We’re in the middle of November, and three surprising things are true:
1. The Texans, 5-4 and an AFC Wild Card team as of this morning, are the story of the year, and have an exceedingly manageable schedule in the last eight weeks.
2. C.J. Stroud’s running away with Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s in the discussion for MVP. (At least on my ballot, he is.)
3. DeMeco Ryans is my 10-week Coach of the Year.
Let’s go to Cincinnati, where the Texans were seven-point ‘dogs Sunday, where Stroud built a 27-17 lead and with 3:41 left in the game was just trying to run out the clock. This was, in Vitalespeak, Lock City. Texans’ game. Then, in one of the few glaring mistakes Stroud has made in this boffo rookie season, he underthrew rookie wideout Tank Dell on third-and-two, and his old Big Ten buddy, Cam Taylor-Britt, picked it off.
Stroud’s 22 going on 32, and after the game sounded like he’d been in this situation 63 times before, and he wasn’t too upset about it. There is a sense of calm in Stroud’s orbit, the kind of calm a 22-year-old kid should not have.
“I mean, this game, it’s a players’ game,” Stroud said from the Houston locker room. “I’ve had a lot of respect for Cam Taylor-Britt over the years. He’s a player. Made a hell of a play. Of course, I just should have taken the sack there and punted. But the type of person I am, a one-play-at-a-time guy, that’s not gonna kill me. And my teammates on the sideline helped me a lot. Just telling me, ‘You’re good bro.’”
Within two minutes it was 27-all, and the crowd in Cincinnati ruled the place. With 42 seconds left, third-and-six at the Texans’ 29, Stroud had four plays, maybe five, to get into field-goal range. Play clock ticking.
In the huddle, Stroud did not sound 22 years old.
Stroud told me: “I just told them boys, ‘Let’s go win this game. We got everything we need in this huddle right here. Somebody make a play.’”
With the game on the line, you want to take four seconds to tell your guys you believe, so they should believe. That also means you’ve got to be quick at the line, and as the play clock wound down … :05, :04, :03 … Stroud urgently but not nervously clapped his hands four times to prod center Michael Deiter, “Snap it! Snap it now!” When Stroud got the ball, he waited, waited with calm feet and good protection till he saw tight end Dalton Schultz, running a seam route from the left slot, with his friend Taylor-Britt (Nebraska corner when Stroud was the Ohio State QB) in coverage.
Throw it high. Throw it high so Schultz, with a 6-inch advantage, could leap and get it but Taylor-Britt could never reach it.
The ball traveled 32 yards in the air, and it could not have been thrown to a more perfect location. This is what the Texans have noticed through nine games: The pressure, the moment, doesn’t get to this guy—he throws it in the game-deciding moments just like it’s practice. Like this throw … complete to the leaping Schultz to the Cincinnati 46-yard line. Two more completions got the Texans in place for a chippy 38-yard field goal by Matt Ammendola to win it, 30-27, at the gun.
“I made this game a little harder than it needed to be, turning it over [three times, uncharacteristically],” Stroud said. “But it in this league, it’s hard. It’s hard to get wins. We’re all good. Today, I loved the attention on us. Everybody’s watching to see if the Texans can come to a tough place and win. I love that. I love the attention. I love the pressure. That’s the thing about our team—I’m telling you, we don’t go into any game thinking we can’t win, we won’t win. I’m not made that way.”
Stroud’s ended two straight games with 75- and 55-yard drives to beat the Bucs and Bengals, respectively, in the final seconds. Who’d have thought the game of the year in this division would be Jags at Texans, Thanksgiving weekend, with more pressure on Jacksonville than Houston? That’s the sort of impact C.J. Stroud has made on the Houston Texans, and on the AFC playoff race.
Walk-off Sunday. Five teams in 12 games won with a field goal at :00.
Detroit is 15-4 since Halloween 2022. Buffalo’s 13-7. But that is not the Oddball Stat of the Week. This is:
The Vikings are 1-4 when Justin Jefferson plays, 5-0 when he doesn’t.
Josh Dobbs, Bernie Kosar. Same story, three decades apart. Jimmy Johnson just loved sticking it to his (perceived) critics. Remember?
AFC South. It’s alive. Houston’s within a game of Jacksonville now, and the Texans have a friendly three-game homestand on tap: Arizona, Jacksonville (20-point win at Jags in Week 3), Denver.
Chase Young. I’m going to explain this trade, and at the end of it, you’ll say, “That’s the biggest no-brainer in NFL history.”
Incredible stat about Zach Wilson, who is a very nice young person. But, man, he’s on one of the worst runs by a quarterback in NFL history.
C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick two years after Wilson was, is doing something no rookie QB has done in the history of Next Gen Stats. And the people who invented the Stroud-bashing S2 cognition test, which judges how athletes can process information, should be saying right now, “Maybe we should rejigger our metrics.”
Mac the knifed. How does Belichick put Mac Jones, a shell of the player who was the 15th pick in the 2021 draft, back out there, post-bye?
The Steelers are so weird. Outgained in all nine games, and a half-game out of first in the AFC North—with the tiebreaker edge over the first-place Ravens.
The Bengals are in a darned significant playoff hole after 10 weeks, heading into a short-week Thursday game at Baltimore, at 0-2 in the division, 1-4 in the conference.
Deshaun Watson, that’s your best game since your Houston prime.
Ben Johnson, the Detroit offensive coordinator, had one heck of a game in the 41-38 nipping of the Chargers at SoFi Sunday. Tony Romo couldn’t stop screaming about him. I just wonder: Which young quarterback will get the gift of being coached by Johnson next year?
Keenan Allen is such a gifted player. His hands, his route-running, his durability. Watching him Sunday, I thought: “That’s a Hall of Famer.”
Most sacks in their first 100 games: Reggie White, 105; T.J. Watt, 88; J.J. Watt, 87.5. That’ll be a nice Thanksgiving Dinner topic for the Watts.
Frank Reich, I’d have gone for it on fourth-and-10 Thursday night.
Travis Kelce. Europe to North America to South America, in five days, with Taylor Swift changing the words in her song “Karma” as a tribute to Kelce Saturday night in Argentina. Sort of renders meaningless the question posed by the reporter 10 days ago to Kelce in Frankfurt: “Are you in love?”
Seattle just hangs in there. Now 6-3, 5-1 in conference games. But here comes a killer stretch: at Rams, Niners, at Cowboys, at Niners, Eagles. Yikes. But if the ‘Hawks are 8-6 after that, they’re making the postseason.
The exit meeting. Employees have one when they depart a job. Jared Goff wanted one with Sean McVay. Sam Farmer of the LA Times detailed.
The Andy Reid Bowl. Kansas City owns it. Can Philadelphia borrow it?
Tommy DeVito: “My mom still makes my bed.” Duuuuuude, you’re 25!
