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Reporters' Notebook

Bleak times for Giants; Fitzgerald backs Rosen; Kelce connection

As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 6,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- How Larry Fitzgerald knows Josh Rosen is for real.

-- Why Patrick Mahomes clicked with Travis Kelce.

-- One member of the 49ers who is still having a great season.

But first, Judy Battista explores the state of the Giants after a devastating Thursday night loss.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For four days, the New York Giants thought they might still have a season to save. The offense had come alive in a last-second loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The rest of the NFC East was in meltdown, too, the leader (Washington) at .500 allowing the contenders to stay in range and, it turns out in the Giants' case at least, fool themselves about their viability.

And then Thursday's 34-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles arrived and belied all of that hopefulness.

Practically from the moment it began -- almost literally, because Eli Manning forced a throw on the Giants' second offensive play of the game to a third-string tight end in double coverage, resulting in the inevitable interception -- the Giants were overmatched and outclassed. Their offensive line was often overwhelmed. Their defense frequently looked listless. Defenses are keying on making Odell Beckham Jr. a non-factor and it is working. And Manning was terrible, too, beyond the fact that he was under pressure. He was off target when he did throw downfield, and that wasn't often. He checked down so relentlessly that TV cameras caught coach Pat Shurmur, a steady defender of Manning, appearing to yell "throw the ball" in frustration. Manning, who gave the Giants two Super Bowl championships and is such a beloved player that his benching last season -- however deserved it was -- provoked fan outrage, heard boos. Two straight 1-5 starts to the season will do that.

"No, I'm not concerned about Eli," Shurmur said after the game.

He, of course, has to be concerned, even though he backed Manning again on Friday, telling reporters "We believe in Eli," and that "We're not talking about a quarterback change yet." He might have left the door open to a change down the road with that comment, but Shurmur also must know there is no way out of this mess right now. The Giants passed on taking one of the top quarterbacks in the 2018 draft, believing that adding a jaw-dropping talent like Saquon Barkley would help Manning. That was a decision made from the heart. It has not worked and the decision is going to be debated for years, certainly until the next franchise quarterback arrives, and that has to be next season.

Barkley is as advertised -- maybe even better if you watched him Thursday night -- but this game encapsulated all the arguments about the Giants' decision. Barkley is an extraordinary talent, accounting for 229 total yards, nearly 60 percent of the Giants' entire offensive output. And it was nowhere near enough. He is a luxury the Giants could not really afford, not when they need a young quarterback who can make plays on the move, much better offensive line play and an improved pass rush. Barkley was the lone bright spot in a dreadful game, and you can envision that it may be all he is for the rest of this lost season. That may be another way Barkley is like Barry Sanders.

The entire night was so disastrous that Troy Aikman, commentating on the game for FOX, came awfully close to saying it looked like the defense had quit. Shurmur bristled at that suggestion.

"I just said I'm not worried about their effort," Shurmur responded to the second question on the subject, pointing to the two reporters who asked. "Didn't he ask me about effort? Then I said I wasn't concerned about their effort, here we go again. I wasn't concerned about their effort. I'm concerned about how we executed, how we didn't get in the end zone, and how we let them in the end zone."

In the locker room, Beckham, who created days of headlines with his comments to ESPN about Manning and his own state of mind, was low key.

"We are not going to back track from last week," Beckham said. "This is a very good team despite their record, they can play. They came out and beat us on every play and we beat ourselves. I don't even know how many penalties there was [five for 61 yards], but I can only imagine. It felt like every time I looked up there was another yellow flag somewhere. We can't have that, there is no way we are going to beat good teams with doing that."

The only real question swirling through MetLife Stadium late Thursday night was how much worse this might get. And if we will see rookie QB Kyle Lauletta this season. The Giants are 4-18 since the start of the 2017 season. At 1-5, they have the worst record in the NFL right now.

Manning professed continued confidence in himself -- "I know I can play," he said -- but one of the lingering failures of last season was that the Giants never got a look at former backup quarterback Davis Webb. No matter what Shurmur says about his commitment to Manning now, barring a rapid and wholly unexpected rebound, the Giants are likely to grapple with another decision like that in the coming weeks. Lauletta, a fourth-round pick from Richmond, is almost certainly nowhere near ready to play right now and he has been third on the depth chart behind backup Alex Tanney.

