It was only about 1:30 pm ET, but it was getting dark early for Baker Mayfield.
His best running back didn’t dress for the Cincinnati game. His starting tight end was also scratched. And in the first quarter, Mayfield lost star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on the first pass from scrimmage, an interception.
Mayfield was sitting on an 0-for-5 start, one pick, and four misses. The Bengals were plucky and ready to spring an upset. Skeptical pundits (okay, I’m raising my hand) openly wondered if Case Keenum was needed.
And then, magically, something clicked.
All of a sudden, Mayfield couldn’t miss. And a game that looked forgettable on the Week 7 schedule turned into a surprising, wonderful shootout.
Mayfield finished the game with 297 passing yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winning laser with just 15 seconds left. It added up to a 37-34 victory over the Bengals, in a very memorable Round 2 of the budding Baker Mayfield-Joe Burrow rivalry. Burrow had stolen the lead with 1:06 left, then watched Mayfield take it back with a 75-yard, 51-second desperation drive. As good as it gets.
Mayfield didn’t make a mistake after that awful 0-for-5 start. His only subsequent incompletion was a technicality — a spiked-ball play in the final minute. Otherwise, Mayfield clicked on 22 passes in a row, throwing with touch and velocity, threatening all levels of the defense.
And here’s the amazing thing: Mayfield’s blowup game was fueled by a collection of unknown or unheralded receivers. Rashard Higgins sprung for 110 yards. Rookie tight end Harrison Bryant caught two touchdown passes. Donovan Peoples-Jones, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, had the game-winning score, on as good a throw as you saw all day. One minute Mayfield had the yips, the next minute he’s MacGyver with a football.
Burrow passed the eye test on the other end, throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns of his own (against one pick, and two others that were dropped). He also had a touchdown run, and was the top-scoring quarterback in the early window. He never looks rattled and rarely plays fast. Tyler Boyd (11-101-1) and Tee Higgins (5-71-1) are Circle of Trust guys, and maybe it’s time to reevaluate A.J. Green (7-82-0), who’s produced in two straight weeks. Drew Sample (5-52-0) was useful as a tight-end rental.
Giovani Bernard didn’t go off with his 18-touch spot start, but he still cobbled together 96 total yards and a touchdown, obscuring his 2.8 YPC on the ground. That’s more fantasy-useful than it is real-life useful, but we’ll take it. We just want the bottom-line numbers.
A friend asked me this morning what I thought about the Browns. I told him I really liked HC Kevin Stefanski and respected the defense, but I didn’t trust Mayfield. But Sunday’s inspiring turnaround — even if it came against a pedestrian Bengals defense — demands a reevaluation.
It might sound wacky, but I can’t help but wonder if Mayfield settled into this game because OBJ was unavailable. Don’t misunderstand — I obviously acknowledge Beckham’s world-class talent, and I know defenses constantly tilt coverage to him, no matter if he’s producing or not. But perhaps Mayfield felt free to just let it rip Sunday, not needing to kiss any rings after Beckham left the game. Or perhaps Mayfield finally figured out how to get out of his own way and rediscover the form that had everyone so excited for most of 2018.
We’ll see what the tape says, right? I’m pumped to see how Mayfield follows up things, next week against Las Vegas. And there are plenty of potential smash spots after Cleveland’s Week 9 bye; Houston, Jacksonville, and both New York teams remain on the schedule. Get your popcorn ready. Cleveland might finally be ready for its close up.
Which way is the Big Ben trend flowing?
For a while, I thought today’s B/B lede was going to be all AFC North quarterbacks doing their thing. Ben Roethlisberger had a strong start at Tennessee and the Steelers were threatening a runaway.
Pittsburgh hung on for the victory, 27-24. And Roethlisberger had a passable fantasy line — 268 yards, two touchdowns. James Conner also dropped a sure touchdown in the first half.
But don’t let Roethlisberger’s volume obscure his mediocre efficiency. Although it was fun to see him uncork 49 passes, there were plenty of missteps — he threw three interceptions. And despite the buzzy Pittsburgh receiver crew, he posted a mediocre 5.5 YPA.
Going forward, I’ll be more Roethlisberger-proactive when the Steelers play an opponent who can challenge them. I’m somewhat concerned that Pittsburgh will probably lean on the running game and defense when it meets an inferior opponent.
We also have to check on Diontae Johnson’s health. He collected an absurd 15 targets Sunday, turning them into nine catches, 80 yards, and two touchdowns. But he also suffered a lower-body injury late in the day. We’ll see how the practice week unfolds.
Surprisingly, breakout darling Chase Claypool (one target) was invisible. Meanwhile, JuJu Smith-Schuster enjoyed 14 targets (9-85-0) and Eric Ebron (6-50-0) was useful, if not exactly explosive. Conner had a frustrating day with touchdown luck — one score was wiped out by penalty, he had the goal-line drop, and Benny Snell vultured a score — but he still returned 111 total yards on 23 touches. Snell only had two carries. Conner remains in charge of this backfield, when healthy.
Dallas hits rock bottom
When you lose 25-3 to a mediocre Washington team, there aren’t many highlights. Let’s start unpacking.
I don’t want to critique Andy Dalton too hard, for two reasons. One, a lot of quarterbacks would falter behind that awful Dallas offense line, a group missing four starters. And two, Dalton suffered one of the scariest injuries from Sunday, a wicked and cheap blow to the head from notorious Washington linebacker Jon Bostic. The officials quickly ejected Bostic (a fine is likely, and perhaps a suspension), but surprisingly, no Cowboys stepped in to defend Dalton’s honor. Tells you a lot about this Dallas outfit.
