This N.F.L. season is coming to be defined by numbers of all sorts. Positive Covid-19 tests around the league are forcing league execs to slide around games from week-to-week, changing the traditional lineup to odd hours.
Case(s) in point: the Tuesday night (7 p.m. Eastern) clash between the 4-0 Buffalo Bills and 3-0 Tennessee Titans was rescheduled from this Sunday after more positive cases were found among the Titans. And a game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos was delayed from Sunday to Monday, and then was pushed off indefinitely.
Around the league, as Bill Pennington writes, “Through four weeks of the 2020 season, the average combined score of a game is 51.3 points, an increase of 16 percent over the same period a year ago and a roughly 20 percent increase in the average score of games since 2000.”
Oddsmakers expect Sunday’s late game between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks to be the day’s barnburner. But before then, a handful of teams will see if they can get the number one in the win column, as the Falcons (0-4) face the Panthers at home, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys (0-4) get the Giants in Dallas, and the Texans (0-4) greet the Jaguars in Houston.
Alex Smith made his return to the field.
Alex Smith did not have to play a single down this season to be considered a favorite to win the league’s comeback player of the year award. Just by returning from a gruesome knee injury that jeopardized not only his career but his life, Smith demonstrated remarkable resilience and strength.
Our Bill Pennington was at FedEx Field that day, and he described the scene thusly: “Smith was sacked by two charging Houston Texans, and in a grisly sequence reminiscent of Theismann’s injury, Smith’s right leg crumbled and twisted, fracturing both the tibia and fibula bones. Television replays showed Smith’s leg buckle and give way. Lying on the ground, with his lower leg bowed, Smith at first tried to pull his jersey over his head to hide his anguish.”
Against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, Smith was active for the first time since hurting his knee on Nov. 18, 2018, and when starter Kyle Allen went out after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit, Smith came on to lead Washington’s offense.
Smith ran three plays — Aaron Donald welcomed him back with a third-down sack — before Washington was forced to punt.
After showcasing his breakaway speed on his earlier touchdown, Sanders flaunted his power on his second, pushing back the Steelers’ line enough to cross the goal line from one yard out, tying the score at 14-14. A 41-yard field goal from Chris Boswell made the score 17-14 before halftime.
Pittsburgh, which entered Sunday allowing a league-low 54 rushing yards per game, has given up 85 through the end of the second quarter.
Claypool gooses Steelers offense with his second score.
On Sunday, the Steelers extended the league’s longest active streak without a touchdown on their opening drive to 22 games, per Fox. Big deal, considering they scored on their next two.
Pittsburgh answered the Eagles’ touchdown with another score by the rookie Chase Claypool, a receiver in the mold of Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf: big, strong, tall and fast. Crossing the middle, Claypool caught a pass in stride from Ben Roethlisberger, shed one tackler and ran untouched to put Pittsburgh ahead by 14-7 early in the second quarter.
Carolina goes ahead in Atlanta.
Hey, look, if it’s a day that ends in Y, the Falcons must be losing again. They have, yet again, methodically relinquished a lead. Carolina, which once trailed by 7-0, stacked a touchdown — a 57-yard catch-and-run by D.J. Moore — with two Joey Slye field goals to take a 13-7 lead in Atlanta.
Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, who has been running for his life all afternoon, threw an interception in his own 43-yard line. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap — he gave Lamar Jackson a one-handed shove near the sideline — and a 14-yard pass reception by Mark Andrews quickly helped move the Ravens to the Bengals’ 2-yard line. Jackson rolled to his right and on the run whistled a touchdown pass to Marquise Brown that put the Ravens ahead, 17-0.
Eagles’ Sanders scores a homecoming TD.
Miles Sanders played in his first N.F.L. contest at Heinz Field on Sunday, but it was far from his first game there. A Pittsburgh native, Sanders was a running back for the Swissvale Golden Flashes, according to The Athletic, and scored a touchdown during halftime of a Steelers game. He played at Heinz twice at Woodland Hills High School, and twice more again as a running back at Penn State.
