Fortunes can change in the blink of an eye during a National Football League season. Or at least, over the course of a given week.
Take Sunday Night Football as an example. The Los Angeles Rams entered Sunday night’s contest riding high, carrying a 4-1 record and forcing many to wonder if head coach and highly regarded offensive guru Sean McVay had his mojo back as a play-caller.
On the other sideline? The San Francisco 49ers. Sitting at 2-3 and facing a litany of questions. Many of them centered on the quarterback position. Starter Jimmy Garoppolo returned in Week 5 after suffering a high ankle sprain and looked anything but ready in a blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins. That forced him to the bench, C.J. Beathard into the huddle, and 49ers fans to wonder about the future of the quarterback position in the City by the Bay.
Yet after 60 minutes of football, the future for both franchises seemed to change drastically. The 49ers win over the Rams prompted many to revisit thoughts about the Rams, and call into question their resume. Four wins to be sure, but each of those came against an NFC East foe. Not exactly the stuff of legends. For San Francisco, perhaps writing them off was a bit premature.
Such is life in the NFL, where one week can change everything. Green Bay might be another such example. Early in their nationally-televised game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Packers had a 10-0 lead and looked every bit the top five team in the league that they were heading into Week 6.
Then, almost in an instant, Aaron Rodgers threw interceptions on back-to-back drives and the questions over passing on a wide receiver in the first round – as well as those regarding Rodgers himself – were back.
Life moves pretty fast in the NFL. If you blink, you might miss it.
Here’s a look at the latest Touchdown Wire Power Rankings, along with an examination of each of the bye week teams with the one burning question that they face in the second half.
32. New York Jets (0-6. Last week: 32)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video of a sack worth?
Because this play could sum up the Adam Gase Era in New York, which we have to assume is drawing to a close:
This was a 3rd and 3 play, and Joe Flacco takes a 28-yard sack. Sure, it is easy to pick on the former Super Bowl MVP for this one snap, but it is the larger picture in New York. There are questions about Sam Darnold’s status with the organization, and there are certainly questions about how much longer Gase’s keycard is going to allow him access into the building.
Actually, we might have a better picture to describe the mood among Gang Green:
It’s time for a change. It has been time for weeks now, but make it official.
31. Washington Football Team (1-5. Last week: 28)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Ron Rivera was hired to complete a culture shift in Washington, for an organization that given everything we have seen on the field and off is in dire need of such a change.
That was illustrated late in this game, when Rivera made a decision that other coaches might not have. After scoring late to bring Washington within one-point of the New York Giants, 20-19, Rivera passed on the potential game-typing extra point, and left his offense on the field for the two-point conversion try. The message was simple: We are here to win games.
Kyle Allen’s throw fell incomplete, and the game was lost.
But if you are Rivera, you are thinking long-term here with that decision. As the head coach told the media after the game: “I want to win football games. I don’t care if this is my first year. I don’t care if we have a group of young guys that have to learn. We’re trying to teach them, we’re going to teach them, and they’re going to learn how to win, and at the end of the day that’s what we’re here for.”
Now had Washington pulled off the victory, they would have moved towards the top of the division standings. Yet even at 1-5, they are still in the thick of things in the woeful NFC East. Instead, they are now at the bottom looking up at the other three teams in the division. However, his message was not lost on his players. “He has confidence in his players,” tight end Logan Thomas told the media after the game, according to the Washington Post. “He tells us every day how much he believes in us — and he backs it with his actions.”
In the long run, that might be worth more than a single win on an October Sunday.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5. Last week: 27)
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Minshew Mania has been fun to watch, but that train took a bit of a detour on Sunday in a loss to the Detroit Lions. The first half was filled with offensive miscues, as the Jacksonville Jaguars had a string of possessions that ended with an interception, a missed field goal, and a fumble. Outside of a field goal on their opening drive, it was a first 30 minutes the offense would like to forget.
Trailing 17-3 at the half, the Jaguars defense gave Jacksonville a chance at a quick turnaround to start the third quarter. Joe Schobert stepped in front of a pass from Matthew Stafford intended for Marvin Jones, setting the Jaguars offense up with a first down on the Detroit 20-yard line.
They failed to score, as an attempted fourth-down conversion failed when Minshew could not connect with D.J. Chark.
Beyond Minshew, perhaps most concerning for Jacksonville going forward is what Detroit did against the Jaguars ground game. Jacksonville managed just 44 yards rushing, with 14 of those coming from Minshew himself. James Robinson managed just 29 yards on 12 carries. Part of this might have been due to the game script, as the Jaguars trailed early, but Jay Gruden’s offense is not built to be one-dimensional. We saw that a few weeks ago in prime time against the Miami Dolphins, and we saw it again today.
29. Atlanta Falcons (1-5. Last week: 31)
(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
They fired their head coach and general manager, and turned around to play their best football of the season.
