The Broncos did not complete a pass in the first half of their 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints. They finished with one completion and two interceptions in a game that bore scant resemblance to NFL football.
“This is a challenging year,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said during a video news conference. “I felt bad for the cardboard fans.”
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers saw their game postponed from Thursday to Sunday to Tuesday as a rash of Ravens players, including reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, tested positive. If they play, the Ravens will use a husk of their roster. As of Sunday night, Baltimore had 20 active players on its covid-19 reserve list, including nine Pro Bowl picks from last year.
The possibility that the NFL might not finish the season has been real since the start. “I tell people, ‘I think we’re going to start, hope we’re going to finish,’ ” Ravens team doctor Andrew Tucker said in August. The season has never felt more under existential threat than this week.
Within the league and within broader society, the coronavirus is going in the wrong direction. Some of the damage is self-inflicted. The Broncos’ quarterbacks were ruled ineligible in part because they did not wear masks during a position meeting. The Ravens suspended a strength and conditioning coach who ignored some protocols in the facility.
If the season can finish, it will be because some players and staffers handled an unfair burden. Hinton is one of them. On Saturday morning, he was a rookie practice-squad wide receiver who last played quarterback in 2018. On Sunday afternoon, he started against the Saints and completed one pass on nine attempts. It was an unfair situation that somebody had to endure, and Hinton deserves credit for doing so.
For this week, at least, there was football. Here is what to know.
Tyreek Hill reminded everyone he is the NFL’s ultimate weapon. Usually, Hill’s value to the Kansas City Chiefs lies more in what he is capable of than that what he does. Defenses rearrange themselves to account for his world-class speed, and it allows more space and favorable matchups for the rest of Patrick Mahomes’s receivers. It’s a trade opponents are willing to make, because treating Hill like any other receiver, even any other very good receiver, is inviting defeat.
On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dared to treat Hill like any other receiver, to let their safeties hang in the middle of the field and read Mahomes’s eyes rather than shade behind Carlton Davis, the cornerback assigned to him. It led to one of the greatest receiving days in NFL history.
Hill had two touchdowns and 203 yards — before the end of the first quarter. He finished with 13 catches for 269 yards and three touchdowns. He backflipped into the end zone on one score. On another, a 75-yard strike, Mahomes’s pass traveled 61 yards in the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Mahomes, who threw for 462 yards as he toppled Tom Brady, would be an all-time great if he passed to traffic cones. With Hill at his disposal, the game becomes unfair.
It’s Derrick Henry season. The Tennessee Titans seized control of the AFC South by stomping the Colts in Indianapolis, 45-26, while scoring 35 points in the first half. Henry, capitalizing on the absence of Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, carried the Titans with 178 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries.
Given the calendar, Henry’s performance came as no surprise. Henry has been exceptional all season; he leads the NFL with 1,257 rushing yards. But this is the time of year when he dominates. In the past three years from Week 12 on, Sunday included, Henry has rushed 248 times for 1,541 yards (6.2 per attempt) and 19 touchdowns in 12 games. Over a full 16-game season, those totals would project to 2,054 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Last year, the Titans rode Henry to the AFC championship game as he ran for more than 100 yards in seven of his final nine games, playoffs included. It may be happening again. The Titans are 8-3 and in position to host a playoff game.
The Minnesota Vikings had a good day. The Vikings started 1-5 and suffered an inexplicable loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week. They still suddenly emerged in the NFC playoff picture Sunday. They overcame Carolina Panthers rookie safety Jeremy Chinn scoring defensive touchdowns on consecutive snaps and survived kicker Joey Slye’s last-second, game-winning field goal attempt, which sailed wide left.
The Vikings’ 28-27 comeback victory put them in the playoff race at 5-6, and other NFC wild-card contenders stumbled. The Arizona Cardinals’ loss at New England, during which Kyler Murray seemed physically compromised after he sprained the AC joint in his shoulder last week, dropped them to 6-5. Tampa Bay’s loss knocked it back to 7-5.
The 49ers also put themselves on the edge of playoff contention with an upset of the Los Angeles Rams. As good of a coach as Kyle Shanahan is, though, they might have too many injuries to be considered a realistic playoff threat.
The Detroit Lions got what they deserved. With their season circling the drain after an unsightly Thanksgiving loss to the Houston Texans dropped them to 4-7, Lions ownership made the inevitable choice Saturday to fire coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. Patricia and Quinn were dismal stewards of the franchise, with Patricia going 13-29-1.
The Lions emerged from the woebegone Patricia era looking like fools. They chose Patricia after they fired Jim Caldwell, who went 36-28 with three winning seasons in four years, including one 11-5 season. That might not sound like much, but for the Lions, Caldwell’s tenure represented a miracle. They had not had three winning seasons in four years since 1997, and they had not won 11 games since 1991.
The Lions fired Caldwell because he had not won a playoff game and they felt they needed a new coach to reach that level. After Patricia’s two-plus seasons, they are much farther away from that goal. Patricia alienated players and, despite coming from New England as a defensive coordinator, leaves behind a defense ranked 26th in points allowed last year and 30th this season.
The Lions need a coach capable of resetting the culture, someone players will play hard for. Maybe they can give Caldwell a call.
Anthony Lynn is in trouble. The Los Angeles Chargers have a promising young roster and, in rookie Justin Herbert, a burgeoning superstar at quarterback. They may have to ask if they have the right coach to lead them into the future.
Seven of the Chargers’ eight losses this season have come by one score. Part of that may be rotten luck, but clock management contributed to that record. The end of Sunday’s 27-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills may have been Lynn’s most troubling moment yet.
The Chargers probably would have lost no matter how their final drive unfolded, but their bizarre decision-making eliminated any chance they had. Herbert heaved a Hail Mary on fourth and 27 to Tyron Johnson at the 2-yard line. Down 10, and with no timeouts and the clock ticking below 40 seconds, Herbert handed off to Austin Ekeler. The Bills stuffed it, and the clock ran down to six seconds, turning an improbable comeback to impossible.
Lynn called it “completely miscommunication,” declining to elaborate. The Chargers’ offensive line pass-blocked, which suggests Herbert thought a run had been called even when it hadn’t. Even if Lynn and his staff didn’t call the run, it remains an eyesore in an overall picture that also includes a 3-8 record.
Don’t overlook Raheem Morris. He improved his record as an interim coach to 4-2 as the Atlanta Falcons flattened the favored Las Vegas Raiders, 43-6. Morris would be 5-1 had Todd Gurley II gone down inside the 5-yard line rather than scoring with the Falcons in position to drain the clock against Detroit.
Morris going 4-2 after taking over an 0-5 team is impressive enough. His résumé goes far deeper. He has already been a head coach; he became one of the youngest in league history when the Buccaneers hired him in 2009. Morris lasted three seasons, which included a 10-6 year with Josh Freeman at quarterback. He has been both a defensive coordinator and, briefly with the Falcons, a passing game coordinator, giving him rare experience on both sides of the ball at a high level.
It would be understandable if the Falcons want a fresh start after firing Dan Quinn. Morris would be a candidate for any team in need of a coach. A charismatic New Jersey native with his experience sounds like exactly what the New York Jets could use.