On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
Cowboys know Brady hates them
It’s been an informative week surrounding Sunday’s big game between the Cowboys and Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
For instance, we found out Tom Brady, a native of northern California and a big Joe Montana fan, has hated the Cowboys since he was a little boy.
“I’ve really not liked the Cowboys since coming out of the womb,” Brady said Wednesday.
We also discovered Bill Belichick bumped into Cowboys owner Jerry Jones while unemployed and on a ski trip in the late 1990s and asked Jones to keep him in mind if he ever needed a coach.
Wow, can you image how that might have changed history?
Nevertheless, the biggest concern the Patriots have this week is getting their offense unfurled. Brady wasn’t happy with the team after last week’s 17-10 loss in Philadelphia for its lack of ingenuity.
“It’s great to be 9-1, but we just have high expectations for what we’re doing as an offense, so we’re just trying to figure out how we can do things consistently, with dependability, and guys are working hard at it,” Brady said. “Sometimes it comes together early, middle of the season, late in the season. The only thing that matters really is this week and trying to beat a really good football team.”
But that’s not the only reason Sunday won’t be easy for the Patriots. The Cowboys have the NFL’s top offense, averaging 444.6 yards. We’ll see how that matches up with Patriots defense which allows opponents a league-low 249.9 yards per game.
With their win last week, the Patriots wrapped up their 19th straight winning season. The Cowboys had been the only other team in league history to do that; they strung together 20 winning seasons from 1966-85.
What’s more, if the Patriots win, it will be their 17th straight season with at least 10 victories, breaking a tie with the 49ers, who did it 16 straight times from 1983-98.
“They’re going to pounce on any mistake you make,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “They’re prepared. They’re fundamentally sound. Their in-game adjustments are just at a higher level than anybody else in the league. [Belichick has] done it at that level for so long. And specifically as an offense going [against] him, I think his defense right now, when I watch them on tape, if it’s not the best defense he’s ever had, it’s got to be up there in the top. It’s a big challenge for us. So much respect for him. Greatest coach to ever coach in the NFL.”
San Francisco needs some polishing
There’s a lot of football still to be played and four great teams in the NFC batting for division titles and playoff positioning. But Sunday’s game between the Packers (8-2) and 49ers (9-1) in Santa Clara, Calif., might go a long way in determining who gets home field in the playoffs.
Of course, that’s not the top consideration for the 49ers at this moment. After winning their first eight games, a few flaws have presented themselves during a loss to the Seahawks and close call last Sunday against the Cardinals.
San Francisco already has 17 giveaways, tied for eighth-worst in the NFL, including five in the red zone, more than all but one team. And quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown 10 interceptions, tied for seventh-most in the league. That hurt them in the loss to Seattle, which scored 21 points of their turnovers.
“It’s nothing crazy, just got to go do your job, execute and move on play after play and just do that throughout the entire game,” Garoppolo said.
On offense, the 49ers have had difficulty establishing a vertical passing attack.
The wide receivers rank 27th in receptions (102) and yards (1,358) and 28th in drops per target (4.4 percent). Perhaps because of that, Garoppolo has attempted just 21 passes of 20-plus yards, fewest in the NFL.
One more time for Jackson
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson continues to give us a good reason to watch him and on Sunday night he’ll bring the league’s top running game to Los Angeles to play the Rams.
The Ravens have been impossible to stop on the ground. They rushed for 263 yards in their 41-7 win over Houston last week. According to the NFL, Baltimore, with 2,038 rushing yards, is the seventh team since 1970 and first since the 1978 Patriots (2,029 rushing yards) with at least 2,000 rushing yards in its first 10 games of a season. The Ravens’ 2,038 rushing yards are the fifth-most through a team’s first 10 games of a season since 1970.
Meanwhile, Jackson has at least 60 rushing yards in seven consecutive games, passing Michael Vick for the longest such streak by a quarterback in league history. Jackson has 1,483 career rushing yards, better than Cam Newton’s previous mark (1,447) for the most by a quarterback in his first two seasons in league history.
Limited options for Eagles
While the Cowboys try to maintain control of the NFC East, the Eagles (5-5) are acutely aware the path for either to the postseason likely depends on winning the division. Unless someone collapses, the two Wild Card teams will likely come from this group of four – the 49ers, Seahawks, Packers and Vikings.
That makes Sunday’s game in Philadelphia against the Seahawks critically important. And after their lackluster performance against the Patriots last week, the Eagles margin for error has diminished.
The biggest problem they have is there injury-depleted receiving corps. That has limited the options for Carson Wentz and allowed opposing defenses to clamp down on their running game.
“Even though he (Wentz) touches the ball and he is the quarterback and we ask him to do a lot, just let the offense kind of work and let the guys around you make the plays. I think that’s a takeaway,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “I think maybe as the game (Patriots) progressed, we all maybe felt like there was a little bit of ‘pressing’ going on. We were trying to make ‘that’ play against that great defense, and you really don’t have to do that. Just let things unfold.”
Working in Philadelphia’s favor is its defense, which will have its hands full against Russell Wilson, who has thrown 23 touchdown passes. In the past three games, opposing quarterbacks have thrown only two touchdowns total against Philadelphia and averaging just 170 yards passing.
“If our defense keeps playing like that,” tight end Zach Ertz said, “we’ll be good.”
If the Eagles can win on Sunday, things will ease up a bit. Over the next three weeks, they are at Miami (2-8), host the Giants (2-8) and travel to Washington (1-9).
Critical week for the Panthers
Periodically throughout the season, an owner or two will express frustration with their team. We saw it a month ago when Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he wasn’t happy with the way his team, which was 1-7 at the time, was playing. And the Falcons have responded by winning their last two games without allowing a touchdown and recording 11 sacks.
Now it’s time for the Panthers to do the right thing. Their owner David Tepper blasted his team for its mediocrity after last week’s loss. And now sitting at 5-5 after losing two straight, the Panthers are about out time in terms of making the playoffs as they head to New Orleans.
Among their biggest problems has been the recent play of quarterback Kyle Allen. He has thrown nine interceptions in his last four games, three in the first half of their loss to the Falcons last week. Carolina needs him to get back on track.
“I have to play good football if this team wants to win,” Allen said.