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NFL Sunday takeaways: NFC East is competent, Pickett time in Pittsburgh

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/2/2022 Mark Maske

Don’t look now, but there is a sudden outbreak of competence in the NFC East.

The Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys all won Sunday. That quickly, a once-proud division known more recently for its mediocrity has the league’s only 4-0 team, the Eagles, and a pair of 3-1 teams, the Giants and Cowboys.

The Eagles are formidable. They trailed the vastly improved Jacksonville Jaguars, 14-0, in the early going Sunday. It appeared the NFL might be left with no unbeaten teams on the first weekend of October, making the 1972 Miami Dolphins safe at an unusually early date.

But quarterback Jalen Hurts rebounded from an early interception that the Jaguars returned for a touchdown. The Eagles prevailed, 29-21, and they remain the team to beat in the NFC East — and perhaps in the entire NFC.

The Giants found a way. First their starting quarterback, Daniel Jones, left their game against the Chicago Bears in the Meadowlands with an ankle injury. Then backup Tyrod Taylor exited to be evaluated for a head injury. The Giants were reduced to having tailback Saquon Barkley take direct snaps in a wildcat formation, with Jones lined up at wide receiver. And yet they beat the Bears, 20-12.

The Giants have made only one playoff appearance in 10 seasons since winning the Super Bowl to conclude the 2011 season. They have no postseason victories over that span. Until this year, they last had been above .500 at any point in a season in 2016. But they immediately seem far more stable under the new brain trust of Coach Brian Daboll and General Manager Joe Schoen.

Cooper Rush has saved the Cowboys’ season. They’re 3-0 with Rush filling in at quarterback for the injured Dak Prescott. The Cowboys had few issues Sunday while dispatching with the division’s lone losing team, the Washington Commanders, in a 25-10 decision. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at one point that he’d welcome a quarterback controversy if Rush were to play well enough in Prescott’s absence to generate one. That won’t happen. This is Prescott’s job when he’s healthy enough to return. But Rush’s solid play, which continued with his two touchdown passes Sunday, has kept the season from coming undone.

It’s Kenny Pickett time in Pittsburgh. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin went to Pickett, the only quarterback chosen in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, at halftime Sunday with his team trailing the New York Jets, 10-6. Pickett threw a trio of interceptions but provided a pair of second-half rushing touchdowns. The Steelers lost, 24-20, to drop to 1-3. But Pickett inarguably provided the offense — and the fans — with a lift. And there’s probably no going back to Mitchell Trubisky now, although Tomlin was noncommittal after the game.

It was a tough, intense game in Baltimore. The Buffalo Bills overcame a 20-3 deficit to hand the Ravens a 23-20 defeat on a field goal as time expired. The Bills demonstrated that they actually can win a close, rugged game against a good opponent. The Ravens, meanwhile, are having trouble holding significant leads at home. Their only other defeat this season came in Week 2, when they squandered a 21-point advantage in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins.

It was a thriller in London. The New Orleans Saints are among the would-be contenders mired in early-season struggles. Their record dropped to 1-3 with a 28-25 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in London in the league’s first overseas game this season.

The 100th game played outside the U.S. in NFL history, including preseason games, was compelling. It was decided on a double-doink field goal miss by the Saints, as the ball struck the left upright and then the crossbar and bounced away on a 61-yard attempt by kicker Wil Lutz as time expired. Lutz had connected from 60 yards to tie the game at 25 with less than two minutes remaining.

The Saints had a significant list of injuries and played without quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Michael Thomas and tailback Alvin Kamara. Veteran newcomer Andy Dalton made the fill-in start at quarterback. So it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions. But, injury issues or not, the Saints are digging themselves an early-season hole under their new coach, Dennis Allen. His predecessor, Sean Payton, isn’t around to work his coaching magic. The Vikings, meanwhile, are 3-1 and have some possibilities with their first-year coach, Kevin O’Connell.

Rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe celebrates after a Patriots' touchdown during Sunday's overtime loss at Green Bay. © Morry Gash/AP Rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe celebrates after a Patriots' touchdown during Sunday's overtime loss at Green Bay.

Bailey Zappe, Bailey Zappe, Bailey Zappe. The New England Patriots were without starting quarterback Mac Jones, who was sidelined because of a high ankle sprain. They lost backup Brian Hoyer to a head injury. They were in Green Bay, facing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a late-afternoon game Sunday.

They had no choice but to turn things over to rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe, a fourth-round draft choice from Western Kentucky. And Zappe very nearly pulled it off. He threw a touchdown pass in a 10-for-15, 99-yard passing performance. The Patriots extended Rodgers and Packers until the final moment of the 10-minute overtime. Green Bay prevailed, 27-24, on a 31-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby as time expired in the extra session. The Patriots fell to 1-3.

But Coach Bill Belichick may have found another young quarterback with some promise. Jones made it back on the practice field Friday. But it’s not clear when he’ll be able to play again, and Zappe could be New England’s starter for now.

Ravens crumble again at home; Bills rally

Bills quarterback Josh Allen runs with the ball against the Ravens. © Terrance Williams/AP Bills quarterback Josh Allen runs with the ball against the Ravens.

BALTIMORE — The Buffalo Bills righted themselves, and the Baltimore Ravens allowed another significant lead to slip away at home.

The Ravens raced to a big early advantage on a rainy, windy afternoon in Baltimore as the remnants of Hurricane Ian moved through the Mid-Atlantic. But the Bills rallied to prevail, 23-20, Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Bills improved their record to 3-1. They avoided a second straight defeat after beginning the season with two dominant victories in which they outscored the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans by a combined 72-17.