That was the story last week with the Houston Texans, and it was the story this week with the Atlanta Falcons. After dismissing both Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitrioff, the Atlanta Falcons got their first win of the 2020 campaign by dispatching the floundering Minnesota Vikings, 40-23. Matt Ryan looked like the 2016 version, completing 30 of 40 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, and Julio Jones also looked to turn back the clock, catching eight passes for 137 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Perhaps of bigger importance was what we saw from the Atlanta defense. The Falcons forced three first-half interceptions from Kirk Cousins and held him to a QBR of just 28.1.
When owner Arthur Blank tapped defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as the interim head coach, he noted that Morris could be in line for the job on a permanent basis. However, the bar seemed impossibly high at the time, as Blank stated that “If Raheem ends up 11-0, he’s certainly going to be a candidate. I think it’s to Raheem’s advantage, I know his aspirations long-term is to be a head coach again. He’s learned a lot since his Tampa Bay days, he’s learned a lot with us. I think with 11 games he’ll have a chance to show his own capabilities and I think he’s looking forward to doing that.”
Well, he got the first one.
28. New York Giants (1-5. Last week: 30)
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Judge and the New York Giants finally broke through into the win column, although it took a stop on a late two-point conversion try to seal the one-point victory over Washington.
It also took a huge defensive play:
With the score tied late, linebacker Kyler Fackrell gets to quarterback Kyle Allen and punches the ball loose. Tae Crowder scoops up the loose football and returns it for what would be the game-winning touchdown.
This game had the feel of a classic 1980s NFC East slobber-knocker, where you can envision Dexter Manley trying to chase down Ottis Anderson on a run to the edge, or Joe Theismann trying to outrun Lawrence Taylor. Only it is a bit different when both teams have losing records and the division is awful. Still, a win is a win, and as a head coach you can only get your first W once. It was messy, but it counts. Now with Philadelphia coming up on a short week, and the Eagles likely limping into the game battered and bruised, Judge might even get his second one sooner rather than later.
27. Minnesota Vikings (1-5. Last week: 22)
(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
Last week the Minnesota Vikings suffered a last-second defeat at the hands of Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. After getting out to a big halftime lead thanks to a dream start, the Vikings saw Wilson and company storm back. Yet in the closing minutes the Vikings had a five-point lead and the football, facing a 4th and 1 in Seattle territory. They tried to get the yard and ice the game, and when they came up short, Wilson finished off the comeback.
After the game I wrote this, declaring that the season was not yet over in Minnesota:
Now, the Vikings might not climb out of this hole, but they do have a somewhat favorable schedule over the next few weeks. They play the Atlanta Falcons this week, a team in a bit of disarray right now. Then after playing the Packers on November 1st, they face the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears, the Dallas Cowboys, the Carolina Panthers, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those are winnable games. The schedule sets up for them to make a bit of a run, or at least there is the possibility of such a run. I’ll hold off on declaring them done for at least the next few weeks.
Shows you what I know.
Minnesota lost to the Atlanta Falcons, a team that had yet to win a game and was being coached by Raheem Morris on an interim basis. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, long a lightning rod of criticism, three three first-half interceptions, and the Vikings trailed by 20 at the halftime break.
Sure, Justin Jefferson is a bright spot. The rookie caught nine passes for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Right now, however, the Vikings have a problem. It begins with Cousins:
As Mr. Farrar points out in the linked piece, Cousins’ contract makes it almost impossible for the organization to do anything but ride it out right now and hope that Cousins figures it out. But judging by the Twitter DMs I have gotten from Minnesota fans in the past few hours, draft season is here, and quarterback is at the top of the shopping list.
26. Detroit Lions (2-3. Last week: 29)
(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
As this season has unfolded, Detroit Lions’ head coach Matt Patricia has consistently been included among the coaches on the proverbial hot seat. The Lions began the year by blowing a lead to the Chicago Bears, and followed that up by blowing another double-digit lead, this time early in the proceedings to the Green Bay Packers.
But they have won two of their last three games, with victories over Arizona and now the Jacksonville Jaguars. Two huge developments on this Sunday came in the win. First, the pass rush. Detroit was able to pressure Gardner Minshew and force some miscues, including a sack/fumble early in the game as well as an interception:
Linebacker Jahlani Tavai blitzes through the A-Gap and gets pressure on Minshew with his left hand, forcing the quarterback to backfoot this throw and leave air under it. That allows Duron Harmon to come over for the pick.
The other big development was the emergence of rookie running back D’Andre Swift. In the era of “running backs don’t matter” using a second-round pick on Swift was met with skepticism, but he contributed in a big way Sunday, racking up 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 14 carries. 54 of those came on just one run, and it was a big one:
So, signs of improvement from Detroit. String a few more of these together, and they’ll be climbing higher up boards like this one.
25. Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1. Last week: 23)
This game started out like what Cincinnati Bengals fans were dreaming of when their organization drafted Joe Burrow with the first-overall selection in this past NFL Draft. In the wake of a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week Cincinnati looked to have immediately turned the page this Sunday. The Bengals scored on their first three possessions and raced out to an early 21-point lead over the Indianapolis Colts. Burrow notched one of the touchdowns himself, on a two-yard scoring run.
From there, the offense sputtered, and the dreams of Bengals fans turned back to nightmares. After the third touchdown of the day, which came with 14:56 left in the second quarter, the Bengals managed just a pair of field goals the rest of the way. Burrow and the offense sputtered, although they did have a chance to still pull this game out in the end.
Only to see Burrow throw this interception late:
Burrow is trying to work this verticals concept, looking for the “bender” route coming from right to left. But he fails to account for the backside safety, and Julian Blackmon simply reads the rookies eyes, which take him straight to the football.
However, Bengals fans should not be in deep despair right now. This was going to be a learning season for Burrow. Despite the loss, the Bengals have been competitive in all but one game this year, that loss last week just mentioned. If this is going to be a learning season, the lessons from Burrow this year have been mostly positive. The franchise was not going to turn around overnight, but the arrow is definitely trending up.
24. Houston Texans (1-5. Last week: 25)
For the second straight week, the Houston Texans looked like a much-improved football team in many ways. Last week they secured their first victory of the season, and in the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars Deshaun Watson seemed more comfortable as a passer, and was doing a great job of moving defenders with his eyes.
On this Sunday, Watson was arguably the best quarterback on the field. He completed 28 of 37 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns, posting a QBR of 93.1 on the afternoon. He also added four carries for 26 yards, and finished the day without an interception.
Yet it was not enough. The Texans defense struggled through the day, allowing three first-half touchdown passes from Ryan Tannehill as well as 212 rushing yards from Derrick Henry, including his 94-yarder for a score that gave the Titans the lead, after the Houston offense had given the Texans their first scoring advantage of the day.
Sitting at 1-5 the postseason seems a long way away, but if they are going to have any chance at meaningful football in December and January, it might start with fixing what ails them on the defensive side of the football.
23. Philadelphia Eagles (1-4-1. Last week: 26)
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens might be the quintessential Carson Wentz performance.
Undermanned and under siege, the quarterback stood in the pocket under a ferocious pass rush and behind a patchwork offense line that outside of Jason Kelce at center had barely managed a season’s worth of NFL experience, combined. With the Ravens holding a big lead late in the second half, their defense could simply pin their ears back and focus on getting after Wentz.
Even in the face of that pressure and those odds, Wentz somehow brought the Eagles to within a two-point try of a tie game and potentially overtime. Along the way, he made plays like this with his arm:
And this with his legs:
But the valiant attempt fell short.
Now they face a short week and another game with patchwork players around Wentz in the huddle.
The bright side? That game is against the New York Giants. Then after a bye week they face a Dak Prescott-less Dallas Cowboys roster that is struggling on defense, the Giants again, and the Cleveland Browns. Despite all the adversity they have faced this season, and all the injuries, they could still make a run at the playoffs in a weak division.
Partly because of a quarterback who refuses to say die in the pocket. No matter the odds.
22. Dallas Cowboys (2-4. Last week: 21)
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Yes, they are banged up. Ye,s they are playing without Dak Prescott. But in a dreadful division, Andy Dalton and some semblance of respectable football might be enough to still win the NFC East.
What we saw on Monday night will simply not be good enough.
The Dallas Cowboys struggled out of the gate and were never competitive in a brutal blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals. After a sluggish start that saw the teams trade punts on the game’s first five drives, Ezekiel Elliott fumbled on back-to-back possessions for the Cowboys. Arizona scored a touchdown on both ensuing drives to take a 14-0 lead.
Before long it was a 21-0 Cardinals lead when Kyler Murray connected with Christian Kirk on this play:
The bright side for Dallas fans is that all is not lost. Even with this loss, which drops the Cowboys to 2-3, they somehow remain atop the NFC East. The miscues on offense and breakdowns on defense could continue and the Cowboys could still win the division.
In Dallas, however, simply winning the division is not enough. Not for Jerry Jones, not for this fanbase, and not even with the injuries to Dak Prescott and others. They are not good enough right now, on either side of the football, to overcome everything they are facing. There is time, and the schedule is still favorable (three of their next five games are within the division, including two against Washington), but this season is getting late early.
21. Denver Broncos (2-3. Last week: 24)
(Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)
Young quarterbacks typically struggle when they travel to Foxborough to take on the Hoodie and the New England Patriots. Some very well-known quarterbacks have fallen victim to that trap in the past few years.