But with 10 games remaining, the Giants are rapidly reaching the point where the future is the only thing left to think about. Team owner John Mara stood in a narrow hallway after the game, staring straight ahead. He was shaken by the furious reaction from former players and a loud subset of fans when Manning was benched last year. But the calls for a massive overhaul are about to get much louder. The Giants' bleak postgame locker room made it clear -- it's going to be a long, slow trudge through irrelevance.


ARIZONA CARDINALS: Fitzgerald fired up about Rosen. As a future Hall of Famer who has gained well over 15,000 receiving yards during his 15 years of NFL stardom, Larry Fitzgerald has become an expert in assessing the trajectory of spiraling footballs -- and of quarterbacks' careers.

So, it's not surprising that Fitzgerald -- who, in what may be his final NFL season, is helping to break in a highly regarded rookie passer, Josh Rosen -- is acutely attuned to the potential warning signs that might portend a devastating first-round flop.

The good news for the Arizona Cardinals is that, two games into Rosen's career as a starter, Fitzgerald seems convinced that no matter how rough Rosen's first professional campaign may turn out to be, the presumptive face of the franchise won't flinch under duress.

"I love how he takes his lumps and doesn't try to push things off on other people," Fitzgerald told me following last Sunday's 28-18 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium, after which Arizona (1-4) stood as the final NFL team to record its first victory of 2018. "This business makes you such a coward. There's so much scrutiny, and it turns young players, especially quarterbacks, into finger-pointers. You'll hear them say, 'Well, my guys didn't run the right route,' or, 'Our offense isn't executing,' and once that happens, it's hard to come back from that, especially [in the locker room].

"Josh is totally accountable and relatable. He's a hard worker who cares a lot about his job. He's not a finger-pointer at all. He's going through growing pains and working his way through it. And when he misses on a pass, he'll say, 'Guys, that's on me,' but it doesn't linger. He addresses it and then he moves on."

Rosen began Sunday's game with a bang, executing a cool play-fake to David Johnson and then unleashing a perfect deep ball that landed in the outstretched arms of fellow rookie Christian Kirk, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown on the Cardinals' first play from scrimmage. Then the growing pains surfaced in full force, with Arizona gaining just 145 yards the rest of the way and Rosen finishing with decidedly underwhelming numbers (10 for 25, 170 yards).

"If we didn't hit that first one," Rosen told me as he strolled through the visitors' locker room, "We would've been f-----. But it feels really, really good to win."

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, who traded up five spots to take Rosen with the 10th overall selection in last April's draft, believes he hit on the pick, which generated its fair share of skepticism. The former UCLA star was viewed as perhaps the most pro-ready passer in a highly regarded rookie class, but there were questions about Rosen's personality and leadership style that dogged him throughout the pre-draft process.

"We love the guy," Keim said Sunday, and no dissenters could be found in the Cardinals' locker room.

Said veteran tight end Jermaine Gresham: "He's a great leader. We love him. He's never bothered by anything. He's somebody you can relate to. He's not an ass---- in any way, shape or form."

Fitzgerald, one of the most prolific and admired wideouts in league history, knows he won't be around for most of Rosen's career, but the 11-time Pro Bowl selection loves what he sees so far -- and he's pumped about what lies ahead for the franchise.

"I really like the kid," he said. "I'm really excited about the future, with him and David (Johnson). It'll be fun to watch.

"Josh is legit. We've got something. Now we've just got to build it around him."

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CHICAGO BEARS: Mack continues to make a major impact in 2018.Bears pass rusher Khalil Mack was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September after collecting five sacks, four forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown through four games (the Bears are 3-1). What's more remarkable about Mack -- big reminder here, he had NO offseason to officially train with a team -- is the unquantifiable motor with which he plays, in practice and in games.

Chicago's defense currently ranks second in the NFL, giving up just under 295 total yards per game. The Bears feature the league's No. 1 rush defense and are sacking opposing quarterbacks 4.5 times per game. Oh, and they're also taking the football away from their opponents nearly three times per contest. Thus, while the entire unit has played exemplary football, Mack stands at the forefront, and has undeniably changed the face of the Bears. How do his teammates feel the impact?