Buffalo had two early turnovers Sunday, as quarterback Josh Allen threw an interception and tailback Devin Singletary lost a fumble. The Bills trailed by 20-3 in the second quarter. But they tied the game at 20 in the third quarter. Allen provided a touchdown pass late in the second quarter and had a third-quarter touchdown run.

Kicker Tyler Bass’s 21-yard field goal as time expired won it for the Bills, who benefited from a roughing-the-passer penalty on their final drive.

The Ravens dropped to 2-2. Their other loss came in a Week 2 game at home in which they squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Miami Dolphins. Tailback J.K. Dobbins had a touchdown catch and a touchdown run Sunday.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson had a relatively quiet day, with 144 passing yards and 73 rushing yards. He threw an end-zone interception to Bills safety Jordan Poyer on a fourth-down play from the Buffalo 2-yard line with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Jackson did provide a breathtaking first-half moment in which he somehow escaped a would-be sack, lofted a pass into a crowd of players along the left sideline and had the ball tipped into the hands of wide receiver Devin Duvernay for a 21-yard gain. Things were going the Ravens’ way at that point. But they could not hold off Allen and the Bills.

NFL, NFLPA arranging to interview Tua Tagovailoa

The NFL and the NFL Players Association are making arrangements to interview Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this week as part of their review of whether the concussion protocols were followed properly in his case, according to a person familiar with the situation.

It is believed that others involved in the case already have been interviewed in the ongoing review. The timing of the interview of Tagovailoa perhaps has been complicated because the quarterback is in the league’s concussion protocols.

Tagovailoa was taken from the field on a stretcher during the Dolphins’ game Thursday night at Cincinnati and was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital. He suffered a concussion, according to the Dolphins. Tagovailoa was released that night from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and traveled with the team on its flight back to Miami. He underwent further tests Friday.

NFLPA fires doctor in Tua Tagovailoa case, with protocol changes coming

Last Sunday, Tagovailoa was cleared to reenter a game against the Buffalo Bills in Miami Gardens, Fla., after he was evaluated for a possible head injury. Tagovailoa stumbled after getting to his feet following a play on which he was knocked the ground and appeared to hit his head on the turf. He and Coach Mike McDaniel said after that game that Tagovailoa had suffered a back injury, not a head injury.

The NFL and NFLPA announced Saturday that they’d agreed to make changes to their concussion protocols related to an exception to a provision addressing “gross motor instability” that allowed Tagovailoa to return to last Sunday’s game. That came after the NFLPA exercised its right to remove the independent neurological expert involved in the decision to clear Tagovailoa last Sunday.

The league and union said in a joint statement late Saturday that their investigation “remains ongoing” and they have not reached “any conclusions about medical errors or protocol violations.” They said that they “share a strong appreciation for the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants who contribute their time and expertise to our game solely to advance player safety.”

Zach Wilson, Andy Dalton, Brian Hoyer to step in

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. © Gene J. Puskar/AP Jets quarterback Zach Wilson warms up before Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.

Quarterback changes are at hand on the Sunday of Week 4 of the NFL season. Zach Wilson makes his return for the New York Jets. Two backups, the New Orleans Saints’ Andy Dalton and the New England Patriots’ Brian Hoyer, make fill-in starts because of injuries to their teams’ starters.

Dalton will take the field first as the Saints face the Minnesota Vikings in London at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time in the first overseas game of the season. It is the 100th game, including preseason games, to be played outside the United States in NFL history.

The Saints ruled out starter Jameis Winston on Saturday because of back and ankle injuries. They initially had said after Winston sat out Wednesday’s practice that he was expected to practice Thursday. Instead, he didn’t practice all week. He reportedly had been playing in recent weeks with four fractures in his back.

Dalton signed with the Saints in March as a free agent. He is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and has made 148 career starts for the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. But this is his fourth team in four seasons. He has become an NFL nomad after spending his first nine seasons with the Bengals. He’ll try to help the Saints rebound from a 1-2 start. But they’ll also be without wide receiver Michael Thomas, who is sidelined because of a foot injury.

Wilson, the No. 2 selection in last year’s NFL draft, makes the first start of his second pro season in the Jets’ early-afternoon game at Pittsburgh.

He underwent surgery after suffering a torn meniscus and a bone bruise in his right knee on a scramble during the Jets’ opening preseason game. Wilson has participated in only three full practices since then.

The Jets went 1-2 with veteran backup Joe Flacco filling in. They must hope the future is now with Wilson, who struggled last season as a rookie with nine touchdown passes, 11 interceptions and an unsightly passer rating of 69.7.

Brian Hoyer (5) is scheduled to start for the Patriots, with rookie Bailey Zappe (4) as his backup. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) © Steven Senne/AP Brian Hoyer (5) is scheduled to start for the Patriots, with rookie Bailey Zappe (4) as his backup. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Hoyer attempts to keep the Patriots’ season from unraveling any further. But his task is formidable, with a late-afternoon game in Green Bay against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Mac Jones, New England’s second-year starter, could miss multiple games after suffering a high ankle sprain in last Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough, Mass. Jones did make it back on the practice field Friday. But it never seemed realistic that he would attempt to play in this game. The Patriots officially ruled him out Friday.

Hoyer has made 39 starts in a journeyman career that has included stints with seven teams. He has made at least one start for each of the seven; this is his second start for the Patriots. He last led a team to a victory in a game he started in 2016 with the Bears.

If Hoyer struggles, it will be interesting to see if Coach Bill Belichick gives any consideration to turning to rookie Bailey Zappe, a fourth-round draft choice from Western Kentucky. The Patriots need a boost on offense. They’re ranked 10th in the league in total offense but are 25th in scoring offense. They have a record of 1-2.

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