The last Sunday of November had fewer games but as much entertainment compared to prior weeks. Upsets, injuries and comebacks led headlines and will be the focus before December starts. The playoff picture never looked more crowded. It’s time to break down who or what stood out most; positively or negatively.
Winners: Zach Wilson
I personally believe New York Jets rookie quarterback and number two overall pick Zach Wilson shouldn’t be playing the rest of this season, and a leg injury Sunday in Houston warrants that belief. Regardless, his return was everything the Jets wanted and needed.
Wilson’s stats weren’t pretty. He completed 14 passes for 145 yards and an interception. Yet Wilson ran for a touchdown that wound up giving New York the lead. The rookie led critical drives and a double digit comeback after Houston scored two straight touchdowns.
Some weekends the stats are ugly. However, if there’s notable improvement coming back from injuries, quality of play matters more. The Jets don’t have much quality at the quarterback position since a Mike White performance versus Cincinnati but they can feel good when their first round pick has time and isn’t hurt/hit to make the right plays and earn wins.
Tampa Bay’s running game led by Leonard Fournette
It’s easy for fans and analysts to label first round picks either as busts or studs on teams that drafted them. In the case of Leonard Fournette many fans thought the Jacksonville Jaguars jumped early when they drafted him fourth overall in 2017. Labeled as a bust by Jacksonville he was cut in 2020 and then signed to Tampa Bay. He’s been a key piece in the Buccaneer offense and it showed Sunday in Indianapolis.
Fournette scored three touchdowns on 17 carries for 100 yards. Two of the three running touchdowns gave Tampa Bay leads (one at the beginning and the other a game winner). He also caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter around the two minute mark, giving the Bucs a brief cushion before the Colts offense scored again.
Fournette solidified his reputation as someone who plays their best in the postseason last year. Discussion after revolved on how he could play better in the regular season. He’s on track for a career high in rushing yards (over half-way to his career high 1,152), has a career high rushing average in a season and is two touchdowns back of his career high (seven, career high is nine).
Throw in Ronald Jones II averaging five yards a run on seven carries and it’s easier to understand why the Colts defense struggled in the second half Sunday. Sometimes Tampa’s offense forces pass plays and forgets the runningback duo on the team solidifies wins in critical games. If coach Bruce Arians wants better play from both offense and defense, giving both Fournette and Jones II more carries is a good start.
The former 49ers wide receiver needed a fresh start after a less than stellar tenure in the Bay area. When New England signed him last offseason, it was a gamble he could play better than both the team’s wideouts and better than his time on the west coast. That gamble’s paying off.
In Sunday’s home game versus Tennessee, Bourne caught five passes for two touchdowns and 61 yards. Only one pass didn’t reach him, a gradual improvement compared to his high number of dropped passes in San Francisco. His scores either gave New England a lead or cemented a win to rise to the number two seed in the AFC playoff picture.
A few weeks ago yours truly gave Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels notable praise for how he’s developed the Patriots offense this season. Many will say rookie quarterback Mac Jones has benefitted most, but it’s surprisingly Kendrick Bourne, who’s gone from gaffe-prone and a butterfingers joke to a possible number one wideout on a first place team in the AFC East and behind only the Baltimore Ravens in the conference.
Keeping the topic on San Francisco, coach Kyle Shanahan’s reversed fortune by calling plays on offense and the roster’s getting healthier. The 49ers might salvage their season and clinch a berth in a contested playoff race.
The Minnesota Vikings led early in Santa Clara, CA. but choked away a double digit lead and failed to score at pivotal times in the second half. On offense, quarterback Jimmy Garappolo played his best in the second and third quarters, helping score 27 of the 34 game points. An eye opening performance from depth running back Eli Mitchell eased pressure off Garappolo during those important drives. Mitchell ran for 133 yards averaging almost five yards a carry. The receiver tandem of Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel frustrated Minnesota’s defense. Receiver Jauan Jennings (who was in that fight in Jacksonville on the 21st) scored the game tying touchdown before halftime.
What’s different the last few weeks is coach Shanahan’s play-calling. There aren’t many risks. San Francisco is running the ball, getting Garappolo to throw in easier situations, and using better clock management to tire opposing defenses. A lot of the injured players San Francisco had on injured reserve are easing back into the lineup. From a timeframe of a month and a half, Shanahan’s gone from having a hot seat and conversations on when he’ll be fired to the 49ers possibly stealing second place from their division rival Los Angeles Rams (more on them later). Regardless, San Francisco won’t need a new coach before 2023.
Tennessee Titans Defense
If one was told the Titans defense would give up more than 300 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and 36 points (after giving up 59 the past three weeks), there would be surprised looks. That’s what happened Sunday in New England.