On Sunday, however, Drew Lock managed to evade that fate for long enough, allowing the Denver Broncos to hold on for a 18-12 victory over the Patriots. Lock and the Broncos notched a field goal on their first six possessions, and the defense forced some critical turnovers early, and did enough to overcome two interceptions thrown by Lock in the fourth quarter.
What was impressive about this victory was the various ways the Broncos offense was able to move the football. They might not have reached the end zone, but they were able to get the ground game going at times, and used a number of route combinations to give Lock some open looks to all levels of the field. His most impressive throw came on a 3rd and long in the second half, when he drilled in a hole shot along the right sideline for a big gain to move the chains.
Ultimately, this game might tell us more about the Patriots than it does the Broncos. But for a young quarterback to go into Foxborough and get the win, that is a huge confidence boost for Lock and the rest of the Broncos. This could be a win that the team points to down the stretch — or even next season — as the moment they knew they were building something.
20. New England Patriots (2-3. Last week: 14)
(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)
Back before the New England Patriots signed Cam Newton, many argued that if Jarrett Stidham was indeed the plan at quarterback, then they would be relying on a defense — one of the best in the league a year ago ‘- to win them some 17-14 rockfights in an era when such games are the exception, not the rule. This is not the 1980s anymore, as much as my wardrobe might beg to differ…
This game set up in many ways like one of those rockfights the Patriots were envisioning this offseason. The Denver Broncos scored on their first six possessions, but only field goals on each, so even as the game entered into the fourth quarter, the Patriots were still effectively in position to make this a contest. They then forced two interceptions of Drew Lock in the final quarter, notching a touchdown and a field goal, to make it a one-possession game. Then, they got their offense one more shot at the win, with the ball and three minutes to go.
Only this time, Cam Newton could not close the deal.
The Patriots are still a work in progress, particularly on the offensive side of the football. They were playing with minimal practice time and with a patchwork offensive line, a situation made worse when Jermaine Eluemunor, the starting right tackle, was lost early when Newton rolled up on him during a sack. Newton threw a pair of interceptions, both on tipped passes, and the offense was largely out of sync all afternoon.
Yet they still had a chance to win.
It might not be enough to keep them among the elite teams in the AFC, but it might be enough to get them into the postseason. Who knows, the Patriots could be this year’s proverbial “team no one wants to face in the playoffs,” after being on the opposite side of so many such meetings in the past two decades.
19. San Francisco 49ers (3-3. Last week: 20)
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Fortunes can change very fast in the National Football League.
Just last week, the San Francisco 49ers were facing a quarterback controversy. Coming back from a high ankle sprain, Jimmy Garoppolo struggled in a blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins, and was left to watch the rest of the game from the bench as Kyle Shanahan replaced his ineffective starter with C.J. Beathard.
A week later, and Garoppolo and the 49ers are riding high after a huge win on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams.
Sometimes adversity brings out the best in a football team, and that scenario likely factored into what we saw from the 49ers on Sunday night. A prime example came early in the second quarter. Holding a seven-point lead and facing a 4th and 2 near midfield, Shanahan kept his offense on the field. Garoppolo threw a quick strike to tight end George Kittle against man coverage, and the tight end outraced the defenders to the end zone for a huge 44-yard touchdown. Perhaps in a different context, the 49ers consider punting there, or perhaps trying to simply draw the Rams offside. Instead, Shanahan showed faith in his offense, and they rewarded him with a touchdown.
This week? The Garoppolo Bowl, as the 49ers quarterback returns east to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. Another team facing some uncertainty right now. Should be a fascinating week.
18. Los Angeles Chargers (2-3. Week 6 bye. Last week: 16)
(Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
The biggest question facing the Los Angeles Chargers seems to have been answered already. Justin Herbert is outperforming expectations, and might provide the most recent example of how a franchise can put a rookie quarterback in position to be successful.
Take what we wrote of Herbert in our rankings of the draft quarterback a few months ago:
Despite the weaknesses and Herbert’s offensive system, there is a talented quarterback inside who is waiting to be unlocked by consistent coaching and development. His arm strength and ability to attack leverage with well-placed throws to all areas of the field will be his calling card early in the league, as will his athleticism. If placed into a spread-based offense that looks to attack downfield off play-action, but also incorporates some West Coast elements for him, he would be in a spot to succeed.
Does that not sound exactly like what the Chargers are doing with Herbert? Giving him some downfield shot plays, often off of play-action, to cater to his arm strength. But they are also incorporating some West Coast elements, to give him so easy throws and defined reads.
Getting the most out of a young quarterback is often determined by landing spot and coaching fit. It seems the Chargers and Herbert are the latest example of how to make it work best in today’s NFL.
17. Miami Dolphins (3-3. Last week: 19)
(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Is it time to take the Miami Dolphins seriously as a playoff contender?
