The NFL is back in full swing but it's hard to ignore just how different everything has been in these crazy times. Bill Belichick described the Patriots first game as being like a practice, and with the atmosphere in stadiums around the league severely lacking, it's hard to argue. And it's too bad because there have been some scintillating performances to watch.
Home (not so) Sweet Home
Not much about this season has been normal. From the lack of offseason training to the elimination of the preseason to some eerily quiet stadiums devoid of fans across the league. Despite this last point, we continue to treat road games the same as we would in any other year, pointing out the difficulties that come with playing in a "hostile environment." But the fact of the matter is, most of league's venues have been empty thus far this season, and the ones that aren't have had fewer than 20,000 folks trying their best to make an impact. In other words, the environments have been anything but hostile. NBC's Cris Collinsworth mentioned several times how Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers was able to use a hard count to impact the Saints front during their Sunday night game, something that would have been impossible with fans in the stands. Still, many national talking heads have credited teams (including the Patriots) for their work away from home as if it's the same as any other year. Obviously there is a comfort that comes with playing at home and avoiding travel. Even though the famed 12s weren't in Seattle in Week 12, the Patriots still had to travel 3,000 miles to take on the Seahawks and there's a challenge in that. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking the game is the same with or without a raucous home crowd going bananas. Same could be said this week for the Raiders. Yes they crossed the country on a short week to play in Foxborough, but Gillette Stadium was like a library on Sunday and in no way replicated a true road test. And so far it seems the differences are apparent. Through three weeks of action, home teams sported a record of 26-21-1. That number was greatly enhanced by the 12-4 mark posted by home teams in Week 2. In Weeks 1 (8-8) and 3 (6-9-1) the road team actually held a winning record. So while Green Bay's win Sunday night in New Orleans was impressive, it was nothing comparable to a "true" road win in the dome.
Big Mike Getting it Done
The Patriots selected three offensive linemen on Day 3 of the draft with the idea of bolstering their depth up front. Bill Belichick was forced to scramble on the eve of the season last year and swung several trades to pick up veteran reserves Marshall Newhouse, Jermaine Eluemunor, Korey Cunningham and Russell Bodine. The results weren't great and Belichick set out to make sure he wouldn't face such dire circumstances along his offensive line again when he tabbed Mike Onwenu, Justin Herron and Dustin Woodward in the late rounds. Woodward retired as camp opened, but the other two appear to be hits, particularly Onwenu. Big Mike, as his Michigan Wolverines coaches referred to him, tips the scales at roughly 350 pounds but is quite nimble and has shown impressive versatility early in his career. In just three games he's lined up at tight end, right tackle and left guard - and he drew some praise from Belichick.
"I think he's done a really good job," Belichick said. "He's a smart kid, he's got a lot of physical playing strength, he's a good athlete, he's got good football smarts and awareness and he's done a good job for us, playing right tackle and then yesterday at guard he handled some good situations. He learned a lot and he's still got a long way to go but did a lot of good things."
Onwenu moves well in space, especially considering his massive size. He showed that mobility on a couple of plays, one of which helped spring Sony Michel for a 48-yard run, the longest of his career, as the Patriots wore out the Raiders in the second half.
Herron has played sparingly as an extra tight end but also hasn't looked out of place. After suffering through some serious depth issues in 2019, the offensive line is emerging as the strength of the 2020 version.
Monday night's marquee matchup between the Chiefs and Ravens had a very familiar feel to it. The game pitted the last two MVPs against each other with KC's Patrick Mahomes (2018) going against Baltimore's Lamar Jackson (2019). It marked the third straight season the two have gone against each other with Mahomes coming out on top in all three - the first two of which were played at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. It was wonderful theatre, but it left me wondering why the league didn't treat it the way they used to feature Tom Brady's Patriots and Peyton Manning - both with the Colts and Broncos. Those two superstars met almost annually throughout their careers, and when they locked horns it often decided home field in the AFC playoffs, usually the title game. As such, the league generally chose to hold the matchup for the November sweeps period, and the games rarely disappointed on the field or in the ratings. The 2007 battle of unbeatens stands out when the 8-0 Patriots came from behind in Indy to beat the 7-0 Colts. The hype for the game was unreal, and even though Monday's Chiefs-Ravens matchup received plenty of attention, I can't help but feel it was a lost opportunity not to wait until the second half of the season when both would no doubt still be jockeying for the top spot in the conference. Either way, the idea of watching Mahomes and Jackson battling each season brings back great memories. Incidentally, the stakes for the game may be even higher than ever before with the changes in the playoff format. With only one bye per conference, the Chiefs may have put themselves in the driver's seat for the top seed while the Ravens could be forced to play an extra game.
A couple of observations looking around the league ... I thought it was interesting that Dallas found itself down by 15 points in the second half for the second straight week. But this time Mike McCarthy did not foolishly go to two after scoring a touchdown to potentially pull within a score. Trailing 39-30 against Atlanta in Week 2, McCarthy went for two and failed, leaving the deficit at 9 and therefore still needed two possessions to win. Of course the Falcons are the Falcons and the Cowboys won anyway. But in Seattle McCarthy kicked the PAT to make it 30-22, giving himself a chance to potentially tie with another touchdown. The Cowboys eventually took the lead at 31-30 (despite missing the tying two-point conversion earlier) but fell to Russell Wilson's Seahawks anyway. ... While we're on the Cowboys-Seahawks game, few will deny Wilson's brilliance in the early going. He's been immense while leading a Seahawks team with one of the worst defenses in football. However, I think Pete Carroll and his offense once again were guilty of being greedy late in the game. The Seahawks trailed 31-30 and were in field goal range at the Cowboys 29 as the two-minute warning came. Dallas had all three timeouts remaining, but if Seattle managed to pick up 3 yards on the next two plays the Seahawks could have run the clock down and kicked the winning field goal as time expired. So what did Carroll do? Threw incomplete on second-and-3, then had Wilson go deep on third down - much as he did on third-and-1 against the Patriots when a first down would have all but ended the game. But Wilson is on fire and his throw wound up in the arms of D.K. Metcalf for a touchdown. But a deeper look at the situation shows that the touchdown actually kept the Cowboys in the game. Dak Prescott took over at his 25 with the three timeouts and moved easily to the Seattle 22 with plenty of time still to tie it. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the offensive line broke down on consecutive plays and Prescott's desperation heave was picked off in the end zone. It didn't have to be that difficult if Seattle had just gone for the first down and forced Dallas to use the timeouts ... just as was the case the week before against the Patriots. ... If there's a better back in football than Alvin Kamara I haven't seen him. Few players possess the ability to impact games both as a runner and receiver the way he does consistently for the Saints. And watching him work as the focal point for Drew Brees with Michael Thomas out Sunday night was a true pleasure. I'm not generally in favor of paying running backs big money, but he's worth every penny of his contract extension.
I gave the Saints a mulligan for their Monday night loss in Vegas, but two in a row without Thomas earns you a spot with the rest.
Kansas City (3-0, 2nd last week) - Impressive thrashing of the Ravens Monday night earns the champs the top spot. Baltimore (2-1, 1st last week) - Some disturbing patterns developing for Jackson and the Ravens when the team falls behind, but this remains a very talented group. Green Bay (3-0, 3rd last week) - That Aaron Rodgers Revenge Tour thing appears to be very real. Seattle (3-0, 4th last week) - The Seahawks are losing players in bunches, but as long as No. 3 isn't one of them Seattle has a chance. Pittsburgh (3-0, unranked last week) - Big Ben hasn't quite returned to form but the Steelers defense is impressive.