That … was an NFL Sunday. Maybe not a memorable one. But we’re still covering it for you …
Remember when people used to complain that the Lions play every Thanksgiving? That won't be the case this week, with Detroit kicking off Thursday’s tripleheader by welcoming the Packers to Ford Field, and doing so—surprise, surprise—as the team squarely on the marquee.
And the team will do it coming off a game that served as another sign that, as we’ve said the past few weeks, this Cinderella story of 2022, the team that surged late, has become a powerhouse in ’23.
These Lions had already administered impressive beatdowns of teams like the Panthers and Buccaneers. They’d beaten the champion Chiefs on opening night, won a shootout with Justin Herbert and bounced back after their one no-show of the season, in Baltimore. Along those lines, Week 11 checked another box. The Lions didn’t have their A game with the Bears in town—but it didn’t matter because they could summon what they needed.
Detroit trailed 26–14 when it took possession with 4:15 left. Detroit won 29–26.
So what happened?
“The great players started making great plays,” one of those great players, second-year terror Aidan Hutchinson, told me from the victorious locker room postgame. “J.G. [Jared Goff] was going down the field, playing at a high level. Everyone was doing their jobs, man. And I really just think it’s that the great players started making great plays.”
That’s the other thing the Lions have going into Thanksgiving this year—a lot of those great players.
And that was really the starting point for the Lions’ scratching out their eighth win Sunday. On that second-to-last possession, with 4:15 showing, Goff connected on all five of his throws, good for 71 yards, and capped by a dime to Jameson Williams (drafted 10 picks after Hutchinson but hampered to this point in his career by injury and a gambling suspension) on a corner route for a 32-yard touchdown just 1:16 later.
“Great play by Jamo, man,” Hutchinson says. “I’m really happy for him. I know he had a touchdown called back last week, so he earned that one.”
The defense then forced a three-and-out that took just 14 seconds off the clock (“It just flipped,” Hutchinson says), and the offense got the ball back on its own 27 with 2:33 left, which was more than enough time for Goff to go back to work. From there, the Lions didn’t so much as face a third down until they were inside the Bears’ 10. By then, Goff had hit on 5-of-7 for 44 yards. Jahmyr Gibbs then went for six on third-and-2 from the 7, and former Bear David Mongomery chewed through the final yard to put Detroit in front.
Hutchinson closed it out with a strip-sack of Justin Fields on the next play from scrimmage.
“I hit my rush that I wanted to hit,” Hutchinson says. “He ended up sitting in the pocket, I don’t think he ever really saw me; he was looking downfield. So it all worked out well. I was waiting all game to hit that rush.”
And as he hit his rush, the Lions hit 8–2, and the history that came with it.
The last time the team was 8–2, as you may have read by now, was in 1962. Dick LeBeau was on that team—as a player. So too were Night Train Lane, Alex Karras, Earl Morrall and Harlon Hill (you may have heard of the trophy named after him, which Bears QB Tyson Bagent won in 2021). My dad was an eighth-grader in Grosse Pointe, Mich. that fall, and those Lions finished two games back of Vince Lombardi’s second title team in Green Bay, which put Detroit in the consolation/third-place “Playoff Bowl” (where they beat the Steelers).
It's been a while, for sure, since things looked this way in the Motor City, which is something that Hutchinson, a kid who grew up nearby in Plymouth and went to school in Dearborn and Ann Arbor, knows all too well. In fact, if the Lions win next week, it’ll mean the team will finish with winning records in consecutive years for just the second time in Hutchinson’s life.
Things have most certainly changed.
“No doubt,” Hutchinson says. “We got something special going on here. So, growing up watching the Lions, you know that’s where the ‘Same old Lions’ saying comes in. But, nah, I think this team is different, man. And it might not be our best every week, but we're going to find a way to finish it. And really that’s all I got to say.”
It’s all he needed to say, with Thanksgiving next, a Thanksgiving he said himself that’ll be “a lot different than last year.”
Last year, of course, was like a lot of previous years. The Lions went in at 4–6 and lost.
