Week 10 wonders

What a weekend that was in the NFL. Here’s my rundown on some games that caught my eye.

Panthers vs Steelers:

Big performance from the Steelers. This game should have been competitive but it really, really wasn’t. I fancied the Panthers in this one but after what was an impressive opening drive, the wheels came off early. The Panthers secondary seemingly were still studying the injury report and trying to work out if Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster was good to go when he ran by them on the Steelers first play from scrimmage. When the panthers took the field again the Steelers front 7 pressured Cam into throwing a costly pick-6 and that set the tone for the rest of the game. From then on, the Panthers offence was never allowed to get into a rhythm and Cam was prevented from dragging them back into the game like we know he can do. On this form, the Steelers put themselves right in the picture for the AFC.

Everyone who has ever watched football expects the Patriots to get right before the end of December – that’s what they do. But a front 7 this menacing can slow down a hot offence in hurry. The Chiefs and Patriots have at times had to rely on outscoring opponents and neither will relish the thought of going against this unit. Offences like the Patriots and Chiefs are built on their playmakers creating separation, the best way to prevent that from happening is to force the quarterback to get rid of the ball and disrupt the timing. If this can be the standard for the Pittsburgh front 7 and not a one-off game where everything clicked, I like their chances.

Saints vs Bengals:

A similar statement of intent by the Saints in this game. Following on from a big win against the Rams it’s common to come out the next week and be a bit flat. The exact opposite happened. They put on a show that ended up costing Bengals DC, Teryl Austin, his job.

This is a team that seems built to go all the way and it’ll take a lot for someone to persuade me they aren’t the team to beat right now. Drew Brees has some of the best weapons he’s ever had. The defence, after some early season struggles hasn’t given up more than 23 points against anyone except the Rams. They might not be league leading but if the Saints just need 24 to win, I am backing them every time. Even in the shootout against the Rams, they made some key stops when they needed to.

The Rams arguable have an easier schedule but it’s not a stretch to say the road to the Super Bowl for NFC teams goes through the Superdome. Interestingly, the Saints face the Steelers in a week 16 showdown in New Orleans. If nothing changes between now and then, we could be looking at a Super Bowl preview.

Patriots vs Titans:

The Titans have the number 1 scoring defence in the league and they played like it on Sunday. A hugely important win that keeps them in contention and following on form a win over Dallas they are building momentum and confidence at the right time.

Is it time to worry in New England? In some ways yes, but mostly, no. It was just a bad day at the office and every other season the Patriots have a game like this. They move on and win the next 4 or 5 on the bounce. The concerning thing is that it’s already happened this season, more than once, against Detroit and Jacksonville. This wasn’t a close loss where they came up a play or two short. The Titans were dominant. The Patriots offensive line lost the battle and the pressure meant that the timing with receivers was thrown off consistently. A run game could have helped slow down the Titans rush but there was nothing doing there either.

No one is better at making adjustments than this Patriots coaching staff and they have a bye week to put in extra work. Gronk will also return to the line-up along with a few other players who were missing against Tennessee, so there should be no sense of panic or overreaction.

I do see one weakness in this Patriots team and that’s in coverage. The secondary needs a pass rush to be effective. It hasn’t necessarily shown up in sack numbers, or on the stat line but in spots they’ve been very effective at creating pressure and forcing QB’s to get the ball out.  Gilmore is an elite corner (although Corey Davis made some plays on him this weekend) but looking elsewhere the linebackers and safeties have given up big plays at times. This unit excels in tight coverage but they have been exposed when a QB has time, a clean pocket or if the QB can escape the pressure. The Jacksonville game and the second half of the Chiefs game are notable examples where receivers have just run away from defenders. That’s also a part of the reason why the defence has been described as ‘bend but don’t break’, teams can get down the field when there is space for receivers to outrun coverage but down nearer the goal line, the defence can take advantage of the reduced space and play to its strengths.

Whether the Patriots can go all the way rests on play in the trenches – whether the O-line can protect Brady and whether the pass rush can hurry opposing QB’s. Neither has to be perfect just enough to give the playmakers a chance.

Oh, and using Tom Brady as a receiver is not the way forward either.

Other key callouts:

  • The Eagles and Falcons couldn’t sustain momentum and both lost games they arguably should have won. With the Panthers and Seahawks also losing, the wild card picture is wide open in the NFC. The Vikings will take comfort in those results after seeing the Packers and Bears get wins on their bye week.
  • I’m almost ready to believe the Bears are the real deal but before I suggest they can challenge the Rams or the Saints, I want to see how they do against a genuine contender. Games upcoming against Vikings (twice) Green Bay and the Rams will determine if they have a chance to make a run in the playoffs.
  • The Chargers are quietly going about their business and will be a factor in the AFC playoff race.
  • I was worried about whether losing both his OC and Head coach and giving the job to a defensive guy would impact Baker Mayfield’s development. Mayfield didn’t seem to mind one bit.
  • Alongside him in Cleveland, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward also continued to impress. Derwin James is getting all the rookie love (and rightly so) but Ward has been outstanding too.


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