We might not be there yet, but if the season ended today they would finish ahead of the New England Patriots in the AFC East. The Dolphins easily dispatched the hapless New York Jets on Sunday by a final score of 24-0, but it felt like much more than that. The Jets could not get anything going on offense, and the Dolphins had a 21-0 lead at the half thanks to three Ryan Fitzpatrick scoring throws, and coasted from there. In fact, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was able to make his NFL debut in the victory, completing a pair of passes for nine yards. After the win, Tagovailoa took a moment in a seemingly empty stadium to soak in the moment:
The rookie told the media afterward that he was Face Timing with his parents, who could not be there, during that moment:
But now, the Dolphins are 3-3 and have won three of their last four. Their losses, all “quality losses” if that’s your bag, as they fell to the Patriots by 10, the Buffalo Bills by 3, and the Seattle Seahawks by 8.
Maybe we should be looking at them as a playoff contender after all.
16. Carolina Panthers (3-3. Last week: 11)
(Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)
The Carolina Panthers have been a bit of a surprise this season. Many picked this roster to finish near the bottom of the league, but after five games they entered Week 6 with a 3-2 record, and had climbed all the way to 11 in Touchdown Wire’s most recent Power Rankings.
However, their loss to the Chicago Bears exposed some issues with their team, specifically on offense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was pressured early and often, and the Bears defense notched four sacks, three different turnovers, and held the Panthers to just 23% on third down chances.
Even with that, the Panthers still had multiple chances to win this game. Facing a 4th and 2 in Chicago territory with under two minutes remaining, Bridgewater had D.J. Moore open for a big gain.
But he missed him:
The Panthers defense got Bridgewater one more chance still, forcing a punt. But on his next throw, Bridgewater was intercepted.
Frustration is probably high right now in Carolina, for two distinct reasons. This was ultimately a winnable game that people might pin on the quarterback. However, the Panthers have been good enough that dreams of Trevor Lawrence, or Justin Fields, or Trey Lance, or… have probably been dashed.
15. Arizona Cardinals (4-2. Last week: 17)
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
If you are an Arizona Cardinals fan, this was the kind of game you were waiting for.
Sure, wins against the San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Football Team and even the New York Jets were nice, but Monday night offered a prime-time game in front of a national audience. A chance to show the world that the offseason hype was with merit, that the offense could be explosive, and the defense could be game-changing.
If that sounds like you, then largely, the night probably delivered what you were looking for. After a slow start on offense, Kyler Murray and company put together three-straight touchdown drives, including this deep shot from Murray to wide receiver Christian Kirk:
What might also please Cardinals fans is what they saw from the defensive side of the ball. To be sure, the Cowboys entered Monday night dealing with injuries and having to start Andy Dalton. But the Arizona defense was solid all night, forcing mistakes from a number of different Dallas offensive players. A particular standout was safety Budda Baker. There were questions when Arizona gave him a huge deal this off-season, but plays like this might ease fears:
The safety times his blitz perfectly, driving into Dalton for the sack. Baker’s ability to be a game-changer down in the box, and frankly at all levels of the field, makes him perhaps a prototype modern safety.
Sure there are areas to clean up, including Murray’s efficiency as a passer. He started out just eight of 21 passing for 128 yards and a pair of touchdowns, so that will be something that Kliff Kingsbury will want to focus on during the week ahead. But this was the kind of night that Cardinals fans were hoping for on a big stage.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2. Last week: 18)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
This was the kind of game that Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans were hoping for when Tom Brady left New England to join the NFC South. A clean, mistake-free afternoon of football that resulted in a big win over an NFC rival.
Brady largely delivered that kind of performance Sunday, completing 17 of 27 passes for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the offense got notable performances from two players whose roles were being questioned in recent weeks. Leonard Fournette was ruled out of the game prior to kickoff with an ankle injury, which meant more action for Ronald Jones II. What did he do with the chance? 23 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Then there is Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has seemed anything but Gronk in recent weeks, even leading him to call himself a blocker during a recent media session. But he turned in perhaps his best game as a Buccaneer, catching five passes for 78 yards and this touchdown from Brady:
This really looks like vintage Brady to Gronk. Isolated outside, a back shoulder throw in the red zone, and a Gronk Spike to cap things off.
Exactly what you want to see as a Buccaneers fan.
But do not discount their defense. As head coach Bruce Arians stated after the game, it was the Jamel Dean Pick Six that really provided the early spark: “That pick-6 changed the entire ballgame,” Arians told the media after the win.
A quarterback playing mistake-free football and an opportunistic defense. Usually a recipe for long-standing success in the NFL.
13. New Orleans Saints (3-2. Week 6 bye. Last week: 13)
(Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)
We’re supposed to be asking a question here of those teams on bye weeks, so my question regarding the New Orleans Saints is this:
Can this team win a Super Bowl with the 2020 version of Drew Brees?