On Sunday, Sanders added to his fond memories at Heinz by running for the longest touchdown by a Philadelphia Eagle since 2000. On his 74-yard scoot, Sanders evaded a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then one more 50 yards downfield, to even the score at 7-7. It was the Eagles’ longest touchdown run since Brian Mitchell went for 85 on Oct. 1, 2000, according to Pro Football Reference.
Lamar Jackson is still lethal in the red zone.
In his career, Lamar Jackson has yet to throw an interception inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. Jackson extended that streak with a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews late in the first quarter that gave the Ravens a 10-0 lead over the Bengals.
The score came after the Cincinnati defense had been giving the Ravens some trouble, especially when it came to disrupting the running game and putting pressure on Jackson’s passing. But a nifty third-down, 9-yard pass from Jackson to Andrews picked up a first down at the Bengals 9-yard line. Two Mark Ingram rushes moved the ball to the 5-yard line. Andrews did a good job sealing off his defender in the end zone and after waiting patiently in the pocket for a few seconds, Jackson fired a bullet to Andrews.
Steelers take advantage of pass interference call.
The Steelers, aided by a questionable pass-interference call on Philadelphia cornerback Darius Slay, went up 7-0 after a possession that consumed nearly half the first quarter. A 2-yard run by rookie receiver Chase Claypool capped a 14-play series that featured dink after dunk after dink by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 5 of 7 passes for 36 yards on the drive. On his lone long attempt, from second-and-16 on the Philadelphia 28-yard line, Roethlisberger overthrew James Washington, whom Slay blanketed downfield. But the official threw a late flag, and instead of facing third-and-16, Pittsburgh had first down inside the 10 and scored four plays later.
Jets trail in Flacco’s first start in nearly a year.
With starting quarterback Sam Darnold out with a shoulder injury, backup Joe Flacco made his first start in an N.F.L. game in almost a year; the Oct. 1 loss to the Broncos, Flacco’s former team, was his first appearance as a Jet. Flacco himself has only had minimal practice due to a neck injury in the off-season, which already doesn’t bode well for the Jets who haven’t won with a backup since Dec. 2016, when Bryce Petty scraped together a win against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Jets were hopeful, however, that a changeup on the field would rejigger their odds against the Arizona Cardinals, who are coming off two losses and stand at 2-2 for the season.
Halfway through the first quarter, it was clear that it would not. The Jets started with the ball only to lose it. And the Cardinals made good use of their time: A 29-yard rushing touchdown by running back Chase Edmonds allowed Arizona to take an early lead, putting them up, 7-0.
Among the league’s worst offenders at blowing leads — looking at you, Detroit — the Atlanta Falcons raced out to a 7-0 lead against Carolina on a 35-yard run by Todd Gurley.
The Falcons messed up double-digit advantages in consecutive games, but must have realized Monday night in Green Bay that they couldn’t surrender a lead if they never took one at all. <headtap.gif>
Now let’s see how the Falcons handle prosperity.
Lamar Jackson looks rusty.
The Ravens looked dominant in their first drive, which featured a devilish misdirection wide receiver reverse for 42 yards by Devin Duvernay. But Lamar Jackson, who spent the entire week listed as questionable for both a knee injury and an illness, looks a little rusty so far. He bypassed an open receiver that would have picked up a first down and threw behind another receiver. Those miscues led to a 46-yard field goal attempt that Justin Tucker, of course, converted with a kick down the middle for a 3-0 Baltimore lead. Tucker hasn’t missed a field goal or extra point this season.
Broncos-Patriots has been delayed indefinitely.
The N.F.L. has indefinitely postponed Monday’s game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, the latest reshuffling of the league’s schedule to accommodate the rash of positive tests for the coronavirus.
The league had already pushed back the game from Sunday to Monday after Stephon Gilmore, the team’s star defensive back, tested positive. The team returned to practice Saturday, but another presumptive positive test Sunday forced the league to act before the Broncos left Denver for Foxborough, Mass.
