This is a column about overreactions, as any regular Monday reader knows, but they don’t always come easily. Sometimes, you’re sitting in your hotel room on a Sunday night, watching a couple of teams that combined to win 25 games last season but now can’t find the end zone, and you have to try hard not to underreact.
Seriously, folks. I’m old enough to remember when Matt Nagy and Sean McVay were young offensive geniuses. Now they’re facing off in front of the whole country and it’s illegal shift this and illegal formation that and multiple penalties on the same punt and just so, so, so many punts …
Upshot: The Rams won the game, and they’re 6-4. The Bears lost the game, and they’re 4-6. Mitchell Trubisky didn’t finish the game because of what the Bears called a hip injury. Chicago is cooked, Trubisky’s future there was already in doubt, and now his present seems to be as well. And while the Rams won the game, you have to wonder (A) whether they’ll have enough receivers to finish the season and (B) whether it will matter if all they’re going to do is run the ball now anyway.
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The Rams are playoff contenders again
The victory moved L.A. to 6-4, which keeps it three games behind first-place San Francisco in the NFC West and a game and a half behind Minnesota in the wild-card race with six games to play. The Rams’ remaining road games are in Arizona, Dallas and San Francisco. Their remaining home games are against Baltimore, Seattle and Arizona. It obviously won’t be easy, but Sunday night’s win kept some degree of hope alive.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Not seeing it. No, I don’t all of a sudden think we were wrong about McVay. I still think he’s a great coach and a smart offensive mind and all the things we said he was while he was leading the Rams to Super Bowl LIII. But his offense didn’t get off the ground this season. Could be the offensive line, could be that he didn’t make enough adjustments to his preferred schemes and formations, could be the attrition at wide receiver … could be all of it.
Even after the win on Sunday night, ESPN’s Football Power Index pegs the Rams’ playoff chances at 18.5%. This year’s team just doesn’t seem to have enough to hang in the brutally tough NFC race. Now, I believe McVay comes back strong next year. I believe he could even make it interesting this December. But with that remaining schedule and this many issues still to work out on offense, I don’t peg the 2019 Rams as a playoff team.
The Ravens are the NFL’s best team
The Texans-Ravens game in Baltimore on Sunday was supposed to be a heavyweight fight. But it was a lot more Tyson-Spinks than Ali-Frazier. The Ravens obliterated the Texans, who entered the day in competition with Baltimore for a first-round bye and ended it in second place in the AFC South. Baltimore built a 34-0 lead and won 41-7. Lamar Jackson threw four touchdown passes, ran for 86 yards and burnished his MVP case on Russell Wilson’s bye week.
The Ravens have won six games in a row and have outscored opponents by an average of 14.5 points per game on the season. The only teams with better records than Baltimore’s 8-2 are the 9-1 49ers and the 9-1 Patriots, whose only loss came two weeks ago … in Baltimore.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. They certainly could be. Their résumé holds up to any team’s. Baltimore won in Seattle and beat New England, and, of course, Sunday’s win was a statement to the effect in question. But there are four NFC teams with records of 8-2 or better, and the way the conferences are shaping up, it’s likely that the best team — whichever is it is — will come out of the NFC, not the AFC.
What Jackson and the Ravens are doing is surely impressive, and they’re setting themselves up for a potentially easy January road to the Super Bowl, where they’d have a chance to prove themselves the best. But to say they’re clearly the best team at this juncture just ignores too much of the excellence going on with teams such as the 49ers, Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Vikings.
The Vikings will win the NFC
Minnesota Vikings had the most breathtaking victory of the Sunday afternoon games, as it trailed 20-0 at halftime but came back to beat the Broncos 27-23. It was the kind of game you look back on if you end up having a magical season — a game that tells you you’re never out of it, that you’re capable of winning no matter what.
The Vikings improved to 8-3, still a half-game behind the first-place Packers (who beat them in Week 2) in the NFC North. They’ve won six of their past seven, with the only loss during that stretch a three-point squeaker in Kansas City
After failing to score in the first half, the Vikings overcome a 20-point deficit behind Kirk Cousins’ three touchdown passes.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Again, it’s tough out here in these NFC streets, where the Niners, Saints, Seahawks and Packers all still have better records than Minnesota’s. But this Vikings team deserves to be counted among the top NFC contenders.
It came back Sunday to beat Dallas last week without top wideout Adam Thielen and top defensive tackle Linval Joseph. It runs the ball as well as anyone. It stops the run as well as anyone (just ask Ezekiel Elliott). The Vikings have a bye next week, and if they can get healthy during that time, they’re poised to attack a December schedule that starts with a trip to Seattle and offers a Dec. 23 chance for revenge against the Packers at home, where they have yet to lose in five games this season.
Michael Thomas belongs in the MVP conversation
The New Orleans Saints’ wide receiver on Sunday against the Bucs went over 100 receiving yards for the fourth game in a row and sixth time this season. He has a league-leading 94 catches for 1,141 yards, putting him on pace for 150 catches and 1,910 yards. The single-season records in those categories are 143 by Marvin Harrison in 2002 and 1,964 by Calvin Johnson in 2012.
Thomas has done this in spite of the fact that his quarterback, Drew Brees, missed five games because of injury and he has played half his season with Teddy Bridgewater throwing him the ball. Nothing against Bridgewater, by the way. Just says something about a receiver when he’s able to produce at this level no matter who the quarterback is.
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The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, a wide receiver basically can’t win the award. Never has. And really, it’s nearly impossible for a non-quarterback to win the award in a season that features one or more strong quarterback candidates, as this one does so far.
Let’s say Thomas goes ahead and breaks the single-season records for catches and receiving yards, and he does so playing on a team that finishes with the NFC’s best record, as the Saints very well could. And let’s say things get tougher down the stretch for Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. Would it be crazy to look at a receiver who kept his team afloat during a season in which the starting quarterback missed five games and the star running back missed two? I don’t think it’s crazy at all.
Thomas is a monster, and whether he can win the award or not, he belongs in the conversation.
The Colts will win the AFC South
The Indianapolis Colts poured it on the Jaguars on Sunday, rushing for 264 yards on 36 carries (an average of 7.3 yards per rush) in a 33-13 win. Starting running back Marlon Mack rushed for 109 yards in the first half, then left the game late in the second quarter with a broken hand. Indy put in Jonathan Williams, and he rushed for 116 yards.
The Colts played the Coltsiest game they’ve played all season and stopped a nasty, two-game losing skid that included an inexplicable loss to the Dolphins. They are now 6-4 and tied for first place with the Texans, whom they’ve already beaten once and whom they play Thursday in Houston with a chance to lock down the tiebreaker edge. The Colts play third-place Tennessee in Week 13.
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The verdict: OVERREACTION. Sunday was Houston’s worst day and Indy’s best, so it’s easy to sit here now and say the division belongs to the Colts. There’s some optimism around the team that top wideout T.Y. Hilton, who has missed the past two games with a calf injury, could return for Thursday’s game, which would be huge. But as great as Williams was Sunday, a long-term absence by Mack would absolutely hurt the Colts’ offense.
The Texans go into Thursday’s game angry about a lot of things — among them, the beating they took Sunday and the way the Colts pushed them around in their own building in the playoffs last year. Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins & Co. still have a good chance to be heard from before this is all said and done, and the AFC South could have a much different feel to it if the home team wins Thursday night.