They’ve only lost three games since.
And no one’s complaining anymore that they’ll be the first thing we see on Turkey Day.
Before we dive into the rest of the games —I do think it’s worthwhile to fall on the sword a little. I’m like everyone else. I’m (rightfully) big on complaining about the weak calls on quarterback hits. I’m not breaking news when I say, and agree with the chorus, that the flags have gotten way out of control, and it’s getting closer and closer to impossible for defensive players to navigate a minefield of 15-yard penalties and five-figure fines.
That said, this was a weekend where it’s hard not to say … I get it.
Among those taking meaningful snaps in Week 11: Tommy DeVito, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Drew Lock and Jake Browning. Aidan O’Connell, in a roundabout way, is out there for similar reasons, as are Joshua Dobbs (a pleasant surprise), Will Levis and Tim Boyle. Count them up, and that’s eight quarterbacks, meaning a quarter of the league was left, at least for a short time, to give a guy on this list the keys.
If you want a reason why Week 11 was, at times, a tough watch, you can start there. DeVito’s a fun story (and we’re going to cover that, too, Monday). Dobbs is a great one. But in the end, what helps the league is to have a Who’s Who under the Sunday spotlight—Not the Who? we’ve gotten in recent weeks thanks to the continued pile-up of injured quarterbacks lying on the shoulder of the road to Super Bowl LVIII.
So, yes, I do get why the NFL is increasingly handling its quarterbacks like fine china.
The league just wants what’s best for business, and what we saw Sunday wasn’t that.
The Browns are really good, they know it, and now it’s all hands on deck to get what they can from whoever is playing quarterback. And that’s a reality that was delivered on Wednesday, when the world found out that whoever the quarterback is won’t be Deshaun Watson.
Maybe it’ll eventually be 38-year-old former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who will join the team Monday.
For now, it’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
And it was the fifth-round rookie who entered the huddle with 1:18 left Sunday, the ball on the Cleveland 35, the game with the Steelers tied at 10, and a message from veteran running back Kareem Hunt waiting for him.
“I came in like—Let’s go win this game. Be patient. Go out there and play football. We know you can,” Hunt told me afterward.
Thompson-Robinson went out and showed he could. He first found Elijah Moore in a dead spot in the coverage for 15 yards. He then hit Hunt for five yards in the flat, Amari Cooper on a slant for eight, and, finally David Njoku on a hitch for 11 yards to put the Browns in easy field goal range. And by the time Dustin Hopkins banged a 34-yard game-winning field goal through to get Cleveland the 13–10 win, and to a 7–3 mark, Thompson-Robinson had earned his respect.
“There was a ton on the line,” Hunt says. “I’ve seen him grow. He came in with a different mentality [this week]. Attack every practice like it was a game, just preparing himself. I feel like he was very prepared. … I’d seen him making the right reads, throwing good, catchable balls for us, and letting the playmakers make plays.”
Of course, doing that in a single spot is different than being an actual playoff quarterback, which is what the Browns are really looking for in Watson’s absence.
That’s because the rest of the team is super impressive. Sunday was the seventh time in 10 games that the Browns’ defense has held an opposing offense under 300 yards—the Steelers only crossed midfield on three of their 13 possessions—and the fourth time it’s held an offense to 10 or fewer points. The run game was a little stagnant against a tough Steelers defense, mustering 93 yards, but has been productive otherwise, having churned out over 150 yards on the ground in four of its previous five games since the bye.
As for whoever will wind up filling the void left by Watson’s absence, it might be Thompson-Robinson, who was a modest 24-of-43 for 165 yards and a pick. It might be Flacco.
Whoever it is won’t have to be Superman, based on how well the Browns have played to this point around a tumultuous quarterback situation. But they will need something from the position, which is really what Thompson-Robinson was able to give them in a few key spots Sunday. And the pressure on that quarterback to keep doing so will be there, with the expectations the other guys have for the team as a whole.
“The ceiling is as far as we can take it,” Hunt says. “We just find a way to win, no matter what. We got to just find a way to win and play as a team. That was a team win.”