Luggage cart. Yes, there’s a mention of one in this column. And Steve Sabol. And the Fairmont New Orleans. And a certain quarterback from Kiln, Miss.
Email of the Week: Someone wrote to me about Germans going crazy for American football and me thinking it’s not the decline of Western civilization. He asked: “Do you feel like your political views have ingrained the idea of never putting America first and giving out assets away to other countries?”
The Silent Book Club. Cool story. “These are my people.”
Yael Averbuch West authored a great worst-to-first soccer comeback story in the NWSL. Even better—she used to be a Montclair Kangaroo.
How do you watch Stroud play and think he either is a poor decision-maker or slow to process crucial information? When word leaked that he bombed the S-2 Cognition Test—which is supposed to measure the speed and smarts to process vital information quickly—a whisper campaign started against Stroud. No matter that the tape spoke chapters about Stroud, and in his five games against Michigan, Georgia and Michigan State in his last 13 months as a college player, he completed 73 percent of his throws for 377 yards and four TD passes a game. He was a bad “processor.”
On Friday of draft weekend, I went to Houston and talked to him about it. He wasn’t altogether bitter—just a little edgy about it. “The film speaks for itself,” he told me. “If you turn on the tape, you can see, you can answer the questions. I can process very, very fast. The film, you can see me going from first option to second and then back to one and then to three to four if I have to. I can check down. I can use my feet.
“But, you know, everything happens for a reason. I’m not upset. I’m actually blessed, I’m super blessed to be a Texan. Number two overall pick in the NFL draft, man. A little kid from the [California] Inland Empire. All smiles, man.”
This team was 11-38-1 over the previous three seasons. GM Nick Caserio settled on DeMeco Ryans as his coach and they agreed on Stroud as their quarterback of the future. “This is what life is about, working to build something good,” Stroud said when he was introduced to the Houston media and asked about going to a bad team.
It helped to surround Stroud with a coaching staff—including position coach Jerrod Johnson, senior assistant Shane Day and coordinator Bobby Slowik—who brought cutting-edge ideas to the Texans. “They’re so good at isolating matchups and attacking defenses like they haven’t been attacked very much,” said former longtime NFL backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who knows Slowik and played for Day with the Chargers the last two seasons. Daniel is working for the 33rd Team, NFL Network and The Athletic in his first year out of football.
That crucial throw to Dalton Schultz in Cincinnati in the last minute is a great example of that. The coaches know how accurate Stroud is, and they knew with Schultz’s height advantage downfield he’d win any competitive high ball, and he did. Stroud said he and Slowik have meshed well because, “we have open communication. There’s a lot of honesty. He trusts me and I trust him. That’s one of the biggest relationships that needs to be built with a quarterback, it’s been good. I know he trusts me to make plays.”
That throw to Schultz also illustrated one of Stroud’s strengths this year: downfield passing. He’s thrown for 1,513 yards on passes of more than 10 yards beyond the line, tops in the league, per Next Gen Stats. Even more impressive: Stroud leads all quarterbacks with 9.6 yards per attempt against the blitz this season, per Next Gen. (Brock Purdy, at 8.7 yards per attempt, is second.) Rookies usually struggle against blitzes while they’re getting their feet wet in the league. Not Stroud. No rookie in the eight years of Next Gen’s stat-keeping is within a yard of Stroud’s 9.6-yard performance.
Think of that and think of the “book” on Stroud entering the draft, and what poppycock it was. Blitzing forces quarterbacks to accelerate their thought processes and decision-making, obviously, and Stroud, as a rookie, is the best by far of any quarterback in the league—and 2.6 yards per attempt better than Patrick Mahomes.
And Stroud is ascending. He’s thrown for 826 yards in the past two weeks in wins over Tampa and Cincinnati. He’s thrown two interceptions, an NFL-low; his 2,626 passing yards is second in the league. “He’s a rookie quarterback putting up these numbers, and he doesn’t look or sound like a rookie quarterback in anything he does,” Daniel said. “He’s not playing well for a rookie—he’s playing well for any quarterback.”
Houston lost to Carolina, so Ryans won’t have any trouble getting his guys to take any team seriously. But the Texans, a game behind the Jags in the AFC South, do have a schedule edge in the last eight weeks. Five of their last eight games are home, including a three-game homestand (Cards, Jags, Broncos) starting Sunday. Their lone game against a division leader is the Jacksonville game, and Houston won their first matchup by 20 in September.
Every year, some team in the league shocks the world and plays like a top-10 team. That’s Houston right now. When’s the last time we thought Houston’s fun to watch? The Texans sure are now.
Crazy division. Crazy day.
That was one wild Browns win in Baltimore, the last-second 33-31 game. It meant the top three teams in the division would end Week 10 a half-game apart (Baltimore 7-3, Cleveland 6-3, Pittsburgh 6-3), with dangerous Cincinnati in the weeds at 5-4. Week 11: Bengals at Ravens on Thursday, Steelers at Browns on Sunday.
The Cleveland comeback was nutty enough that the name of Victor Wembanyama cross-pollinated its way into the post-game conversation I had with Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski about falling behind 7-0 in the first minute on a Deshaun Watson pick-six. “We got in that hole early,” Stefanski said. “That first pass play, you gotta tip your cap to Kyle Hamilton. He’s like Wemby [the 7-foot-4 Spurs rookie] out there playing nickel. You gotta just say ‘All right, let’s go start this game over.’”
The Hamilton pick-six was amazingly athletic, and it had to be deflating for the Browns. Deflating, too, was settling for field goals on Cleveland’s first three scoring drives, and Watson injuring his ankle on a first-half tackle. Midway through the third quarter, it was Baltimore, 24-9. But here came Watson. He led a 10-minute drive to make it 24-17. Baltimore lengthened the lead to 31-17, but in one fourth-quarter minute, the Browns got two touchdowns—on a Watson-to-Elijah Moore pass and on a 34-yard Greg Newsome interception return.
With Watson favoring his left ankle, his performance was all the more impressive. This was the first time Cleveland fans could watch their $230-million quarterback and say, Maybe he’s worth it. Two 75-yard TD drives and a well-oiled final drive to the winning field goal. Cleveland took over at its 42 with 4:55 left in the game, trailing, 31-30. Watson’s 14th straight completion of the second half at the two-minute warning, a well-placed 17-yarder to Amari Cooper, gave Cleveland life. A gimpy Watson scramble for 16 put the Browns in long field-goal range, and three more runs got them 18 yards closer. The narrative coming in was the coronation of Lamar Jackson, but Watson outplayed him down the stretch, and Cleveland put up 24 points on the vaunted Baltimore D—which had crushed Detroit and Seattle, recently—in the last 20 minutes.