Any team could win the lousy NFC East, so perhaps the Cowboys will explore possible trades with the deadline approaching. Would Ryan Fitzpatrick be up for one more move? And I guess there’s always a chance third-string QB Ben DiNucci could be an unknown gem, or maybe Dalton can return and get in form. But in the meantime, the Cowboys remain the worst return on the dollar in the league. All hat, those guys, no cattle.
I don’t think the Cowboys would be any worse if Tony Pollard needed to play over Ezekiel Elliott. Of course, Zeke got paid and no Jerry Jones organization is likely to bench or marginalize a star like Elliott. Mike McCarthy is starting to look like a possible one-and-done head coach.
• Nobody roots for injuries and we hope Kenyan Drake is okay. But we’re also allowed to say, we’re curious what Chase Edmonds might do in a featured role. If Drake’s injury is serious, Edmonds is a two-handed FAB shove. To complicate things, Arizona heads into its bye week.
• Brandon Aiyuk is basically Deebo Samuel Jr. on the 49ers, one of those players Kyle Shanahan loves scheming for. Samuel is once again hurt. Aiyuk is the easiest grab-and-go call of Week 7 (with Edmonds probably coming into play in Week 8).
• I expected a surprise back to take the Niners offense by storm, I just didn’t expect it to be Jeff Wilson (112 yards, three touchdowns). But Wilson suffered an ankle injury late in the blowout win over New England and his status is cloudy. JaMycal Hasty, the flier I preferred into this game, did play well in limited work (10 touches, 73 yards). Jerick McKinnon was hardly used (three carries, minus-1 yard).
• I felt bad for Cam Newton (three picks, 98 passing yards), who obviously looked compromised. Perhaps his recovery from COVID has not gone smoothly, or maybe there are physical issues to other parts of his body. He hasn’t looked right for two weeks. Nobody reasonable can think this Patriots team is better than the Bills. Bill Belichick has never faced a more difficult job in New England; his defense is riddled with opt-outs, and the offense is devoid of playmakers.
• I guess Tom Brady is winning the Brady/Belichick breakup. It’s almost like Brady is better off with star targets to throw to, and an elite defense — perhaps the NFL’s best — to support him on the other side. New England’s 2019 defense was elite for about three months, but it stumbled down the stretch. New England’s personnel just isn’t there this year.
• It’s one thing for Leonard Fournette to outrun Ronald Jones, sometimes that will happen, but Fournette also snagged six passes. As solid a team as the Buccaneers are, their offensive usage patterns have been tricky to decipher. It only becomes more of a mess if Antonio Brown actually makes his way onto this roster, as he might as soon as Week 9. Not that Brown can ever be called a sure thing ever again.
• I’ve soft-pedaled the Rob Gronkowski return most of the year, but he’s been effective in three straight games. He’s unlikely to ever get back inside the top tier of the position, but he’s good enough to start every week forward, and sometimes that’s enough.
• James Robinson answers the bell every week and Gardner Minshew usually finishes with a playable fantasy line, even if he doesn’t always pass the eye test. But the Jaguars haven’t come close to producing a fantasy-bankable wideout this year. I hope the Jags are kidding when they suggest Minshew could be benched; not that Minshew is a hot prospect, but he’s still a Year 2 quarterback. These are learn-and-develop years. Playing journeyman Mike Glennon would serve no purpose.
• Justin Herbert was amazing again (four total touchdowns, 347 passing yards, 66 rushing yards), and although the Jacksonville defense was an easy mark, it’s notable that Herbert crushed despite no help at all from his backfield. Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson ran for a scant 41 yards on 17 carries. I hope something good happens with Tua Tagovailoa, and I’m excited to watch him debut next week. But if I’m Miami, I’d be petrified I drafted the wrong quarterback. Five games in, Herbert looks like an obvious superstar.
• The only thing that could stop Patrick Mahomes was his own defense and special teams, which bogarted two of the touchdowns in the blowout at Denver. Otherwise, Mahomes did his usual stuff: 8.7 YPA, high-octane offense. The game was so lopsided, it’s hard to know how to spin the Chiefs backfield; Clyde Edwards-Helaire had nine touches, Le’Veon Bell had six (all runs). CEH still could be a lower-end RB1, or maybe he slides down to the full-on RB2 tier. Bell will need projectable volume (think double-digit touches) to be playable in most formats. He did look quicker without Adam Gase on his back, I’ll give him that.
• The Falcons and Lions took turns trying to give their game away; the contest didn’t lack for drama (three lead changes in the final 3:21) but it was riddled with mistakes.
Todd Gurley tried to ice the game by surrendering at the 1-yard line, but accidentally scored; fill in your own lateral-agility joke here. The Lions leaked pregame buzz about D’Andre Swift becoming the backfield chairman, but on the field, it was almost a 50-50 split between Adrian Peterson (12 touches, 30 yards) and Swift (13 touches, 48 yards, touchdown). Peterson is 35, by the way. Swift is 21. The Lions, miraculously, are 3-3.
• Al Capone’s vault had a better reveal than AJ Dillon. Why draft a running back in the second round when you already have a star tailback and a reliable backup? Jamaal Williams is capable of doing anything you ask, and handling a workload, too. And Aaron Jones is a star. (Davante Adams put on such a clinic, the Texans should pay tuition.)
• The Jets looked competent for moments, here and there, though their offense still couldn’t sustain drives. Buffalo looked bored, more than anything, on offense. Eight field goal attempts! Fresh off their first cover, the Jets now head to Kansas City as 20.5-point underdogs.
• Devin Singletary entered the season with a fumbling reputation, which the Bills constantly reminded him of. I wonder if the directive has messed with Singletary’s confidence; he’s holding the ball this year, but not making explosive plays. With Josh Allen still an aggressive runner and Zack Moss looking good today, Singletary isn’t even flex-worthy in Week 8.