We know the Browns are capable of those.
How their quarterbacks figure into those going forward is the question.
DaRon Bland’s pick-six record is pretty fun—but his emergence is more than a cute story line for a Cowboys team that’s now 7–3 and eyeing much bigger things. Remember, two months ago, and with Dallas’s defense off to an absolutely torrid two-game start, big-money corner Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in practice (less than two months after signing a five-year, $97 million extension) and left Dan Quinn’s unit with a significant hole and questions to answer.
Consider the hole filled, the questions answers and Bland a big reason why.
Last year, Bland worked his way to a prominent role in the secondary, playing in every game and starting six of them at an outside corner spot opposite Diggs. This year, he moved inside, with Stephon Gilmore added aboard, and Dallas simply trying to find a way to get Bland on the field. So the idea of moving Bland back outside when Diggs got hurt was academic. And Bland knew the stakes when Quinn went through with it.
“When Tre first went down, it was devastating,” Bland told me, from the visiting locker room in Charlotte. “Also, when he went down, I knew I had to be the next man up. I just knew that I had to take that mindset, keep being a playmaker, trying to not make too big of a job for yourself. You keep doing what you’re doing.”
Last year, what Bland was doing was leading Dallas with five picks. This year, he’s been even greedier, gobbling up six interceptions with the record-tying four going back for touchdowns.
The interesting thing is the first three pick-sixes came in similar fashion—in the first half of blowouts to break games open. It happened against the Giants in September, and the Patriots and Rams in October. The one this week was a little different from those. Rather than spark a rout, it worked to complete one late.
The Panthers had fought back into the game with a 17-play, 70-yard slog of a drive to cut the deficit to 17–10. The Cowboys swung back with an eight-play, 75-yard drive to match it, finished off with a 21-yard scoring run from Tony Pollard to make it 24–10. That’s when Bland delivered the knockout punch—picking off Bryce Young by undercutting Jonathan Mingo’s route, then getting back on his feet and covering the remaining 30 yards to put the win away.
“I saw the receiver had an under route,” Bland says. “I had to chase that, and then once I got up to him, I turned and seen him go like, ‘Gotta go get it. I gotta go get it.’ I only had about three targets all game. That was one I said I had to go get.”
And by getting it, he gave himself seven games to break the NFL’s record for interceptions returned for touchdowns—and it’s something he’s taken a lot of pride in, being a former high-school star at receiver (all his scholarship offers were to play corner). His only touchdown in college, scored at Fresno State in 2021, was called back on a penalty. So until this year, he hadn’t hit paydirt since those receiver days. But, he says, he never lost his nose for the end zone.
“Having that offensive skill in high school,” he says, “and then coming into the league helped with all the returns.”
What’s important, though, is where Bland’s impact has really been felt—and that’s within a defense that’s absorbed the loss of one of the league’s best playmaking corners without falling off much. That defense is tight-knit, and because it is, Bland got help from Diggs and Gilmore as he transitioned back outside, and the results since have been obvious.
Results that, really, maybe only Bland himself saw coming when Diggs went down.
The difference between the Bills and Jets is obvious. You either have a quarterback or you don’t. And for right now at least, Buffalo was able to emphatically end its Jets hex by virtue of having the kind of quarterback that the Jets don’t.
The numbers make this one easy to explain.
Josh Allen went 20-of-32 for 275 yards, three touchdowns, a pick (on a Hail Mary) and a 108.2 passer rating.
The Jets’ two-headed “monster” of Zach Wilson and Tim Boyle went 14-of-29 for 114 yards, a score, two picks and a ghastly 41.5 rating.
Because of that, it didn’t matter how good the Jets’ defense was, or their skill guys were (the offensive line is another story). For the first time in a while, they faced a locked-in and healthy version of Allen, and once he jammed his foot on the gas, it was curtains for the visitors.
In the MMQB Lead, we’re going to dive into how that happened, after the Bills made their offensive coordinator switch, from Ken Dorsey to Joe Brady. For now, though, what Sean McDermott said to me when I asked whether he had Brady simplify things is pretty relevant: “Maybe so. Maybe so. I think it’s more of just making sure that the quarterback’s comfortable, that’s all.”