“Deshaun has that mentality that he’s just going to do whatever it takes to win,” Stefanski said. “He was battling through an ankle injury in that second half. He made plays with his feet. He scrambled. He found the open guys. He did what he does. A huge part of what he does is lead this football team. He was selected captain for a reason. I just saw him leading the football team there in the second half.”
I asked Stefanski if there were moments that he wondered whether Watson would be worth the money and the bad press. Did he waver? “No,” Stefanski said. “I don’t know if there’s a more emphatic way to say, ‘consistent confidence.’ He wins football games. He’s done it his entire life – that’s just who he is. I have the utmost confidence in him. Always did.”
State of the Niners
I watched a lot of Niners 34, Jags 3, which broke the Niners’ three-game losing streak and the Jags’ five-game winning streak. Five observations:
1. The 31-point win was very mindful of the 32-point rout of the Cowboys a month ago. That’s what happens when this teams has its full complement of players, and wideout Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams were back in the lineup. Huge boost.
2. Chase Young made his presence felt often with four pressures of Trevor Lawrence, and he had a combo strip-sack of Lawrence with his Ohio State pal, Nick Bosa. Young’s game was good for Javon Hargrave having an increased impact as well, and for an improved run defense.
3. Brock Purdy’s game (19 of 26, 296 yards, three TDs, no picks) was also mindful of his near-perfect game against Dallas. His accuracy on a few occasions stood out. Kyle Shanahan said Purdy’s first touchdown throw, across his body but perfectly placed over Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco, right into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk, made him nervous. Accurate passers—Purdy’s now the top-rated passer in the league after some off-weeks—should be trusted in situations like this. “He’s the reason we have a chance to win every week,” Fred Warner said post-game.
4. There are times when Jacksonville looks like a real Super Bowl contender. But the Jags’ losses to Houston and San Francisco show this isn’t a premier defense. And Lawrence has to play better in games like this one, against strong defenses, to take his place in the top echelon of quarterbacks. And the schedule won’t be friendly for Jacksonville after Tennessee visits Sunday. The next four: at Houston, Cincinnati, at Cleveland, Baltimore.
5. Both teams were coming off byes. San Francisco looked rested, fresh. Jacksonville looked jittery, not ready. “The bye came at the perfect time for us,” Warner said. “We needed it a lot for health and reflection. The way we got after it in practice this week, I knew we’d come out and play very well.”
It’s time, Jets.
I can’t think of anything more offensively inept in all the time I’ve covered the NFL than this: In the last four-and-a-third games for the Jets (games against Vegas, the Chargers, the Giants, Philadelphia, and the last 20 minutes of the Denver game), the Jets have had 55 possessions. They have scored two offensive touchdowns. Both have come on one-play drives. The Eagles laid down strategically to let Breece Hall score an 8-yard rushing TD in Week 6. Zach Wilson hit Hall on a pop pass for a 50-yard TD against the Giants in Week 8.
The rest of the 53 drives in 17 quarters-plus? No touchdowns.
I know why Robert Saleh and the Jets have fervently and consistently defended Wilson for the last couple of months. They figure if they bench Wilson, he’s finished. And they want him to benefit from an extended time being mentored by Aaron Rodgers, which is logical. But the problem in not going to either of the backups, Tim Boyle or Trevor Siemian, is that you’ve got a team to face. If the other 21 starters play at Wilson’s level, they get benched. It’d be an understandable double-standard if Wilson showed promise … if, say, he got the team into the end zone inside the two-minute warning at Vegas Sunday night instead of throwing a pass into the hands of Raiders linebacker Robert Spillane to lose the game.
With games against Buffalo and Miami coming in a six-day span next week, and the Jets 4-5, it’s Pollyannaish to continue to hope Wilson’s going to see the light. He might, but he’s almost certainly not going to. The best chance to win must-games coming up is by energizing the team with a quarterback change. It’s time.
Thirty years ago this week—on Nov. 14, 1993—I was writing for Sports Illustrated, and I traveled to Dallas to cover the Cards-Cowboys game. On the Monday before the game, Cleveland coach Bill Belichick cut Bernie Kosar. Two days later, Dallas signed him, and he practiced for three days, then played the majority of the 20-15 Dallas win in place of the injured Troy Aikman. Not exactly the same as Josh Dobbs and the Vikings, but close. A few grafs I wrote after the game, shortly after leaving Jimmy Johnson’s post-game beer den in the bowels of old Texas Stadium:
With the Cowboys leading 3-0, Kosar replaced Jason Garrett at quarterback in the first quarter and proceeded to lead the Cowboys on two consecutive touchdown drives—65 yards on nine plays and 86 yards on six plays. In the fourth quarter he engineered a short drive that ended with an Eddie Murray field goal.
Afterward Johnson was ebullient. Rarely had his friends seen him so happy. He sat with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, polishing off his customary beer on the rocks, and talked about beating the odds. “Here’s what people have said to us over the years,” Johnson said. “You can’t trade Herschel Walker; he’s a great player. You can’t train in Austin; it’s too hot. You can’t win a Super Bowl that quick; it takes time. You can’t sign Bernie Kosar and play him right away; he’ll never learn the system in time.”
The Cowboys programmed 67 plays into Kosar’s brainy head. He had to learn a new numbering system for running and passing plays. When the game was over, Kosar peeled off his new uniform with the 18 on it (he had worn 19 during his years in Cleveland), and he looked like the happiest man in the world. “What a difference a week makes,” he said. “They let me fire it around out there.”
“I don’t want to make Bernie bigger than life,” said Johnson. “Troy’s our quarterback. But I’ll take Bernie Kosar on my team the rest of my coaching career. Period. For him to share time in three practices and do what he did today is just unbelievable. He runs and throws the same as when I first saw him—gangly, sidearm, like he’s on the sandlot. Don’t evaluate his throwing motion. Don’t evaluate his stance. Don’t evaluate his fluidity. Evaluate his winning.”
Tennessee kicker Nick Folk, 39, is on an all-time streak for aging kickers—for all kickers, really. Since his age-36 season in 2020, Folk has made 91.3 percent of his field goals (115 of 126), including all 65 from inside of 40 yards. The one recent kicker in the Hall of Fame, Morten Anderson, made 79 percent of his field goals from age 36 to 39; the one looming Hall of Famer, Adam Vinatieri, hit 85.4 percent of his kicks in the same four-year span. Only three much younger kickers—Younghoe Koo, Matt Gay and Daniel Carlson—have been more accurate, and none by more than a percentage point, since 2020.
Folk’s a fascinating story—out of football as recently as 2018—and when you understand his family background, you can better understand why he can step up to big kicks and be a relative flat-liner. What Nick Folk has learned about how to succeed as an NFL kicker:
“I think the biggest thing is perseverance. You look at my career and it’s full of ups and downs. Keep focusing on the journey and persevere through the journey. Results come with the work. How much work are you willing to put in? Good example is what happened in New England. I had an appendectomy Thanksgiving week in 2019, then got re-signed. Next year they draft a kicker and I get COVID. I’m on the COVID practice squad, but I end up winning the job. On the practice squad again to start ’21, kick that season. I signed a two-year deal in March of ’22. They draft a kicker in April of ’23. I get traded here to Tennessee. The whole time, all I can control is my kicking. That’s what I do—focus on the journey. Perseverance is what I’d tell any young kicker.