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones was almost perfect in a pivotal game deciding who would rise in conference standings. Tennessee’s issues before Sunday were on offense due to injuries, but the defense played better. In New England, the defense couldn’t stop anything.
Jones had all but nine passes complete to whoever was targeted. The Patriots offense scored on all but one possession in the first half (the one was a missed field goal) and punted once late in the third quarter. Tennessee struggled to pressure Jones, sacking the rookie twice. A lack of pass rush combined with multiple turnovers from quarterback Ryan Tannehill gassed out an already exhausted defense.
The Titans now have a bye week. While coach Mike Vrabel has to be relieved the team can catch their breath, it couldn’t be at a worse time when injuries and losses caught up and might doom a chance at a first round bye.
Above in the winners is a player many thought was a bust but wasn’t because coaches didn’t know how to work and develop him to the best of not just his abilities, but the team’s. Outside Fournette’s case, most players wind up busts because they don’t have a chance to turn things around or are scarred from previous failures. They’re considered tragic cases. Yet in some decades/eras, some players are true, no doubt, 100% busts. That’s because they’re awful no matter the coaching or technique. The best case right now is Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jalen Reagor.
It’s rare someone in their second NFL season outside the quarterback position can play terribly every week. The Eagles drafted Reagor over receivers Justin Jefferson (check out last week’s winners and losers), Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. While two of the three will finish the season with better numbers, one must also ask what happens if Ruggs has better people around him in Philadelphia than in Las Vegas. Perhaps he isn’t in court on manslaughter and DUI charges.
As for Reagor’s on-field play, he’s a solid run-blocker. However he wasn’t drafted for that to be his specialty. On Sunday at the New York Giants down six, Hurts threw two well thrown passes at the sophomore second rounder and he dropped both of them wide open to tie or win the game. Hurts and the offense hadn’t played well in all but three possessions but most would forget if Reagor caught a touchdown. Those drops makes one wonder what Philadelphia saw to draft him in the second round.
Los Angeles Chargers defense
Last week the Los Angeles Chargers’ offense won a shootout against what many thought was a good Pittsburgh Steelers team. Quarterback Justin Herbert did everything possible to secure the win. Some days that won’t happen and the defense has to play better. Coach Brandon Staley’s unit failed Sunday.
Cancelling out the Pat Surtain II’s touchdown return from an interception, you’d think the defense did good limiting the Denver Broncos to 21 points. There were concerns. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was injured after the Broncos scored first with a lower leg injury. While he finished the game, he came back to throw for one touchdown after that first score. Derwin James’ interception was off Drew Lock who played a couple of possessions, and Bridgewater was sacked once despite a talented Los Angeles front seven. Former Charger runningback Melvin Gordon III averaged almost five yards a carry and also scored.
Los Angeles hasn’t done enough to change a game or take advantage of mistakes opposing offenses make unless Herbert and company play well. Coach Staley is defensive oriented who has to do more with the unit. It looked worse earlier when Pittsburgh scored ten points against a young upcoming Cincinnati Bengals defense, seven of which were in garbage time.
The Les Snead-Sean McVay duo
A general manager who prioritized trading for blockbuster players after having a number one pick in 2015 and a head coach touted as “an offensive guru” have become the heads of football’s version of Bozo’s Circus. That’s the best way to describe the Rams’ November.
The offense is a disaster. While it’s possible quarterback Matthew Stafford is dealing with an injury, both he and McVay are handling this poorly. Stafford threw his fifth interception in three games, resulting in a touchdown returned by Green Bay’s defense. The bootleg snaps and rollouts McVay wanted Stafford to throw from has moved to shotgun snaps and under center, killing offensive efficiency. If that’s because of injury, then Stafford isn’t their best chance to win against playoff caliber opponents heading into December.
The offensive line has weaknesses in the middle and gave up two sacks without the Packers blitzing. Only six receivers were targeted by Stafford. Then the trade for Odell Beckham Jr. has added to the problems by disrupting chemistry, probably jeopardizing any chance of a deep run in the playoffs.
The Rams defense was exposed this month in every game. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey doesn’t want to tackle receivers on fourth down. “Game changer” Aaron Donald was neutralized by offensive linemen to the point he choked one Sunday in front of a referee. Stars don’t do that especially when their unit is exposed.
Los Angeles lost a good player in John Johnson, who’s bolstered the Cleveland Browns secondary. This is where Snead’s trades cost the team. In order to win a championship, there must be development on all sides of the ball. Right now the Rams are desperate for more depth because it’s been traded away for star players who can’t play when it matters most or let go because of a low salary cap. Don’t be surprised if this team not only falls behind San Francisco but fizzles out in the playoffs.