Cornerback Prince Amukamara said the following to me this week: "Him making plays -- for some some reason it's contagious. Everybody wants to make plays. Everyone feels like they need to play up to his standards. Even though we want to. But it's just like there's more of a sense of urgency. When he's doing it game-in, game-out. It's almost like the LeBron (James) effect. Like when LeBron goes to a team, he just makes everyone better."

Bears head coach Matt Nagy told me recently that he was glad Mack was on his team for multiple reasons. Case in point, offenses facing Mack are confronted with an array of challenges in not only game-strategizing around him, but understanding that it takes multiple individual efforts -- and therefore a collective team effort -- to account for his impact.

With a trip to Miami this Sunday, I put the question to Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake: What exactly is it like to prepare for Khalil Mack?

"Definitely a game changer. A scheme wrecker. It's easy to kind of just look at him and try to key on him because he shows up so much, and so often. When a guy is that disruptive, you have to accommodate more than just one body to him, because it's hard to try to contain him with even two guys ... let alone one person, it's almost impossible."

The respect didn't stop there. Drake continued: "As we've seen over the last few weeks, he can go in and be a game changer. A play or two and he changes the trajectory of a game. So he's definitely somebody that's on our radar that we have to make sure we always keep accountable."

While the Dolphins know they have to perform better than they have the past couple of weeks -- consecutive road losses to New England and Cincinnati, with the latter being a game in which they blew a 17-0 lead -- they're hoping a return home to Hard Rock Stadium with a heavy dose of Florida heat (heat index is expected in the upper 90s) will help to assuage the Mack-attack, and his talented surrounding ensemble.

"We feel like with them coming down to Miami, the weather should -- by the third, fourth quarter -- hopefully neutralize some of that pass rush that they have," Drake said.

"With us staying in second and short, third and short, we can sustain our drives and keep them on the field, so by the time the fourth quarter comes around, they're gassed."

Injury impact:Bears WR Anthony Miller (shoulder) and CB Prince Amukamara (hamstring) both return this week, while CB Marcus Cooper (hamstring) will miss his third straight game. Dolphins DE Cameron Wake (knee) is expected to miss another game, and LT Laremy Tunsil (concussion) and WR DeVante Parker (quadriceps) are questionable. Parker has missed four of five games this season because of injury, and his return will be needed against the Bears, who are the top-ranked unit in the NFL in shutting down explosive plays.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Secondary standing up. A week after Andrew Luckripped the Texans' defense for 464 passing yards, Houston's secondary responded with an impressive -- and historic -- performance in their 19-16 overtime win against the intrastate rival Cowboys on Sunday.

Cornerback Johnathan Joseph, a 13th-year pro, moved into the top 10 on the NFL's all-time list in passes defensed. Fellow corner Kareem Jackson became the franchise's all-time interceptions leader, with 15. Rookie safety Justin Reid snagged his first pick.

And one play after Dallas QB Dak Prescott made an incredible Houdini-like escape from J.J. Watt, allowing him to complete a 44-yard pass to Tavon Austin late in the fourth quarter, star safety Tyrann Mathieu stepped up to kill the Cowboys' momentum. With a signature Mathieu tackle, he stopped Ezekiel Elliott for a 4-yard loss, and Dallas settled for a tying field goal rather than scoring a potential go-ahead touchdown.

"I thought we made the plays when it mattered the most tonight," Mathieu told me after the game. He added, "We just really wanted to get off to a fast start to start the second quarter of the season, and I thought we did that."

Joseph told me he was more excited about the win, the Texans' second overtime victory in a row after a disappointing 0-3 start to the season, than any individual accomplishment. And as Houston heads into a home date with the Bills on Sunday, now with a 2-3 record, Joseph said he's hopeful the Texans can sustain this momentum, saying, "that's how the NFL works, a lot of highs and lows. You've got to be able to ride the wave, and then sometimes when you ride that wave and catch it, you've really got to ride it and, hey, hopefully we're riding this wave right now."

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: The Kelce connection. The Kansas City Chiefs have an embarrassment of riches on offense, but Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce has emerged as the favorite target of second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Kelce caught only one pass for six yards in the Chiefs' season-opening win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He's had 27 receptions, 401 yards and three touchdowns in the four games since, all of which are team highs in that span.