“So many people in my family were in the medical field. They dealt with high levels of pressure. My mom, Dr. Lorraine Stiles, was a pediatrician. My grandfather, Dr. Quentin Stiles, was a cardiac surgeon, and he and his team pioneered a lot of the bypass stuff way back. He used to tell me stories of holding beating hearts in his hands. He’s dealing with life and death on a daily basis. My grandmother, Dr. Claire Stiles, was an anesthesiologist, in the first or second class with women at Harvard Medical School. My aunt, Lorraine Stiles, was a high-risk OB-GYN. She told us a story once of a woman who wasn’t feeling well and she examined her and figured out they had almost no time to save the baby and the mom, and they got rushed into surgery and it was almost bite down on a stick and here we go. They both made it, I believe.
“Pressure was part of their daily lives. I would say that’s part of how I was raised by my family all the way from my parents to grandparents and everyone in between. They understood what life really is about. One of the things I’ve learned in my job is there’s a lot greater things happening in the world. We’re playing a game. It’s very serious to everyone in the locker room, everyone on each team, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot more important things out there.
“I just try to live in the moment with everything I do. When I’m out there trying to make a kick, the reality is we’re just a big team and my job happens to be the guy kicking. I just try to do my job the same way the other 10 guys out there try to do their jobs. There’s not really what I would call extra pressure on it. I’ve kicked a million footballs in my life. What’s one more?
“[Kicking so well now], I think a lot of it is experience. You’re able to glean information from good years, good kicks and bad years, bad kicks. I think my teammates know I’ve done everything I can to prepare so that I can perform at the best level for them.
“One other thing: The most important kick is the next kick.”
A recurring element in the column this year: a video memory of one of my favorite memories of 40 years covering pro football.
Back in the day, almost three decades ago now, when Sports Illustrated ruled the media roost, I wrote a lot about Brett Favre. That came in handy when Green Bay won the Super Bowl in January 1997, and I had to find Favre post-game at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, site of the post-game team party.
My 40-for-40 for 1997:
Offensive players of the week
Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Cleveland. Played one of the best halves of his life to beat Baltimore, and to finally show he can be the franchise quarterback Cleveland paid $230 million for 20 months ago. Watson, playing with a sprained or bruised ankle suffered in first half, was brilliant in the 33-31 comeback win … and overcoming a pick-six on his first pass of the game by Baltimore safety Kyle Hamilton. Watson was 14 of 14 in the second half as he led Cleveland back from a 24-9 deficit with 20 minutes left in the game.
CeeDee Lamb, wide receiver, Dallas. With apologies to Dak Prescott, who threw for 404 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in the 49-17 rout of the Giants, Lamb’s my pick this week. No receiver in NFL had three straight games with at least 10 catches and 150 yards until Lamb’s current run. His last three: 12 for 158, 11 for 191, and on Sunday in Texas against the depleted Giants, 11 for 151. “I’m the top receiver in the game. It’s no question about it,” he said after this one. There is some question, CeeDee, but you’re doing a good job distancing yourself.
Kyler Murray, quarterback, Arizona. In his first game in 11 months after tearing his ACL last year, Murray juked and threw and sprinted the Cardinals to competitiveness. He threw for 249 yards, ran for 33 and a TD, and on the game-winning field-goal drive, converted a third-down on a nifty 13-yard scramble, hitting tight end Trey McBride for a tough 33-yard completion to make the field goal simple. Cards are 2-8, and suddenly don’t look like such a lock to be able to draft Murray’s successor—if they ever were of a mind to do so.
Josh Dobbs, quarterback, Minnesota. Eleven days after stepping into the Vikings practice facility for the first time and being given his virtual playbook and meeting his new head coach, Dobbs is 2-0 as the Vikings’ QB (and I know—only starts count, but that is BS, and I’m giving him the win over Atlanta). After beating the Saints Sunday, he is now the first player in league history with 400 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and zero interceptions in his first two games with a team.
Defensive players of the week
Sheldon Rankins, defensive tackle, Houston. Picked a big day to have the best game of his career, and the first three-sack day of his eight-year NFL life. (He’d had one multi-sack game (2) in his previous 100 NFL games.) Rankins’ 12-yard sack of Joe Burrow in the third quarter led to a Houston TD to make it 20-7, and his third sack was crucial inside of two minutes in the fourth quarter in holding Cincinnati to a game-tying field goal instead of a go-ahead TD.
Robert Spillane, linebacker, Las Vegas. The former Steeler, who plays like he has a lot of Tomlin in him, lurked and lurked while Jets quarterback Zach Wilson tried to win the game on a second-and-eight at the Raiders’ 20-yard line with 1:15 left and Vegas up, 16-12, Sunday night. Wilson threw, and Spillane lunged in front of Allen Lazard for the pick. There was some drama down the stretch, but this was THE play of the game for Vegas, now 5-5 and looking reborn under Antonio Pierce.
Special teams player of the week
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, receiver/punt-returner, Carolina. It wasn’t the most graceful punt-return-for-TD in NFL history on Thursday night, but Smith-Marsette’s 79-yard return through the Bears’ punt-coverage team was skillful and athletic—particularly when he paused/pump-faked Chicago punter Trenton Gill at the end to finish it off. On a team desperate for scoring, Smith-Marsette’s return was the only Carolina touchdown of the night in a 16-13 loss. Got a fun sports quiz for you: What sport did Smith-Marsette play in his freshman year of high school? (Answer in 10w. of Ten Things I Think.)
Coach of the week
Bobby Slowik, offensive coordinator, Houston. The regeneration of the Houston offense behind C.J. Stroud and the first-time offensive coordinator, is a sight to behold. The Texans are seven points and 78 passing yards per game better than the woeful 2022 team, and they’re doing it with imaginative play design between a coordinator and quarterback both trying to be great as NFL rookies. Tremendous chemistry built between Slowik and Stroud in less than seven months. The Texans put up 544 yards on the road against a damn good Cincinnati defense.
Goat of the week
Mac Jones, quarterback, New England. That wasn’t just a big interception Jones threw to cost the Patriots the game in Frankfurt Sunday. That might have been a career-wrecking interception. With New England trailing, 10-6, and at the Colts’ 15-yard line with 4:25 left, the game looked ready to be won by the Pats. But throwing needlessly off his back foot, under zero pressure, from the 22-yard line, Jones aimed a soft-toss to a wide open Mike Gesicki for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown. Problem was, the ball was 5 yards shy of Gesicki. The intended receiver looked to be Colts safety Julian Blackmon, who made the pick that doomed Jones and the Pats.