In short, the struggling Bills’ fix was a tweak.
The Jets, with a talented roster, need more than that, and need it fast.
The logic in keeping Wilson back in March was sound. The Jets figured he needed a restart, and to sit a while, and that learning from Aaron Rodgers would be great for him, with the hope he could eventually succeed the old man as the team’s quarterback. Then, Rodgers got hurt, and Wilson actually had to play, and the Jets may have wished they’d held on to Mike White, who gave New York solid play over seven starts in 2021 and ’22, then bolted for a nice contract in Miami.
So now they’re stuck. For the first time all year, Saleh left the door open for a noninjury-related change at the position, after Boyle came in at the end of the third quarter and finished the game. And that Saleh left the door open for a change on a short week—with the Black Friday home game against the Dolphins on tap—says a lot about where the team is now at QB.
Until Rodgers gets back, that’s no man’s land, and the trouble is that the Jets may be out of the race before we get to even the most optimistic of return-date projections, with the Falcons, Texans and Dolphins (twice) on the slate over the next month.
As for the Bills, well, their schedule’s tough, too. But for the obvious reason, I feel pretty good saying they’ve got a shot.
Russell Wilson’s playing better than people realize. No, he’s not the spectacular Wilson that we saw as an off-schedule playmaker early in his career, nor is he really the gunslinger who authored four straight 30-touchdown seasons.
But what Sean Payton’s getting out of Wilson is smart, efficient football.
He’s completed 69.0% of his throws, which puts him on pace for a career high. He’s on pace to throw for 3,500 yards. He’s already thrown three more touchdown passes (19) than he did all of last year, with seven fewer interceptions (four). He’s also fourth in the NFL in passer rating (104.0), behind only Brock Purdy, Tua Tagovailoa and Dak Prescott.
The reason why? I haven’t talked to Sean Payton about this of late, but two things that his opponents see as obvious are that Wilson is, again, a willing runner (he wasn’t really in 2022), which compromises the defense and limits what they can throw at the quarterback in the passing game, and that he’s taking easy money more often, something that’s illustrated in the yards that Denver eats up flipping the ball to its backs on scramble plays.
The result is that seven different receivers caught multiple balls from Wilson on Sunday night, and the Broncos were able to lean into a defense that’s playing better by the week, because the offense is capable of complementing it. And a quarterback, in Wilson, who’s better picking spots to take chances—which he did with the go-ahead touchdown throw to Courtland Sutton, who was awesome Sunday, and who seemed to box out their entire secondary on the touchdown catch.
Now, this doesn’t mean Wilson will be a Bronco in 2024. I think his contract still makes the prospect of that relatively unlikely. But it sure shows that, after a tumultuous couple of years, he’s got some good ball left. And the Broncos hope they can get some of that for the rest of the race for the three wild card spots in the AFC.
I think the Chargers’ situation bears watching. I’ve seen good, young coaches let the heat get to them—and burn them as a result. My regular readers know how much I think of Brandon Staley as a coach. But I remember what happened with Joe Judge in New York, and how a single press conference sabotaged his chance at getting a third year there (Giants ownership was planning on keeping him in 2022 until that presser happened), and Staley seemed to be flirting with something similar after the Chargers lost 23–20 in Green Bay on Sunday.
“I have full confidence,” Staley said. “Like I’ve told you from the beginning, I have full confidence in our way of playing. Full confidence in myself as the play-caller, in the way that we teach and the way that we scheme. Full confidence in that. We got to bring this group together and do it consistently. ... And that’s where it’s at.
“So you can stop asking that question, O.K.? I'm going to be calling the defenses ... so we’re clear. So you don’t have to ask that again.”
The bigger problem for Staley is what’s next.
The Chargers will host the Ravens Sunday night in Week 12, and those standalone games always have a way of turning the heat up on people fighting for their jobs. So with his press conference rant out there, his team at 4–6 and Kellen Moore sitting on his staff if the Spanoses wanted to give their OC a dry run at the job, there’ll be a lot of pressure on Staley to quiet the noise this week.