The league has not said when or if the game will be made up. Because this week will now serve as the bye week for both teams, there are no other openings on their schedule unless other games are moved, or the league adds an additional week to the season for makeup games. The Patriots were originally scheduled for a bye in Week 6, and the Broncos had a bye in Week 8. Read the full story here.
From 0-1 to 3-1.
Proving that an 0-1 start isn’t so bad, the Colts and the Browns have both followed up their opening-week disappointment with three consecutive wins, each of which came in convincing fashion. Indianapolis is powered by its defense and running game — and quarterback Philip Rivers is fitting in well as he climbs the career touchdown list — while Cleveland has finally found its offensive mojo, with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest of the team clicking in the way everyone thought they would last season.
So what happens when the Colts’ defense tries to slow down the Browns’ offense? The answer might give a solid indication of which of these teams is a real contender and which one is just beating up on lesser competition.
Complicating matters for Indianapolis is linebacker Darius Leonard being questionable with a groin injury. He wasn’t able to practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and if he were to miss the game that would open up the middle of the field for the Browns.
Las Vegas thinks these games will be boring.
The Ravens and Chiefs are both predicted to win their games (against Cincinnati and Las Vegas, respectively) by 13 or more points. The Cowboys are predicted to beat the Giants by at least 9.5. So are these games going to be snoozers? You shouldn’t count on that.
For Baltimore, scoring on Cincinnati’s defense should be easy — really easy — thanks to the Bengals being weakest against the run. But Cincinnati has looked reborn on offense thanks to No. 1 over all draft pick Joe Burrow, and last week running back Joe Mixon hit his stride with a monster game. Expecting them to win on the road would be silly, especially since they’re likely to allow 200 or more rushing yards, but Burrow’s adjustment to the N.F.L. has been so smooth that he should make the game exciting even if he loses in convincing fashion.
The Chiefs are huge favorites, which might be a bad thing considering how little they seem to concentrate against lesser competition. Add in Las Vegas having an offense that can score in a hurry and this game could easily go sideways, forcing Patrick Mahomes to pull off one of his epic comebacks.
As for the Giants … being 9.5-point underdogs is probably accurate and expecting that game to be anywhere near close would be overly optimistic. But hey, Dak Prescott has thrown for 450, 472 and 502 yards in his last three games, so maybe he goes for 530 in this one.
How many points will be scored on Sunday Night Football?
The Seahawks are averaging 35.5 points a game and the Vikings are averaging 26.5. Both teams’ defenses allow more than 400 yards and more than 27 points a game. Las Vegas is predicting this to be the week’s highest scoring game, with an over/under of 57, and that honestly feels low based on the strengths and limitations of both teams.
Seattle is powered by Russell Wilson, who tied Peyton Manning’s record of 16 touchdown passes through his team’s first four games. He has a pair of elite wide receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and Chris Carson has proved solid at running back. Minnesota can do everything on offense, with Kirk Cousins being able to choose between running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on every play.
Did we mention that Seattle has several significant injuries on defense, including star safety Jamal Adams who is expected to be out for this game?
The most points scored in a Sunday prime time game was the 98 put up by the San Diego Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 8, 1985 — the Chargers won, 54-44 — but the highest-scoring game in the current Sunday Night Football format came in New England’s 43-40 win over Kansas City on Oct. 14, 2018.
Overly hyped matchups tend to disappoint, but the potential is certainly there for this game to challenge those totals.
The waiting game.
In addition to the indefinite delay of Denver’s Week 5 game against New England, Tennessee, had their game against Buffalo delayed until Tuesday, after several more Titans tested positive during the week,.
In an acknowledgment that the Titans are not yet in the clear, the N.F.L. rescheduled Buffalo’s Week 6 game, which was originally scheduled for Thursday of next week, but said it would go back to Thursday if their Tuesday game against the Titans cannot be played.
Thus far a fairly small number of teams have been affected by the issues in Tennessee. But with the Titans’ bye already burned, and the bye weeks of the Patriots, the Broncos and the Steelers burned early as well, any flexibility in the schedule is drying up quickly.