--Dustin Hopkins, the Cleveland kicker who atoned for a late missed PAT that would have tied the game at 31 by kicking the game-winning field goal as time expired in the Browns’ 33-31 win at Baltimore.
--Ravens coach John Harbaugh, after Baltimore blew a 15-point lead with 20 minutes left against Cleveland.
--Tommy DeVito, Giants starting quarterback, to Jordan Ranaan of ESPN.com. DeVito’s childhood (and current) home is 11 miles from MetLife Stadium and the Giants’ training facility. I don’t quite know what to make of that declaration, other than I don’t think I’d be spreading around the fact that, at age 25, my mother is still making my bed.
--Patriots radio analyst Scott Zolak, in the Colts-Pats game from Germany, when the Patriots inexplicably didn’t field a punt-returner on a Colts’ fourth-down snap from the Indy 25-yard line, allowing Rigoberto Sanchez to punt and bounce a 69-yard boot that rolled to the New England 18-yard line.
--Jason McCourty on NFL Network’s telecast of the Patriots’ loss to the Colts, referring to the last New England play of the game—Zappe throwing into quadruple coverage and getting picked.
Notable: The voices of Zolak and McCourty, both former Pats, were dripping with disgust at the play of the worst team in the AFC.
Why the Chase Young trade could turn into a totally no-risk deal for the 49ers:
San Francisco owns the projected 101st overall pick in the 2024 draft as the Compensatory Pick for losing DeMeco Ryans and Ran Carthon to Houston and Tennessee, respectively. The Niners traded that Comp Pick to Washington for edge-rusher Young.
Let’s assume Young is a rental for the 49ers, and signs a free agent deal elsewhere for, say, $23 million a year in March 2024. It’s likely the Niners will get a third-round Compensatory Pick in return in the 2025 draft—unless they sign another high-priced free agent or two, which is unlikely given their current salary structure and need to re-sign their own top players. If Young leaves and the 49ers get a third-round pick in return, the pick would be likely be somewhere in the 97 to 101 range. Let’s, for fun, call it the 99th pick.
So this trade could end up being:
Imagine getting the benefit of Young for 11 or 12 games—and then a slightly better draft pick than you traded for him.
Giants coach Brian Daboll’s two-season record against the premier teams in the NFC East, the Cowboys and Eagles: 0-7. Margins of loss in the last five meetings: 26, 6, 31, 40 and 32.
Do the Giants have a Non-Compete Clause with Dallas and Philadelphia?
The Colts’ flight back from Germany landed in Indianapolis at 2:35 a.m. today. Interesting to note: When Indy plays a night game in Jacksonville or Houston, the Colts touch down back in Indiana around 3 a.m.
Miami’s trip to Germany to play Kansas City was the first time 40-year-old Miami coach Mike McDaniel, a graduate of Yale who majored in history, has been to Europe. Every vacation in his life has been in North America, to somewhere wet and warm.
“I’ve always been enamored with oceans,” McDaniel said. “I think I was 14 years old the first time I was on a plane and saw an ocean. I’ve always associated relaxation with sand and beach.”
The trip home from Miami-Kansas City in Germany was … interesting. Using German time (+6 hours EST), beginning last Monday:
5:23 a.m.: End of Buffalo-Cincinnati Sunday night game. Wasn’t on the TV in my hotel, the Melia Frankfurt City, but I followed it on the web as I wrote my FMIA column.
6:58 a.m.: Sent last file for Monday column to editor Sarah Hughes in New York.
7:13 a.m.: Left hotel in rental car for Frankfurt airport and flight to Amsterdam, connecting to JFK in New York.
11:15 a.m.: Flew to Amsterdam. Supposed to connect at 1:35 p.m., but flight to New York was delayed till 4 p.m. Drank Heinekens. (Well, I had to do something.) By the way, is there a reason Heineken in Amsterdam, the home of Heineken, tastes better and has a bigger head than Heineken in the U.S.? Probably not. Something about operating on zero sleep tends to make beer taste like liquid gold.
4:19 p.m.: Flew to JFK. Napped like a horse for three hours.
(Switch to Eastern Standard Time.)
5:57 p.m.: Landed at JFK. Got in line at Passport Control at 6:13. Long line. Got through the line at 7:39 p.m. Sort of seething, sort of resigned. Got my bag. Rode home. On way home, I put the Westwood One call of the Monday-nighter on my phone and heard Kevin Harlan call the Derius Davis 87-yard punt return for the Chargers. And I thought: the Bills and Bengals were just leaving Paycor Stadium to head home after the Sunday-nighter when I left my hotel for the trip home, and as I got near my home in Brooklyn, I listened to the first touchdown of the Monday-nighter. That’s one long day.
8:37 p.m.: Walked into my apartment in Brooklyn. Chuck the dog jumped on me.
9:04 p.m.: Bed. The time was 3:04 a.m. Tuesday in Frankfurt. A 20-hour trip, door-to-door.
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Lots of comments this week for what I missed in the NFL last week while in Germany. When I go on the road to cover a game, I’m not able to devote the time I normally do to every game. It’s a tradeoff—is it worth the time I get to spend with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid and other players and coaches one-on-one, alone (and in this case, for Football Night in America with an on-field interview with Mahomes after the game)? I view part of my job as having relationships with players and coaches so when I see them, I can find out things. I wanted to explain why I do what I do when I cover games. In this particular case, I did manage to speak with Josh Dobbs about his memorable win at Atlanta, and wrote a section for the column about being on five NFL teams in 45 weeks.
This week’s correspondence:
It’s not Mark Davis’ fault. From Glenn Cheng, of Baltimore: “I read that you placed some blame at Mark Davis’ feet for the Raiders’ turnover at coach and GM. And in response, I would say this: He had to fire McDaniels. McDaniels clearly lost the team. I think it speaks volumes that on a short week, assistant coaches built a game plan that not only beat the Giants, but thrashed them.”
I got 50 or so notes/reactions about what I wrote re the Raiders, and the common theme was: What an idiot you are. Mark had to fire Josh McDaniels. We’re behind him all the way. And look how we played with McDaniels gone. Never did I suggest McDaniels deserves any grace. My point was, Mark Davis has had eight coaches in the 11 years he’s owned the team. Average tenure per coach with the first seven: 29.1 games. This is neither normal nor sane nor a recipe for success. I like the guy, but he’s got to recognize he’s done a bad job picking the men to guide this franchise, and trust someone else to do that job.
I missed Blanda in my kickers list. From Howard Goldman, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: “George Blanda didn’t make your top 10 kickers list? I grant you he wasn’t a specialist but credit where it is due for a great athlete playing multiple positions.”
Hard to include a kicker who made 31 percent of his career kicks from 40 yards and longer.