It seems almost sacrilegious to ask, given what Brees has meant to this franchise over the years and the traits he brings to the table as a quarterback. He is a computer on the field, with incredible ability to diagnose a defense and exploit its weaknesses on the fly. He is one of the most accurate passers we have seen in NFL history.
And yet, questions are circling around the veteran passer. They mainly focus on his arm, as observers wonder if he lacks the ability to push the ball downfield and into tight windows. Such observers point to his Intended Air Yards, which right now sits at just 6.1, ahead of only Kyle Allen. Sure, the Saints offense has never been a vertical-based attack, so much of this is scheme, but Brees’ downfield throws have seemed to trail off at the end of them.
Supporters will point to the scheme issue, and will also point to his production on such downfield throws. According to Pro Football Focus data, Brees has an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 55.6% on throws over 20 yards, ranking him ninth in the league. He also has an NFL passer rating of 140.0 on such passes, ranking him third in the league. Hard to argue with those numbers.
Both sides have evidence. Both sides might be digging in. There might only be one way to sort this question out…
12. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2. Week 6 bye. Last week: 12)
(AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Are Jon Gruden and Derek Carr changing before our very eyes?
After their stunning Week 5 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs last week, Gruden had a comment about Carr’s play. Perhaps aimed right at those who viewed the quarterback as an uber-conservative “Checkdown Charlie” the head coach had this to say:
He had a point. In two of their wins this season (the Chiefs game and their earlier defeat of the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football) Carr and the Raiders seemed much more explosive in the downfield passing game. Against the Chiefs, Carr’s Intended Air Yards was 9.0, well above his usual mark, which hovers around six yards or so.
The question facing Las Vegas is this: Does that last? Can this offense remain explosive downfield, or does Carr give the doubters more reason to crow?
11. Cleveland Browns (4-2. Last week: 9)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
If you are a Cleveland Browns fan, this was a game you wanted to win. Or at the very least, to see your team put out a good showing. A “measuring stick” game early in the season, to get a sense of where your franchise is, and just how good they are at the moment. Because after losing in a lopsided affair back in Week 1 to the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns had won four-straight, working their way up to ninth in these very rankings. Those wins, however, came against Cincinnati, Washington, Dallas and Indianapolis. Not exactly the toughest slate.
You could argue this one was over before halftime.
Baker Mayfield threw a Pick Six on Cleveland’s opening possession and his day barely improved from there. That throw came from the pocket, and as our Doug Farrar highlighted during the game, it is emblematic of his woes from that spot on the field back in 2019. Mayfield’s day was done early, and he finished 10 of 18 for 119 yards, and touchdown and two interceptions, and a whopping QBR of just 5.5. He was also sacked four times by that ferocious Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush.
After the game, head coach Kevin Stefanski reiterated that Mayfield, “as long as he is healthy,” is the starter. Not exactly the resounding vote of confidence you want to hear if you are a quarterback in the NFL.
10. Los Angeles Rams (4-2. Last week: 7)
(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)
How much do you trust the Los Angeles Rams right now?
After a lackluster performance on Sunday night, in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams fell to 4-2. Still a very good record, but look at those four wins. They came against the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Football Team, and the Dallas Cowboys back in Week 1.
They have feasted on the worst division in football.
But the two occasions where they had to step outside the comfort zone of the NFC East? A loss to the Buffalo Bills and now a loss to the 49ers.
Thankfully, the NFL Scheduling Gods have provided us with a tremendous matchup for Monday Night Football in Week 7. The Rams host another team with a great record, but lots of questions, in the Chicago Bears. That game might tell us a ton about which of those two teams is the contender, and which is the pretender.
9. Buffalo Bills (4-2. Last week: 8)
The Buffalo Bills and their fans were riding high coming into Week 5 of the NFL season. Josh Allen was playing like an MVP, and the offense was doing its part to allow a defense that many expected to be good again in 2020 to work out some inconsistencies on that side of the football.
The past two weeks have certainly changed the script.
After suffering a blowout loss at the hands of the Tennessee Titans last Tuesday night, the Bills lost to another top AFC team, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs by a final score of 26-17. Allen was not at his best for the second-straight week, completing 14 of 27 passes for just 122 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception. Weather might have played a role, as it was rainy and raw in Buffalo on Monday night.
But more concerning than the weather is the defense. The Bills struggled against Patrick Mahomes – as teams tend to do – but they also struggled to stop the run. Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire ripped off 161 yards rushing on just 26 carries, keeping the Bills defense on the field for over 37 minutes of game time.
That unit, the Bills defense, has become a true concern for Buffalo. They entered Week 6 giving up an average of 28.4 points per game, 12th most in the league. Worse still is what they have done in terms of Total Defense DVOA, as the Bills entered Week 6 ranked just 27th. Continued play like that is going to force Josh Allen to be perfect for the Bills to win games, and when he is not, like he was not against Kansas City, they are going to struggle.
