not the point though. When Watson went down, Tom Savage first coughed up a loss to the Colts, then got much worse this week, throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles. It’s simple people. Colin Kaepernick is a no-brainer for the Texans, he fits the system designed around Watson far, far better than Savage. Their skill sets align almost perfectly, with the main difference being that Kaepernick is more experienced and has been to a Super Bowl. It might be too late to rescue their playoff hopes now, but Houston has shot those hopes in the foot by not making that call.

6. Martellus Bennett’s shoulder might be ok…

Whether it was a direct result of the Packers falling from contention without Aaron Rodgers, or a conflict over medical plans with team physicians, as he has indicated, no one but Bennett knows. What we do know is that he’s pissed about the way the Packers cut him, and he felt right at home in his reunion with Tom Brady back in New England. Bennett had indicated that he wasn’t expecting to be picked up, opting instead to have the shoulder surgery, but when New England called, he listened to what the Hoodie had to say. I wouldn’t expect Bennett to get a ton of touches in the Patriots’ scheme, but this will make life harder for opposing defenses when new England rolls out the two tight end sets (which they will do, increasingly, now that Bennett is back). Covering Gronk with a single linebacker is already a nightmare for defenses, but needing to worry about Bennett as well, is almost too cruel.

7. The Patriots are done with their Denver demons

Historically, Denver has been a field of nightmares for the Patriots. It’s literally the only place on earth where Tom Brady doesn’t have a winning record. His struggles there, whether it’s because of the altitude, the crowd, or simply Von Miller attempting to kill him 25-30 times per game, have been well documented. This Denver team has under performed this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Well, sort of. But not really. Want to hear a super weird stat? Denver is the fourth best team in the league defensively when measured by yards per game, ranking only behind Carolina, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. That’s the Denver defense we expected to see this season. Here’s where it gets a little odd. Denver is also the fourth WORST defense in the league when you look at points allowed per game. I’m actually not even sure how you allow that few yards but give up that many points consistently. It hurts my brain. Granted, having Tom Brady come in and hang forty-one points on them didn’t help that average, but still. I don’t think Brady will be as nervous the next time he plays at altitude, which will be this coming weekend against the Raiders in Mexico City.

8. The NFC is better than the AFC?

I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair statement, but this week, it tracks. The NFC was 5-0 against the AFC  this week as the NFC South feasted on the AFC East (non-Patriots edition) plus the Rams beat the QB-less Texans and the Lions beat the (ahem) Browns. Perhaps more importantly, as I mentioned, the Titans co-lead their division while having scored less total points than they have allowed. More to the point, eleven of the AFC’s sixteen teams have a negative point differential. That’s just plain strange. It’s not hard to imagine a playoff scenario where Buffalo (who got embarrassed by New Orleans on Sunday), or the Ravens get into the AFC playoffs at 8-8, while the Falcons, Cowboys, or Packers win ten games and go home early in the stacked NFC. It’s happened before, but it always feels wrong.

9. The Cowboys are hurting, just not for the reason we expected.

So Ezekiel Elliot is out. We all knew this was coming, or at least figured it would happen eventually. The Cowboys looked flat in the loss to Atlanta on Sunday, but it can hardly be attributed to Zeke being suspended, as the Cowboys ended up with over 100 yards rushing. The injuries to LB Sean Lee and LT Tyron Smith are both more problematic for the Cowboys prospects. Lee is the play caller of this Dallas defense, they looked simply lost without him. Several blown coverages and obvious confusion allowed Atlanta to move freely and look better on offense than they have in recent weeks. The injury to Tyron Smith, however, is probably the biggest loss to the Dallas’ hopes this year. Dak Prescott can’t be too happy about it either. He was sacked eight times in the game, with six coming from the left side…all by one player. In the absence of Smith, Adrian Clayborn took advantage and bullied replacement left tackle Chaz Green to absolutely terrify Prescott. Neither Lee, nor Smith has been sent to the IR list, so they can both come back this year, but with time running out for the Cowboys, each game they miss will be excruciating for Cowboys fans.

10. Marquise Goodwin played with a heavy heart, and showed it to us all in the process.

Sometimes life reminds us of just how unimportant sports really are. In the wake of national tragedies, forces of nature and personal trauma, we see just how silly it is to be wrapped up in grown men playing children’s games on a national stage. But sometimes, the athletes who play, day in and day out, remind us how much those silly games mean to them as people. The day before San Francisco and the Giants met on the field, Marquise Goodwin and his wife Morgan suffered an unimaginable family tragedy, as their son was stillborn due to complications from the pregnancy. He certainly didn’t need to, but with his family’s support, Goodwin played Sunday, sparking the Niners to their first win of the season with an 83-yard touchdown reception from C.J. Beathard. It was Goodwin’s first touchdown of the season, and unsurprisingly, the moment overwhelmed him. I can’t help but think that in the depths of his grief, as he knelt down in the end zone to pray with tears in his eyes, he turned all that pain into triumph, even if only for the briefest of moments.
Sometimes we play to remember, and sometimes we play to lose ourselves. In those rare moments when the game allows an athlete to do both; that’s when sports really matter.

Question of the Week:

 “The Panthers looked great on Monday Night, did trading Kelvin Benjamin away actually make them better somehow?” Richard D-

Super interesting question. I actually think it might have. This was among Cam Newton’s best performances this year, throwing for four TD’s, so it begs the question. Granted, the Dolphins aren’t one of the league’s top defenses, but Cam  certainly looked a lot more like the 2015 MVP Superman Cam, as Coach Gruden noted during the broadcast. I think that the Panthers coaching staff might have noticed that Newton was looking for Benjamin too much, to the detriment of the offensive scheme. Without him on Monday night, Newton spread the ball around really, really well and made better throws. Only time will tell if the Panthers will continue to improve in his absence, but Newton just seemed to be working through his progressions and making better choices without Benjamin dominating his attention.

Got a burning question? Disagree with me? Want more proof? Want to know my thoughts on your rookie that I didn’t mention? Hit me in the comments and I’ll answer the week’s best question (or questions) in next week’s edition.

 

Tom Capo

 

Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.

 

 

 

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