I am not America first, he thinks. From Frank Ignatius: “Americans invented a game and built a league that has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. We support the NFL with television eyeballs, official merchandise, tickets, travel, fantasy/gambling money, and untold amounts of additional NFL-related spending. We pass fandom on over multiple generations the way some cultures pass down their religion. Can you explain why the people of Germany ‘deserve’ to see Mahomes v Tua in person? Do you feel like your political views have ingrained the idea of never putting America first and giving our assets away to other countries when there is so much need here in the states?”
This isn’t a political issue, Frank; it’s a football and business issue. I think your email is better sent to Kansas City owner Clark Hunt. Hunt wanted one of his nine home games this year played in Germany because he views it as a chance to both make an investment in a new fan base and to make his franchise more valuable. The team president told me he’s so smitten with football over there that he wants to go back over for a game prior to when the NFL mandates it. I don’t get the outrage over exporting five of 272 regular-season games to football-mad places.
Soccer will kill football, he thinks. From Greg Atkin, of Windsor, Ontario: “I’m not sure you understand just how big soccer is. American football will never succeed globally. The entire drive to make American football an international success smacks of hubris. You are a gifted writer who I read every week. It would be welcome to read just once a paragraph even criticizing the NFL. As it stands your columns are becoming more and more obsequious.”
American football will never succeed globally … interesting thought. Every international NFL game sells out. I attended the first two games in Germany. After the first, in Munich last year, Tom Brady told me: “That’s one of the great football experiences I’ve ever had.” This year, when tickets for the first Frankfurt game went on sale, 1.4 million people got into a queue to buy them. This is not about being bigger than soccer in the world. It’s obvious the NFL won’t be. But the sport is connecting with a lot of fans internationally. Why wouldn’t you lean into it and continue the experiment?
A game in Australia? From Steve Murch, of Alpena, Mich.: “A game Down Under has some major timing issues. The time difference causes all sorts of time issues, regardless of weekday or weekend. Because of travel and the HUGE time difference the game would have to be the kickoff of the season.”
As I detailed last week, Steve, a noon game on Friday in Sydney would mean a 9 p.m. ET kickoff on Thursday, which could be the kickoff game. Doing this would require two teams to go to Australia probably a week in advance, I’d guess. But because the league has only three preseason games now, there’s a two-week gap between the final preseason games and opening weekend. Two teams could make the 15-hour flight from the West Coast a week before, then return after the game and have the mini-bye (Saturday, Sunday and Monday) before beginning practice for their Week 2 games. No question this would take two teams that really wanted to do this. For the record, the Rams, who have NFL global rights to Australia, are due to have nine home games in 2026 and 2028, so I assume those would be the first two years it could happen.
Like comparing apples and basketballs, Jason. From Jason Eli: “With Josh Dobbs, a journeyman, getting zero reps with his current team, having to go over cadence with teammates on the field yet still winning I was wondering if you were going to spend the next half-decade telling everyone QB’s are interchangeable and easily replaced and crater the QB market just like you did with running backs?”
Quarterbacks are not interchangeable, Jason. You know that. But in many cases, running backs are much easier to replace. Let’s look at the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, who let running back Miles Sanders walk to free-agency in the offseason rather than compete with Carolina’s four-year, $25.4-millon contract, with $13 million guaranteed. The Eagles traded a fourth-round pick to Detroit for D’Andre Swift to replace Sanders. Swift will earn $1.77 million this year in the last year of his contract. Comparing the production of Sanders in Philly in 2022 and Swift in Philly in 2023:
Would you have committed $13 million to the 26-year-old Sanders for basically the same production as the 24-year-old Swift for a fraction of the cost? It’s sad for lots of stellar running backs, but it’s a fact of NFL life.
Matthew keeps track of my Awards section. From Matthew Boda, of Calgary: “Reading FMIA and its predecessor MMQB has been priority one most every Monday morning for many years. You have not chosen to name a Goat of the Week for two of the past three weeks. What’s your goal when you write this Awards section? Do you have a number in mind? You’ve picked as many as 13 and as few as 7. And whither goeth the Goat-of-the-Week? You’ve picked two goats three times, one goat three times and zero goats three times. What’s up?”
Thanks for keeping track, Matthew. I only name a goat, or goats, when I feel there has been one or more. Last week, for instance, there may have been one, but I didn’t see the games, so it’s tough to figure one out unless there’s one blaring in the headlines for a bad gaffe.
1. I think the biggest mystery in sports—not just football, but all of sports—is how difficult it is to project who’s going to be a good NFL quarterback coming from college football. In the five drafts from 2018 to 2022, 15 quarterbacks were picked in the top 15. As of this morning, eight have either failed or been average or worse: Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen. The jury’s out on two more, Daniel Jones and Kyler Murray. Only five—Burrow, Herbert, Tagovailoa, Allen, Lawrence—are solid starters or better. This year, as I look at all the teams with QB needs, I wonder how the Giants and Patriots and Bears and Seahawks and Bucs are going to make sure they’re not part of the majority that flunk QB Prospecting 101.
2. I think I love drilling down and trying to figure out all the options for a coach on a particular big play, and it gave me something to think about with Carolina and Chicago playing a forgettable game Thursday night. Mike Florio and I discussed this play at length on the Friday morning PFT show. Let’s play You make the call, shall we? The situation:
a. Carolina trails, 16-13, with 1:40. Panthers’ ball, fourth-and-10 at the Chicago 41-yard line. The Panthers can try a 59-yard field goal for the tie, or they can put the ball in Bryce Young’s hands; convert the fourth-and-10 and keep the drive going, and don’t convert it and hand the ball back to Chicago with maybe 90 seconds left in the game.
b. Analytics say, go for the first down. Per Next Gen Stats, the Panthers have a 24-percent chance of converting the first down and a 23-percent chance of making the field goal. Further, Next Gen says going for it here gives Carolina a 15.2-percent chance to win; trying the field goal gives Carolina an 11.2-percent chance.
c. The big factor to me is this: Say Carolina’s Eddy Piniero hits the field goal. Tie game. Bears get the ball back, let’s say at their 25-yard line with 1:30 left, and all three timeouts. They’re 45 yards and all the time they’d need from trying a game-winning 48-yard field goal.
d. Young had converted all three fourth-down tries he’d attempted in the fourth quarter, though none from as far as 10 yards. As Florio said, the team’s going nowhere and here was Carolina’s chance to give a beleaguered player the chance to be a hero.
e. Frank Reich chose to try the field goal, and it landed a few yards short in the end zone. My bet is, Reich would like to have that decision back. I bet as the Panthers flew home to Charlotte he wished he’d put the ball in Young’s hands. But—and this is the point—it was still only one-in-four that Young would have converted, so it’s not like Reich’s call ensured the loss. Carolina would likely have lost anyway. Still, Young’s got a better chance there to make something happen and pull it out.