When asked why they've built such a strong connection, Mahomes said, "I feel like [it's] just the way Trav competes. He competes every single play of the entire game. With him and the rest of the guys on this team, they know even if we're not connecting, I'm going to still come right back to them. I just trust in them that much, that they are going to make plays and they have been doing it all season long."

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Playing the role of Patrick Mahomes tonight will be ...Brian Hoyer is having a blast this week. The Patriots' backup quarterback has been given the keys to the Chiefs' offense -- or, more specifically, the right to mimic K.C.'s young gun, Patrick Mahomes, as the leader of the scout team offense ahead of this Sunday's clash between the Chiefs and Patriots.

"When you see some of the throws [Mahomes] makes, it kind of gives me the green light to try to make any throw I want to make, and just try to maybe try to fit a ball in where I wouldn't always," said the 32-year-old Hoyer. "It's always fun for me to emulate a different offense, because whether it's read-option, RPOs, whatever it might be, it's always an opportunity to get better as a quarterback."

Of course, Hoyer doesn't quite measure up to Mahomes when it comes to arm strength. Few QBs in this league could. That's part of the challenge. The other part? Violating the rules that a heady, veteran signal-caller has, like rolling left and throwing across his body over the middle, or even to the deep outer third.

"True," smiled Hoyer, "but when you're the son of a Major League pitcher (Mahomes' father, Pat Mahomes, was a reliever), that's kind of in your DNA, right? He's kind of got that advantage."

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Gruden ready to log some serious miles. While Raiders coach Jon Gruden was concerned with a potential bout of vertigo that could hit after the long trip to London for Oakland's game there against the Seahawks, he wasn't worried about Seattle arriving in the city early Thursday, a day before his team.

"I've never done it before, so I'm just gonna trust our preparation was the right thing and we'll go play 'em," Gruden said on Wednesday. This is Gruden's first trip to London.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Kittle carrying on. The 49ers have yet to win a game since Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending knee injury in Week 3, but one of his favorite targets continues to have a breakout campaign.

George Kittle -- a fifth-round draft pick last year and college teammate of Garoppolo's replacement, C.J. Beathard, at Iowa -- ranks third among tight ends in receiving yards (399) on 23 catches, trailing only established stars Zach Ertz of the Eagles and Travis Kelce of the Chiefs.

Kittle also earned some attention on social media last week with his blocking, driving Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea about 15 yards downfield into the end zone on a running play.

"The pass game really starts with our run game, so we focus a whole bunch on that," Kittle told me this week. "The better we do in the run game, the more opportunities that I have, (Matt) Breida has in the pass game, Kendrick Bourne, Pierre (Garcon), Trent (Taylor) -- we have a lot of guys that can make plays. The fact that Coach (Kyle) Shanahan gives us those opportunities, me those opportunities, it's pretty awesome, and I just like going out there and playing."

Monday's visit to Green Bay will be special for Kittle, too. He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and lived in the state until he was 6 before moving to Iowa ... where he became a Chicago Bears fan.

"Definitely winning at Lambeau would be pretty fun for me, just being from Wisconsin. Always did love going there," Kittle said. "So I'm looking forward to this game. And definitely, we pull out a 'dub' -- a win kind of cures everything, doesn't it?"

Shanahan ready for the MNF stage. Kyle Shanahan's squad is still dealing with a long list of injuries. Seven players did not participate in the 49ers' first full practice of the week on Thursday, including RB Matt Breida (shoulder and ankle), WR Pierre Garcon (shoulder and knee), WR Dante Pettis (knee) and T Joe Staley (knee). The injury bug has been plaguing this team since the start of the season -- with, of course, Jimmy Garoppolo's torn ACL looking like a pivotal turning point.

Given all the adversity, I asked Shanahan how he's making sure his team can make the mental switch to play in the spotlight of MNF at a place like Lambeau Field. "Yeah, we're going through some stuff. But, we get a chance to go play Monday night in Green Bay, which is as cool of a place to play [as there is]," Shanahan said, regarding the atmosphere at Lambeau. "Yeah, you've got to handle the noise, and that always comes with tough stadiums like that. But you get that out of the way. It's a great opportunity for our entire team."

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