COVID-19 Wrecking Ball
COVID-19 made its significant mark on the NFL in week four. Sixteen Tennessee Titans players and personnel were ravaged by the illness, and their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed until later in the year. On Saturday morning, it was confirmed that New England’s star quarterback Cam Newton had also tested positive. The Kansas City and New England game was rescheduled to last night. The NFL has investigated New England to see if there were any protocol breaches. In a memo yesterday to all clubs, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL is considering forfeiture of games if a team cannot participate due to COVID-19 spread coming as a result of not following protocol. The positive tests and the schedule shuffle come as no surprise. In terms of the pandemic, the NFL has had to factor in an enormous amount of contingency planning into the 2020 season. Pro football accepted from the outset it would function at the mercy of the virus. Game of the Week: Atlanta Falcons @ Green Bay Packers The Green Bay Packers took care of a lifeless Atlanta Falcons to advance to 4-0 and nestle snugly behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC pecking order. On a Monday night in which they shared football with the rescheduled New England at Kansas City game, Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdowns, and the Packers offense was clinical in dismantling a woeful Atlanta defense, 30-16.
Rodgers’ beaming smile is putting the league on notice. He was in total control at Lambeau Field: his relationship with second year head coach Matt LaFleur and the offensive blueprint seems airtight. For his part, the caliber of LaFleur’s play calling has gone up a notch. His eye for detail was really evident when calling timeout after seeing a Falcons offensive lineup he didn’t like, preventing a big play.
The Falcons had an epic 20-play scoring drive in the first half that went over 90 yards, taking ten minutes off the clock. It says everything about their season that it ended in a field goal and not a touchdown.
In keeping with the rate of attrition in the 2020 season, both secondary's had to deal with plenty of injuries during the game. Overall, the Packers are still without key starters Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Kenny Clark. Next week's bye should aid their return.
Tight end Robert Tonyan caught three touchdowns. His third came after he was tackled by a Falcons defensive back and yet had the ability to get back on his feet to score. A yellow penalty was thrown as he caught the touchdown pass, almost mocking the visitors. Atlanta followed it with the white one.
Week 4 Highlights
Coach Merry-Go-Round: John McClain of the Houston Chronicle broke the stunning news on Monday afternoon that the Houston Texans had fired general manager and head coach Bill O’Brien. In doing so, Houston has the distinction of becoming the first organization to fire a head coach in 2020. The Texans are 0-4 and have looked dire, albeit with an unenviable schedule. Allied with the poor showing of the team, O’Brien has made some questionable personnel moves in his time. Still, it is hard to believe this franchise was leading 24-0 against the Chiefs in Kansas City in the playoffs in January.
Quote of the Week: “This is why we have the (COVID-19) protocols," said the NFL's Dr. Allen Sills. "We expect to have positive cases. We've been unbelievably fortunate to this point to have very few. But given how endemic this disease is in the population and given how easy it is to transmit, we expect we are going to have positive cases.”
MVP of the Week: Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs. When I previewed the Bills before the season, I talked about how the acquisition of Diggs in free agency would vastly improve quarterback Josh Allen’s game and Buffalo’s offense. Diggs has played no small part in allowing Allen to elevate his game, now that he has an elite wide receiver to throw to. Diggs leads the league in receiving yards with Seattle’s DK Metcalf. Josh Allen took the Bills to 4-0 and is emerging as a star. Since coming to West New York in the summer, Diggs has made life much easier for him.
Trouble in Dallas: The Cowboys are a mess. This week it was the Cleveland Browns turn to inflict more pain. While their offense led by Dak Prescott is playing well, Dallas’ defense is garbage. New head coach Mike McCarthy brought in his friend Mike Nolan to be defensive coordinator and owner Jerry Jones probably wishes McCarthy had not done this. Meanwhile the much maligned Browns offense is finally starting to hum. Kareem Hunt took all the reps on the ground and ran for two touchdowns in Nick Chubb’s absence. Odell Beckham Jnr. scored three touchdowns and looked a lot like the guy the Browns thought they were signing in free agency two years ago.
Bradywatch: Tampa Bay came back from 21-7 down to defeat the Los Angeles Chargers. Tom Brady rallied the Bucs and became the oldest player in NFL history to throw five touchdown passes in a game. This was Brady’s 222nd regular season win. The young Chargers quarterback Brady faced, Justin Herbert, is 20+ years younger and he enjoyed another excellent game in his rookie year until a late fourth quarter deep ball was picked.
Cincinnati Joe: Joe Burrow had his first career win. In beating the Jacksonville Jaguars he consistently targeted tight end Drew Sample and rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins. Most importantly, Bengals running back Joe Mixon torched the Jaguars defense on the ground to take the onus off Burrow. Winning is fun, he tweeted afterwards. The Bengals can expect more of that with their young QB at the helm.
Upward Trajectory: Carolina Panthers enjoyed a second win in a row by beating the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had his best games as a Panther. The speed and youth of the Panthers defense stifled Kyler Murrary and Arizona’s offense.
Injured Teams Battle: The Philadelphia Eagles prevailed in a attritional encounter with the San Francisco 49ers. That both teams have a fighting chance of reaching the playoffs might be a bit much for the viewing public on the basis of this game. The Eagles and quarterback Carson Wentz relieved some of the pressure on them. Each team is desperate to get their injured players back. It was great to see 49ers tight end George Kittle back from injury and in dominant form. They badly need him.
NFC West: Seattle cruised to 4-0 and continue to look like the cream of the division and conference. Even the struggling defense improved a bit without missing Jamal Adams. San Francisco and Arizona slumped to 2-2. The LA Rams won unconvincingly against the poor New York Giants.
Stat of the Week: 25,000 fans were in Cowboys Stadium for the Cleveland game on Sunday. Given the week that has passed in America, that seems like a reckless number.
Living With the Virus
The real surprise is how long it's taken COVID-19 to get its teeth into the league. There could be more changes to NFL protocols. The NFL has done everything in its power to protect its players and officials. Unlike another branch of the U.S. establishment - the White House - the league has always been serious and realistic about the threat posed by COVID-19.
A really hard slog lies ahead. This was the season we suspected we’d have. Pro football got off lightly the first three weeks. We should enjoy every game. It will get more difficult for the NFL to keep the show on the road when more teams have outbreaks.