8. Chicago Bears (5-1. Last week: 15)
(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Speaking of that other team…
What does one make of the Chicago Bears?
Right now they are 5-1, and thanks to Sunday’s loss by the Green Bay Packers, they are tied for first place in the NFC North. They are in first place despite a quarterback change from Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles, and continued high-variance play from the veteran passer. They are in first place perhaps due to their defense, which continues to play at a solid level. They pressured Teddy Bridgewater early and often, forcing three different turnovers on the afternoon and holding the Carolina Panthers to a third-down conversion percentage of just 23%.
Yet, do you trust the Bears right now?
Bears fans have made a running joke of it on Twitter, highlighting how many consider the Bears the “worst 4-1 team in history,” and likely now the “worst 5-1 team in history.” But the skepticism Chicago is met with comes with good reason. Their victories have come against Detroit, the New York Giants, the Atlanta Falcons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a short week, and now the Panthers. Every game in the NFL is tough, but some are tougher than others.
Over the next few weeks? They get the Rams, the Saints, the Titans, the Vikings and the Packers.
If they manage to get to 10-1 given that slate, I’m sure those jokes will stop.
7. Indianapolis Colts (4-2. Last week: 10)
(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Many were ready to write off the Indianapolis Colts by halftime of this game. They spotted the Cincinnati Bengals a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, and Philip Rivers seemed out of sorts. Every Twitter group DM in the football world was burning up with questions about whether Rivers was done, and if Jacoby Brissett would be in the game by halftime.
As the kids like to say, Rivers read the tweets. Because in short order the comeback was on. The veteran quarterback directed three different touchdown drives in the second half, throwing a pair of touchdown tosses in that quarter and the Colts trailed by just 24-21 at the break. In the second half, more of the same from Rivers. He hit Jack Doyle with his third touchdown pass of the day to open the final quarter, giving the Colts their first lead of the game. Indianapolis even overcame the dreaded Rivers fourth quarter turnover, as a throw intended for Zach Pascal was intercepted by Jesse Bates III later in the fourth quarter. But the vaunted Colts’ defense eventually picked their quarterback up, intercepting Joe Burrow in the red zone with under a minute remaining, to seal a four-point win.
How good are the Colts? It remains tough to tell. But their defense has been impressive. Heading into Week 6, they ranked second overall in Football Outsiders’ Total Defensive DVOA. That is going to keep them in a lot of games as the season wears on.
6. Baltimore Ravens (5-1. Last week: 6)
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
It was not exactly textbook, but it was a win. The Baltimore Ravens got out to a 17-0 halftime lead over the Philadelphia Eagles and led their Interstate 95 foes by 21-6 late in the third quarter. However, the Ravens would need to stave off some magic from Carson Wentz in the fourth quarter, specifically a stop of the quarterback on a two-point try, to escape Lincoln Financial Field with the 30-28 victory.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson seemed to revert to some of his positive form on the afternoon, completing 16 of 27 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown came early on this wizard-like throw in the red zone to Nick Boyle for the score:
This is an absolutely insane release point.
Jackson also added 108 yards rushing and a touchdown, which highlighted his incredible speed and burst as a ball-carrier:
The fear, if you are a Ravens fan, is that Baltimore could not exactly put this game away. Philadelphia scored 22 points in the fourth quarter, and came within that failed two-point conversion of potentially forcing overtime. The Ravens gave up a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, and a four-play, 71-yard touchdown drive, all in the final quarter. Not cause for concern, but something to keep an eye on.
5. Green Bay Packers (4-1. Last week: 3)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
This was the game that the doubters were waiting for.
Aaron Rodgers was off to one of the best starts of his career this season, as he entered play Sunday as the NFL’s leader in many passing categories, including a whopping Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 10.13 (he was the only quarterback in double digits prior to the start of Week 6) and without an interception on the season.
But then, Sunday happened.
Now, Rodgers seemed to get off to a good start, scoring on a touchdown run and paying homage to a “Key & Peele” skit with this celebration:
But that would be the “highlight” of the afternoon for the Packers. After taking that early 10-0 lead, it would be all Tampa Bay the rest of the way. After a field goal and that touchdown run on their first two possessions, Rodgers ended Green Bay’s third drive of the game by throwing a Pick Six, as Jamel Dean returned a third-down throw 32 yards to cut the Packers’ lead to 10-7. Then on the ensuing Green Bay possession, Rodgers was intercepted yet again, and the Buccaneers would take the lead on their very next offensive play.
By the end of the days, Rodgers was on the sidelines, reduced to being a spectator as backup Tim Boyle ran the offense.
