photo: USA Today Sports
By Anthony Goss
As the weather gets colder and the NFL playoff race heats up, I enjoy watching the teams at the middle of the pack or teams who started slow try to climb back into contention.
A perfect example of this climb is the Minnesota Vikings. After notching back-to-back wins within its division, Minnesota is inching its way into the wild card conversation. A record of 3-5 leaves the Vikings with a lot of ground to cover, but riding the coattails of RB Dalvin Cook has led to dominant performances in their last two games.
Cook has carried this offense in its last two games, totaling 369 yards and five touchdowns in victories against Green Bay and Detroit. Leading this resurgence, Cook has made his case as the best running back in the league.
Three Good Things
Drew Brees Orchestrates a Vintage Performance
There has been a flagrant disregard for Saints QB Drew Brees this season.
His arm strength is fading, but he has navigated the season basically without his best receiver in WR Michael Thomas. Despite the doubt cast on Brees and the Saints leading up to their matchup against the Buccaneers, they rang the bell and beat down on Tampa Bay. Brees spread the ball to twelve different receivers and finished with 222 yards and four touchdowns with a passer rating of 135.2. Sean Payton continued to use QB Taysom Hill as a wrinkle in an unstoppable Saints offense. The defense was on top of QB Tom Brady all night with nine hits and three sacks.
This dominant victory puts the Saints back in the spotlight in the NFC going forward. Brees may not be the player he once was, but Sunday showed that he and the Saints are not quite ready to let go of a division they have owned the last three seasons.
Bills Notch a Huge Win
Questions surrounded the Bills after a streak of weak showings, mainly focusing on defense and QB Josh Allen. With a 44-34 victory over the Seahawks, the Bills silenced the critics and officially changed the trajectory of their franchise.
Allen was outstanding with 415 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers. The Buffalo defense also stepped up big, forcing four turnovers, generating five sacks, and kept QB Russell Wilson from finding his rhythm throughout the game. Keeping a lid on Wilson is a near impossible task, but Buffalo’s explosive offense picked apart a weak Seahawks secondary which made the difference. In what might be the best win for the franchise in decades, the Bills turned a corner on Sunday.
In consecutive weeks, Buffalo has shown it can win games in a multitude of ways, a key to success in the NFL. The days of competing as an “exciting” or “up-and-coming” team are over; the Bills are a legit Super Bowl contender that can hang with the best teams in the league.
Dolphins Steal One in the Desert
After their rival secured a huge win against an NFC West opponent, the Miami Dolphins returned the favor by marching into Arizona and making a statement in the desert.
First of all, the turnaround of this franchise led by head coach Brian Flores is nothing short of incredible. Through eight games, the Dolphins have already matched their win total from last season. Last week was an underwhelming debut for QB Tua Tagovailoa, but he was the difference this week and led the Dolphins to victory after going down ten early in the fourth quarter. Tua took a couple sacks, but showed a lot of poise for a rookie quarterback in his second start.
Another big difference in this game was the Miami defense, which scored a touchdown for the second consecutive game thanks to DE Shaq Lawson. The Dolphins might be a bit ahead of schedule, but continued performances like these will keep the Bills on their heels in what looks to be a two-team race in the AFC East.
Three Bad Things
Tampa Bay Blunder
Going into Sunday night’s game, the thought of three quarterbacks out-performing Bucs QB Tom Brady was not on the mind of anyone. After a 38-3 drubbing courtesy of the Saints, that is exactly what happened.
In one of the worst performances of his career, Brady posted only 209 yards and three interceptions, one of which hung in the air for an eternity. This disastrous performance was not just his fault, but showed a general lack of preparedness in all facets of the game. The Bucs ran the ball only five times, one carry being a kneel at the end of the game. In addition to Brady’s poor passing, he as under duress the entire night without any help from his offensive line. The defense that looked so promising in weeks past had no answers for QB Drew Brees, and QB Taysom Hill also had his opportunities to expose their porous defense.
It would be an exaggeration to call this a devastating loss for the Bucs, but it does give the Saints the edge in the division going forward.
Lions Coming Up Short
After a disappointing outing last week against Indianapolis, the Lions had a chance to rebound and pick up a key divisional win. Instead, they were trounced by RB Dalvin Cook and the Vikings.
Inconsistency has plagued the Matt Patricia era and the Lions continue to struggle making themselves a true contender. Detroit has shown they can beat their lesser opponents, but against contenders or teams with playoff aspirations, the Lions have come up short. Sunday’s matchup followed this narrative. The inability to contain Cook was a problem, but even worse were the interceptions QB Matthew Stafford threw deep in Minnesota territory on consecutive drives (the second coming after a blocked punt).
The schedule sets up well for the Lions in the coming weeks, but ends with several challenging games. If they cannot change course, Patricia might be on his way out.
Winning Ugly v. Losing Ugly
Earlier this season, Bears QB Nick Foles discussed how winning ugly is better than losing pretty. This sentiment is true, but now the Bears are losing ugly and streaking in the wrong direction.
For the third game in a row, the Bears have demonstrated an ineptitude on offense. Foles and the Bears admittedly moved the ball a bit on Sunday, but could never finish long drives. By the middle of the fourth quarter, the score was 24-3 and despite a couple late touchdowns, it never felt like Chicago had a chance to change the game.
The defense did its part and held RB Derrick Henry in check, but without any response on offense, the game got out of reach. Chicago was able to mask its offensive woes early, but as its schedule become more challenging, points have been scarce. A win against division rival Minnesota on Monday night would be a major boost for a team desperate for momentum.
Keep an Eye On…
COVID Outbreak in Pittsburgh
So far, the coronavirus is the only thing able to beat the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. On Tuesday, QB Ben Roethlisberger and three others were ruled as close contacts with TE Vance McDonald who tested positive for COVID-19. They must isolate for five days and continually receive positive tests while participating in team meetings online. The Steelers face the Bengals on Sunday and, if they are without their quarterback, their undefeated streak might be in jeopardy.