That Joey Bosa’s now out only makes all of this harder.
It’s worth starting the conversation on Caleb Williams now. In case you missed it, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has drawn some off-field attention the last couple of weeks. After a Nov. 4 loss to Washington, there was the picture of the USC quarterback jumping in the stands, and into his mom’s arms, with mom then covering his face as he appeared to break down. Then, after Saturday’s loss to archrival UCLA, Williams left the questions for others, leaving what could be his final college game without publicly answering for what happened on the field.
In a vacuum, these things aren’t that big a deal.
Williams isn’t the first player to go to his parents for comfort, or to cry after a tough loss, nor is he the first guy to blow off the media after coming up short. That said, the public display of jumping in the stands was pretty unusual—that meeting could’ve easily happened in the tunnel, as many of those sorts of things do with family—and not talking to the media left others to have to answer for him.
The problem from there is that these are things that are expected from a franchise quarterback. One is that you’re always on. Another is that when there are bullets to be taken, you take them.
So do teams have an issue with him? The ones I talked to over the past few days said they’ll look more into Williams’s background as we get closer to the draft, obviously, but how well-liked he’s been by his teammates and coaches over the years can supersede questions that come from the above issues.
“He’s well-liked in the program,” says one AFC exec who went through there recently. “I think he’s really good. I’m not concerned. Obviously, you’ll continue to dig and try to spend time with any of these guys …”
“He probably just didn’t want to hear, Are you going to play in the bowl game?” says another AFC exec. “He’s super talented, he’s athletic, can throw from multiple platforms. He’s creative, competitive. Did he have the season he wanted? No. But the guy’s pretty damn good.”
So it’s hard to imagine he won’t still be the first pick.
After, that is, all the work is done. And there’s plenty of it still to go.
While we’re here, the recent rules change for college all-star games is a huge one. In case you missed it, the NFL informed teams last week that it’ll be allowing true juniors to be invited to the Senior Bowl, the East/West Shrine Game and the HBCU Legacy Bowl.
Previously, only graduated juniors were allowed to play.
My understanding is that the change was at the behest of the 32 teams, which wanted to better be able to get a more complete look at draft classes. In the past, the argument against it was that the league didn’t want to put a carrot out there for juniors to declare for the draft. But the reality, as Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy laid out for me Saturday, is that no one is declaring for the draft simply because he thinks he’ll kill it at an all-star game—and that’s especially true now that schools can use name, image and likeness deals to keep kids in school.
“Because of NIL, the junior [declaration] numbers have been basically cut in half over the last four years,” Nagy says. “They’ve gone from the 140s to I believe in the 70s last year. None of these juniors are leaving early just for an all-star game invite. Nobody believes in the power of the Senior Bowl more than myself, but that’s not why they’re leaving. Because of NIL, most of these kids are making better football decisions.
“If you’re a draftable-level player, regardless of what school you are, these schools can come up with some level of NIL money to keep you in. I think that explains the timing of it.”
So what kind of impact will it have? Nagy’s rough guess was he’d invite around 30 to 40 underclassmen with the change which, obviously, will bump some older kids down to other all-star games as a result. And what could happen right away is that such invitations could ratchet up competition at certain positions—such as, this year, quarterback, where, say, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy or Texas’s Quinn Ewers could use the week to try to take a lead in the race to be the third QB to go behind Williams and Drake Maye.
Anyway, this is one of those moves that made sense on paper for a while, and is finally happening now, without a lot of downside for anyone involved.
Should be, as always, a fun week in Mobile in February.
We’re gonna wrap like we always do. And that means your quick-hitters are coming now …
• Obviously, the first way the Michigan scandal is going to touch the NFL will be with Jim Harbugh’s availability for jobs in January. We’ve discussed the teams he has natural connections to in Chicago and Las Vegas. The Panthers would be another one—Harbaugh reached out to Carolina owner David Tepper last year about his open job. So if Carolina comes open again …