We’re five weeks into the season and we – Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler – are here to pick six more things that caught our eye in the last round of games. This week, our interest-o-meter was set off by the Bears waking up, the Bills going to sleep and the Steelers defying all logic, plus CJ Stroud, Brock Purdy and Bill Belichick. Let’s pick the meat off the bones.
Bears emerge from hibernation
It’s fair to say that Chicago have not been having any fun lately. They came into Thursday night on a run of 14 losses stretching back 350 days (the longest losing streak in their 104-year history). They had just squandered a 21-point lead to the Broncos. Their DC resigned in Week 2. Exiled WR Chase Claypool was shipped off to Miami. And before the game, the passing of franchise legend Dick Butkus was announced.
But, as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn and on TNF, they – one of the league’s two remaining winless teams – finally got the dub they’d been so desperate for. The Bears travelled to Washington to face a feisty Commanders team that took the Eagles to OT the previous week and despite starting as six-point underdogs, they got a deserved 40-20 victory. They shot out to a 27-3 halftime lead but unlike last week, the Bears didn’t buckle when injuries, not least to RB Khalil Herbert, started to bite. Indeed, they sacked Sam Howells five times.
But it was the connection between Justin Fields and DJ Moore that decided this matchup. Despite only completing 15 passes to just three different players – Moore, plus tight ends Cole Kmet and Robert Tonyan – Fields (282 passing yards/4 TDs) torched Emmanuel Forbes and Kendall Fuller all night. With 617 yards, eight TDs and one INT in his past two games, he suddenly seems to have found his groove.
Moore was the main beneficiary, with a career-high (and TNF-high) 230 receiving yards and 3 TDs from just eight catches. That haul makes him the first Bears player in the Super Bowl era with 200+ receiving yards and 3+ receiving TDs in a game. Moore’s numbers were boosted by chunk plays of 58, 56, 39, 32 and 20 yards, and he could’ve had another big TD had a fourth-quarter bomb not been overthrown.
So, after an entire year of losing every which way, the Bears – and HC Matt Eberflus – can finally enjoy a W. Which means you can drag that meme, which showed Chicago as the only franchise across the big four US sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) that hadn’t won a game since Elon Musk bought Twitter in October 2022, off your desktop and into the recycle bin. [ST]
Stroud and proud
It has been a record-breaking start to a career for Texans quarterback CJ Stroud and during the Week 5 21-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he added more records to his name. He has now started his young NFL career with 186 passing attempts without throwing an interception. That mark eclipses the 176 attempts made by Dak Prescott when he started in the NFL and sets the new benchmark for 2024 and beyond.
It is one of those stats that could be meaningless, however. Essentially tossing the ball into the stands on every play would avoid an interception but wouldn’t be an ideal gameplan to win in the NFL. The fact is, Stroud has accomplished this feat while playing well and pumping much-needed life and optimism into the Texans franchise.
He may not have had his best game on Sunday but the big players show up in the big moments. Down by 6 with just under seven minutes to go, Stroud orchestrated an 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a beautiful 18-yard touchdown strike to tight end Dalton Schultz. It moved the Texans in front but it would be the last time Stroud touched the football as the Falcons managed the clock, to kick a game-winning field goal as the clock hit zero.
It would not be an understatement to suggest that Stroud doesn’t have the most stellar of supporting casts. With that said, it seems as though the Texans have found the answer at the most important position on the field. Stroud is giving his team every opportunity to win, he is not turning the ball over and he will surely only continue to get better and better. Houston may have found a really good one. [SB]
To err is human
These days, everything is ‘smart’: our TVs, our central heating, our phones, pretty much every piece of tech has gone beyond automation and is now seemingly capable of sentient thought. The robots will soon take over, believe me, and the revolution seems to have started, ever-so-quietly, in the most unexpected of places: among the ranks of NFL quarterbacks.
Last month, Chicago QB Justin Fields blamed his ‘robotic’ play on his coaches, who were feeding him too much information. That’s just what a robot would do, isn’t it – blame us unpredictable, flawed humans for making him look too mechanical. Not convinced? OK, fair enough. But how do you explain Niners quarterback Brock Purdy?
The last name picked in the 2022 NFL draft has now been at the helm of 10 straight regular season wins since starting for the 49ers. He is a machine – literally. The so-called Mr Irrelevant has yet to lose (other than the time he had to leave the field in the first quarter against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, presumably to have a circuit board resoldered or his mainframe rebooted). He had just one incompletion last week against Arizona and has yet to throw an interception five games into the new season. In his latest outing – Sunday’s 42-10 trouncing of Dallas – he went 17 of 24 for 252 yards and a career-high four TDs, three of them to George Kittle. He’s improving week by week without regression: that’s machine learning for you.
Broadcaster Kyle Brandt, the co-host of Good Morning Football, has this running joke that Purdy is an AI experiment. He’s had some fantastic rants about Purdy not bleeding, sweating or even blinking, and his conspiracy theory has even been picked up by the UK press. “I think there is a conspiracy that will certainly come out years from now that they wanted the first artificial intelligence player,” he told The Mirror. “They’re like: ‘We need to start introducing AI into the game.’”
It’s obviously just a bit of fun but what if he’s actually right? With someone (something?) this consistent, this dependable, you can’t rule it out. Maybe it’s a Truman-Show-style social experiment but until Purdy shows that he’s fallible – and I’m not talking about them programming an algorithm into the matrix to make him appear more human – I’m with Kyle. Brock Purdy’s a machine, the 49ers are going 17-0 and the day the robots take over is closer than you think. [ST]
The GOAT keeps being slaughtered
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard the boo birds at Gillette Stadium but this Sunday, they were out in full force. It’s been a quiet three years post-Tom Brady, with most fans giving Bill Belichick plenty of time and grace to rebuild the powerhouse franchise of the first 20 years of the millennium. Those heady days of winning 17 out of 20 divisional titles, nine conference championships and six Super Bowls feel like a lifetime ago.