3. I think, my, my, how Travis Kelce’s life has changed. Germany on Sunday, Kansas City on Monday, Argentina on Friday, Kansas City again Sunday, practice week starts today for the Philadelphia-KC Super Bowl rematch next Monday. Just a gut feeling here: Kelce got four targets as Miami suffocated him in coverage last week. I won’t be surprised if he gets 10, minimum, next Monday against the Eagles. Patrick Mahomes doesn’t want to force it to anyone, but I believe he knows he can’t wait forever for the young receivers to blossom.
4. I think I meant to tell you about this last week. First, check out the above photo of an appearance I did on Mike Florio’s daily PFT show, with co-host Charean Williams, when I was in Germany 10 days ago. Now, think of this. As I was doing this hit from the practice facility where the Dolphins were working, I considered these variables that were part of this 20 minutes of TV:
5. I think it’s the old man in me. But having three people 4,500, 450 and 1,100 miles away from our studio, and having my video camera be an iPhone a continent away, it absolutely blows me away that we can put on no-delay, pristine TV.
6. I think I’m not sure how the whole Michigan thing will end up, but I wonder if Jim Harbaugh is drummed out of college football in the next two or three months, whether any team in the NFL will take on that headache. Raiders? Commanders?
7. I think, just to throw it out there, here are my best Bill Belichick-on-the-free-market options, if indeed, Robert Kraft “parts ways” with Belichick (2-8 this year, 27-34 post-Brady) after the season:
a. Dallas. The Cowboys could be in play, I think, only if they don’t win the division, have some sketchy outings down the stretch and go winless in the playoffs. In that case, I could see Jerry Jones chasing Belichick, repeating history from two decades ago. Before you say Belichick would never work for Jerry, remember 2003, when we all thought Bill Parcells would never work for Jones.
b. Washington. Interesting regional thought: Belichick grew up in Annapolis, 23 miles from FedEx Field. At first glance, it seems like an odd fit—progressive new ownership aligning with a trophy coach who might be a dinosaur. Wouldn’t Josh Harris want a vibrant coach for the long term? But if Harris believes age is just a number with Belichick, I could see him kicking the tires.
c. L.A. Chargers. I’m dubious Dean Spanos would have a relative blank check for Belichick. But if L.A. goes winless in the postseason again, or finishes out of the money, Spanos just might sniff around Belichick. Also, Belichick is 18 wins from breaking Don Shula’s record for coaching victories. Who knows how many wins away he’ll be after this year. Fifteen? Sixteen? He’d have to think he could win eight games a year, minimum, with Justin Herbert.
d. Chicago. Makes no sense if ownership and Ryan Poles believe they want to get the quarterback and offense right to commit to Belichick, 72 next year. So this one seems a longshot.
8. I think my Football Story of the Week is the L.A. Times’ Sam Farmer on Jared Goff, and his development in Detroit. The most interesting part is Goff admitting to Farmer that he insisted on an exit meeting with coach Sean McVay when he got sent packing by the Rams. One of his best friends with the Rams, Andrew Whitworth, met with Goff right after the deal. As Farmer reported:
Then the quarterback informed him he was moving on for an exit meeting with McVay.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’” Whitworth recalled. “And he’s like, ‘I told Sean I still want to do our exit meeting…’ And I was like, ‘You’re crazy. Why would you want to do an exit?’ And he said, ‘I want him to tell me right to my face what I did wrong. I want to hear it from him. How do I get better?’ He wanted closure.”
Recalling that two years later, Goff didn’t go into details about what was said in his final meeting with McVay, saying only: “I got some answers and gained a lot of closure. He was forthright.”
9. I think I’d like to wish good luck to former NFL quarterback Matt McGloin, elected on Tuesday to do something far more important than playing a game for a living. McGloin, from Scranton, Pa., is one of the new county commissioners in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, McGloin’s home county. The win comes one decade after the former Penn State QB started his first of seven NFL games for the Raiders. He beat the Matt Schaub/Andre Johnson/DeAndre Hopkins Texans in Houston 10 Novembers ago, his only NFL win.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Veterans Day Story of the Week: Gilma Avalos of WNBC-TV in New York with the match of a service dog, Marley, and a veteran suffering from PTSD on Long Island. Save a pet, help a vet. Great motto for Paws of War, which matches dogs (Marley was about to be euthanized) in need of a home with vets.
b. “He’s looking for me. I’m right here, Buddy. I didn’t leave you.” Great job, Paws of War.
c. The NFL isn’t the only league that’s gone plum loco on over-fining players and disciplining them for absolutely normal plays. Giannis Antetokounmpo got kicked out of a game for glaring at a foe!
d. I’m getting hooked on “M*A*S*H” reruns. Hadn’t watched in 40 years, never got into the reruns, but now my wife and I are watching one or two most nights. That is some terrific writing, terrific acting, and so, so touching.
e. Just saw the one at the end of Season 3 when Col. Henry Blake rejoiced and rejoiced when his tour was over and he got the news he was returning home to his heaven that was southern Illinois, and he emotionally described how much he loved and missed his wife and he left, and then Radar O’Reilly walks into the operating room with the news that the plane carrying Col. Henry Blake was shot down over the Sea of Japan. “There’s were no survivors,” he said. Gasp! My God, why would they kill off a wonderful man like Henry Blake!
f. The cruel truth of war, of course, is that very good people are killed in it. This was “M*A*S*H”’s way of being exceedingly real. Here I was, tears coming down my cheeks for a 48-year-old sitcom rerun. That’s why this show was so great.
g. Americana Story of the Week: Kim Severson of the New York Times, on our increased love of drive-through restaurants.
h. As Severson writes, we got used to all that alone time during the pandemic, and we’re evidently hungry for more alone time after the pandemic.
i. Writes Severson:
Drive-through traffic rose 30 percent from 2019 to 2022, according to a report from the food service research firm Technomic. Meanwhile, the number of people eating inside fast-food restaurants in the first half of 2023 fell by 47 percent from the same period in 2019. Drive-throughs now account for two-thirds of all fast-food purchases, according to a September report by Revenue Management Solutions.
As momentum builds, the $113 billion fast-food industry is leaning in. Popeyes executives are cutting the size of dining rooms in half. Taco Bell is experimenting with eliminating them altogether in favor of more car lanes. Chick-fil-A plans to open a two-story, four-lane drive-through in Atlanta next year that can handle 75 cars at a time and delivers food from the kitchen on a conveyor belt.
… The most striking explanation may be a societal sea change: People emerged from the pandemic with less tolerance for interacting with strangers. Ronald Gross, a retiree with three grandchildren who lives in Brooklyn Park, just north of Minneapolis, sat in his car in a Taco Bell parking lot on a recent sunny afternoon eating a chicken chipotle melt.