It is just one loss, and not time to panic in Titletown just yet. But for those who were doubting Rodgers coming into this season, this was the kind of game they expected to see from him. With games upcoming against Houston, Minnesota and San Francisco, Rodgers should bounce back.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-1. Last week: 5)
(AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)
One of the fears that fans of teams that are not the Kansas City Chiefs had entering the 2020 season was that Patrick Mahomes could actually get better.
We saw perhaps a glimpse of that on Monday night.
The conditions were not ideal but Mahomes was largely efficient with the football, completing 21 of 26 passes for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns, without an interception, in a 26-17 win over the Buffalo Bills. But think back to this past off-season, when Mahomes talked over the summer about how he needed to improve as a quarterback, in terms of reading the coverage and deciphering defenses.
Now read this answer he gave after the win:
When we talk about a game “slowing down for a quarterback,” this is what we mean. Being able to decipher everything that happens on a given play, all the moving parts, and to still make good decisions with the football.
Scary to consider that he could be getting better.
Scarier still to consider this offense after acquiring LeVeon Bell, and seeing rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire have a breakout night, rushing 26 times for 161 yards.
They are not going away.
3. Tennessee Titans (5-0. Last week: 4)
It took a little longer than the Tennessee Titans and their fans might have liked, as the Titans needed overtime to stave off a game Houston Texans’ squad on Sunday.
Early on, it was the passing game keyed by Ryan Tannehill that led the way. The quarterback had three first-half touchdown tosses, connecting with Anthony Firsker, A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries as the Titans climbed out to a 21-10 lead at the break. But in the second half, the Texans put together quite a comeback, blocking a field goal and forcing a fumble along the way, and before you knew it, Houston had themselves a 23-21 lead.
Then Derrick Henry delivered another huge moment for Tennessee:
This is just a simple inside zone running play, but Henry shows you the combination of skills that he brings to the table as a running back on this long scoring run. He sets up the play by starting to the left side, which gets linebacker Zach Cunningham to commit to that side of the formation, before darting back to his right and knifing through the newly-created hole. Created due to his footwork in the backfield. From there, Henry has both the foot speed and the change-of-direction skills to make defenders miss in space as well as to outrun them in the secondary.
Tennessee would need one more big play from Henry in overtime, and this time it came through the air:
The running back takes a simple swing route of the backfield, and bursts upfield for a 53-yard gain on the opening possession of the extra frame. He would punch it in for a touchdown to cap off the drive, giving Tennessee the win in OT.
The win kept the Titans as just one of three unbeaten teams left in the league. Up next, one of those three, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in what has to be the game of the week.
2. Seattle Seahawks (5-0. Week 6 bye. Last week: 1)
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Bye weeks can be a double-edged sword. For the football team facing a week off, you get a chance to rest, recover and fine-tune things as you look ahead to the second half of the season.
For yahoos like me in the media, you get a chance to artificially slide those teams down in rankings like these for the mere fact that the schedule did not afford that franchise a chance to play football on a given Sunday.
Yet that is the fate that the Seattle Seahawks face this week. After climbing to the top of the mountain in last week’s ranking, their bye week sees the Pittsburgh Steelers jump ahead of them at the top of the pecking order. But I’m sure Pete Carroll has bigger fish to fry.
To that end, the question facing the Seahawks right now might just be their defense. Russell Wilson has played up to his “Mr. Unlimited” monicker, and should at least secure his first-ever MVP vote when the season is over. But the defense has struggled. Entering play in Week 6 the Seattle defense was 19th in Total Defense DVOA over at Football Outsiders, among illustrious teams such as the New York Giants, the Arizona Cardinals and behind the Minnesota Vikings.
Wilson has been great, as has the offense. But if the old adage “defense wins championships” still means anything in 2020 – not that anything does anymore, eat at Arby’s – then that is the question facing Carroll and Seattle heading into the second half of their season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0. Last week: 2)
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
The Pittsburgh Steelers turned in perhaps the statement performance of the weekend. In a heavily-anticipated AFC North rivalry game against the Cleveland Browns, it was the Steelers who rolled to a convincing 38-7 victory.
This contest had the feeling early that it was going to get out of hand in a hurry. Pittsburgh notched a field goal on their opening drive, settling for the three points when the drive stalled out in the red zone. But their defense came up big on Cleveland’s opening possession, as safety Minkah Fitzpatrick read Baker Mayfield’s eyes perfectly and stepped in front of a throw, returning it the distance for this Pick Six:
Also impressive again was rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool, who tallied four receptions for 74 yards on the afternoon. James Washington chipped in another four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. But it was the Pittsburgh ground game that imposed its will a bit. James Connor eclipsed the 100 mark with 101 rushing yards and a touchdown, and both Claypool and Benny Snell Jr. added rushing scores.
With the Seattle Seahawks idle, the Steelers move up a notch into the top spot. How long they stay there remains to be seen, but right now they seem like the Steelers of old: A tough defense, and an offense that can hit you with some big plays in the passing game while imposing their will up front.