For New England, the head coach is still the face of the franchise, and therein lies the problem. Name a superstar on the New England roster. You can’t. They don’t have any that you could name. But they do have plenty of journeymen. Ezekiel Elliot last played quality football three or four years ago. JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers’ number 1 receiver three or four years ago. Hunter Henry, the tight end, may have become something special in San Diego – and no, that isn’t a typo, that’s how long ago it was. And I haven’t even mentioned Brady’s ‘replacement’, Mac Jones, as that’s a whole other story.
Normally, a Belichick defense will at least keep things tight. How does shipping 72 points in two weeks sound? The Cowboys are a team that can rack up points on any given week but the Saints? New Orleans had scored less than 21 points in 10 straight games, yet they rocked up to Foxborough and put up the biggest shutout scoreline against the Patriots in their history (34-0).
The quote from the press conference Belichick used after the game was: “So just plain and simply, we’ve got to find a way to play and coach better than that. So that’s what we are going to do: start all over and get back on a better track than we’re on right now.” Maybe the answer is that the Patriots truly start again and hand the keys over completely, as this current version of New England is a mirage of what once was. [SB]
No jet lag for the Jags
On reflection, the second International Series game of the season, a 25-20 win for the Jaguars over the Bills at Tottenham Stadium, didn’t quite live up to the hype. The game only kicked into life midway through the fourth quarter, when the teams traded four TDs – two each. Until then though, it had all been rather attritional, with the defenses on top and offenses struggling to fill the highlight reel.
Sure, the Jags secured their second win on these shores in a week and deserved to move to 3-2. Trevor Lawrence threw for 315 yards but only one TD – the game’s opener to Zay Jones – leaving the bulk of the damage to be done by Travis Etienne (136 yards and 2 rushing TDs) and Calvin Ridley (seven catches for 122 yards). They did have some trouble with drops and fumbles, but their D stepped up when needed, forcing the Bills to punt six times and leaving them with under 22 minutes of possession.
Beforehand, this clash looked to be one of the better of the 35 contests to be staged in our capital, and many – me included – were expecting a shootout. Both teams are tipped for postseason action and the Bills, who had scored 123 points in their last three games, were arguably the hottest team in the league. Yet they rarely showed it. Josh Allen threw for just 23 yards in the first quarter, the Bills mustered 29 rushing yards all game and they committed 11 penalties for 109 yards. With Greg Rousseau, Tre’Davious White and Shaq Lawson already out, Matt Milano leaving early with a broken leg, DaQuan Jones also injuring a pec and the returning Von Miller on a snap count, it was mainly left to AJ Epenesa (with two of his team’s five sacks) to keep things competitive on the defensive side. A scoreless third quarter meant that theoretically, everything was still to play for but the Jags looked in control and always stayed a score or two ahead.
On Friday’s media day, Stefon Diggs called his QB ‘sleepyhead’ and Allen himself admitted to having “a few coffees” to stay awake, even though he doesn’t normally drink the stuff. Then in the post-match presser, he confessed “We never felt like we got into a rhythm until late in the game.” Which does make you wonder: how much of a factor is the international travel? The Buffalo team flew in to the UK overnight on Thursday and stayed up to practice on Friday, in an attempt to overcome the five-hour time dfference. But it didn’t seem to have the desired effect, with the Bills looking like they had yet to acclimatise or adjust to a game that kicked off at 9.30am Eastern time.
By contrast, Jacksonville had been in London for 10 days, having beaten Atlanta at Wembley the week before. I guess the success of the Jaguars’ extended stay makes back-to-back games in London more likely in the future, but it also raises the question as to whether it will give them a massive advantage. [ST]
The Steelers top the North. How?
“The AFC North: toughest division in football” is a line often thrown around by commentators. But after five weeks of the season, the toughest thing about it is figuring out if any of the teams are actually any good. There is a solitary game between the four divisional rivals after the opening quarter of the season. The team at the top? The one with a minus 31 point differential: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In an awful game full of mistakes and miscues from both sides, the Steelers somehow managed to conjure up 14 points in the 4th quarter to beat the Baltimore Ravens 17-10. It started with a safety on a blocked punt. The next drive resulted in a field goal so the Steelers were just two points behind. The final seven minutes of the game were simply bizarre.
The Ravens punted again but this time the Steelers muffed the return, setting up Baltimore at the Steelers 7-yard line. Lamar Jackson inexplicably threw an interception. The Steelers edged towards field goal territory when Kenny Pickett unleashed his best pass of the day, 41 yards to George Pickens, for a touchdown. It surprised everyone in the stadium and it also gave Lamar the ball back with 1:17 to go. He fumbled, and the ball was recovered by TJ Watt. Surely it was game over?
Even then, Pittsburgh seemingly didn’t want the win. They knelt twice, forcing the Ravens to use timeouts, and were going to kneel a third time. But on the play, there was an illegal procedure so it brought up 4th down after running just 13 seconds off the clock and going backwards 6 yards. They kicked an FG but that still left Lamar with one last chance of redemption… until a Watt sack on 4th down ended the game. Somehow, Pittsburgh improved to 3-2.
Surely the Steelers won’t win the division playing like this? They are, however, consistent in that they know the limitations of their offence and play behind a big play defence that has 11 turnovers through five games. The rest of the division needs to sort out their Jekyll and Hyde play because as always, Mike Tomlin will get the Steelers to at least .500 by hook or by crook. [SB]