Before the pandemic, he would go inside restaurants like McDonald’s to eat. Now he sticks to the drive-through. “I got out of the habit,” he said. “I think I’m like a lot of people who just don’t necessarily like being social that much anymore.”
j. How enlightening.
k. Americana Story of the Week II: Betsy McKay of the Wall Street Journal, on the decline of traditional book clubs, and the meteoric rise of a new kind of book club.
l. “I will not read a book that people say you have to read. I did that in college, and I never have to do it again.”
m. There’s a “Silent Book Club” chapter in Easton, Mass., that meets at a brewery, with all the members reading different books. It’s called “an introvert happy hour.”
The Silent Book Club has grown about 75 percent this year to 525 chapters globally. Co-founders Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich started the club when they were overbooked professionals in San Francisco looking for time to read without the hosting hassle.
The West Seattle chapter, started last fall, is so popular that its meetups take place in at least 10 venues simultaneously, including coffee shops, bars and a record store. Participants also gathered to read on the beach.
[In Easton], Erin Meany, a self-described introvert, waited in her car in the parking lot, reluctant to go in until a friend arrived. Then she saw other people walk in alone holding books. “I’m like ‘Okay, I can do this. These are my people,’ ” the 29-year-old clinical social worker said.
n. Reporting Job of the Week: Nikita Nikolaienko and Ian Lovett of the Wall Street Journal with an incredible spy vs. spy story of how a murderous attack on a Ukraine village felt like an inside job with one of its own residents tipping off the Russians:.
o. Per the Journal reporters:
HROZA, Ukraine—When the Mamon brothers were growing up in this farming village near the border with Russia, Andriy Kozyr would occasionally stop by the family’s house. Once, returning from a construction job abroad, he brought them a scooter and a toy gun, plus cognac for their parents.
That’s how people got along in Hroza before the Russians marched in early last year. The invasion split the village into enemy camps. Kozyr enlisted in the Ukrainian military and was killed in action. The Mamon brothers went to work for the Russian forces occupying Hroza.
After Ukraine retook the village just over a year ago, residents eyed each other with suspicion, no longer sure which of their neighbors they could trust. Their distrust wasn’t misplaced. On Oct. 5, dozens of residents gathered in the cemetery at the edge of Hroza for Kozyr’s funeral, then walked to the village cafe. At 1:25 p.m., a missile ripped through the building, killing 59 people in and around the cafe. For days afterward, white body bags lay in the playground beside where the building had been.
The strike was so specific in its timing and location that surviving families were convinced one of their own had called in the strike. How else would Russians have known about the funeral? Why else would they target a tiny village with little military presence, killing a fifth of its population?
p. This is why journalism is so important. We need to know how the world is really working, and without reporters with boots on the ground (literally, I believe, in the heart of the war in Ukraine), we’d never know.
q. Podcast of the Week: My friend Tim Rohan’s got an excellent multi-part pod in Meadowlark’s Sports Explains the World series—“Volley and Serve: From Wimbledon to the Front Lines.” It’s about Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky, who shocked the tennis world when he knocked out defending champ Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2013 … and now is fighting with the Ukrainian military to repel the Russian invasion. What a story.
r. Amazing: Stakhovsky beat Novak Djokovic in European junior tennis, then beat Federer at Wimbledon. A decade later, you hear why he’s doing something he thinks is far, far more important. Rohan traveled to Ukraine to get the real story.
s. One of the reasons it’s so compelling, I think, is along the way you get a great (and easy) history lesson in the conflict and the roots of how the conflict happened. Very well worth your time. One thing I love about podcasting is how you can dive deep into a great story you never knew. I never heard of Sergiy Stakhovsky. Now I feel like the world should know him, thanks to Tim Rohan.
t. Stakhovsky going off to war has cost him his marriage (he has three children as well) because his wife thinks he should put family first. It’s agonizing for him because of his love of country. This is something he felt he absolutely had to do. He said to Rohan: “We all walk a thin line, but somebody’s got to walk it.”
u. Congrats to my friend Rich Eisen on the 20th anniversary of NFL Network this month. He’ll join me on The Peter King Podcast, which drops Tuesday. (We recorded it in Frankfurt last week.)
v. A couple of previews: I told Rich I thought a huge key for the network being go-to TV for big offseason events was the development of Mike Mayock, because I loved how Mayock, each year at the Scouting Combine, would give a six-minute soliloquy on all 32 teams in the league. So if you’re wondering why you should hang in there for the Saturday Combine to tell you who Carolina picked in the seventh round, well, this is why: Along the way you got 32 intelligent riffs from Mayock on the state of every team in the league. Rich pointed out one other huge factor in the early success of the network. I shan’t spoil it here. Hit the podcast this week to hear his thoughts.
w. Answer to the quiz from the Awards section: Ihmir Smith-Marsette played water polo in his freshman year of high school in Newark, N.J.
x. RIP, D.J. Hayden, who came back from serious heart issues while at the University of Houston to have a good career in the NFL, mostly with the Raiders. He died with five others in a car crash in Houston Saturday, a horrible crash that ended six lives far too soon.
y. And congrats to a great person and old soccer buddy of Mary Beth King from Montclair, N.J., Yael Averbuch West. MB and Yael were teammates on the Montclair Kangaroos travel team way back in the day. As the GM of Gotham FC of the National Women’s Soccer League, Yael engineered a worst-to-first comeback story. Gotham FC finished last in the 12-team league last season, then won the NWSL championship game Saturday night in San Diego, beating the OL Reign, 2-1. (A shame to see the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe’s last soccer game end with an apparent torn Achilles in the third minute.) So happy for Yael, who made soccer her life at an early age and played with a relentless skill. Apparently she built a champion with that same drive.
Cincinnati at Baltimore, Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime Video. I really want to see this game of the year for Amazon in its 16-game package. Joe Burrow and the desperate Bengals, 4-2 in this series since 2021, at the Ravens, who must be seething after Sunday’s loss to Cleveland. Baltimore won at Cincinnati two months ago, but Burrow had the calf issue then. Both played knock-down, drag-out Sunday games and must come back on the short week. Which one will have enough legs to win?
New York Jets at Buffalo, Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS. Strange to call a home meeting with the non-Aaron Rodgers Jets a huge challenge for the Bills. But Zach Wilson has a W against the Bills in both 2022 and 2023—perhaps I should say, the Jets’ defense has those W’s—and the 5-4 Bills need this one badly because of the brutal schedule over the next month.
Philadelphia at Kansas City, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN/ABC. In the history of the Andy Reid Bowl since Big Red migrated from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 2013, KC is 4-0 against Philadelphia, including last year’s narrow Super Bowl win. I’d expect the rating here to be insane, with Kansas City coming off a 15-day break and struggling on offense and the Eagles coming off a 15-day break and flying high.
Sunday at FedEx Field.
Scalpers have a bye.