FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 6 highlighted by an amazing Patriots comeback win (see my separate story here) and chock full of some pretty dreadful football elsewhere, at least in Sunday's eight early games. (You saw it. Am I wrong?) ...
• It's only mid-October, but it looks like the parity-loving NFL is a lock this year to get those five or six new playoff teams it loves to boast about every season. Because almost half of last year's field is already underwater or sinking fast. Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Minnesota, and Baltimore take a bow.
Last season, the Texans went 12-4 and won their second consecutive AFC South title. This year they're a 2-4 train wreck, the biggest underachiever in the NFL at the moment.
Last season, the Falcons lost just three games all season, and were 7-1 at home in their dome. This year, Atlanta (1-4) has already surpassed its 2012 defeat total, and is dealing with back-to-back losses at the Georgia Dome as it takes its bye week.
Last season, Washington went 10-6 and was the surprise NFC East winner. This year, Mike Shanahan's team was 1-3 entering Sunday night's game at Dallas, dealing with the controversy regarding its nickname, and happy to have the winless Giants (0-6) in its division.
Last season, the Vikings came out of nowhere to claim an NFC wild-card berth at 10-6. This year, Minnesota has returned to nowhere, losing four of its first five games, and every one of them played in the United States. The Vikings have three times as many potential starting quarterbacks as they do victories.
And last season, Baltimore won 10 games in the regular season, then got hot in the playoffs and rolled to the franchise's second Super Bowl victory. This year, the Ravens have coughed and wheezed their way to a middling 3-3 mark, losing 19-17 at home to Green Bay on Sunday, to drop into second place behind 4-2 Cincinnati in the AFC North.
Last season, those five playoff qualifiers went a gaudy 55-25 (.688). This year, all five presumed contenders are .500 or worse, with a combined record of 8-18 (.308), and the pressure is starting to build to dangerous levels in some of those locales where bad football abounds.
Houston is currently ground zero when it comes to the NFL's underachievement front. The Texans, losers of four in a row, were destroyed 38-13 at home by the visiting Rams (3-3), and things seem to be close to unraveling for Gary Kubiak's team. St. Louis scored touchdowns on offense, defense and on special teams, and had its way with a Texans team that keeps talking about being resilient and mentally tough, but then doesn't back up those words with any mettle.
I'm not predicting this is the beginning of the end of Kubiak's tenure in Houston, but this was the kind of solar plexus-blow loss that gets coaches fired. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, if Houston doesn't pull out the tailspin that has turned it into a league-wide punch line. Kubiak appears to be all but out of answers and doesn't know how to stop the bleeding. And this time, it wasn't just all Matt Schaub's fault.
Houston's beleaguered quarterback didn't throw an interception returned for a touchdown for the first time in five games, but he left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter. His absence didn't improve the Texans' fortunes. If fact, things actually got worse, with Schaub's backup, T.J. Yates, almost immediately tossing a 98-yard pick-six to Rams linebacker Alec Olgetree. Yates later threw a second interception, and probably had some Texans fans burning his jersey in the parking lot no more than an hour after the game.
The worse news for Houston? St. Louis was supposed to be the soft touch needed to get back to .500 before the schedule turns challenging again. Next week, the Texans travel to 6-0 Kansas City, and then Houston plays at home against the Colts (4-1 entering Monday night's game at San Diego) in Week 9, after taking a Week 8 bye. Could things get worse, much worse, before they get better? I'd almost bet on it.
But that's life in the NFL, especially this season through the opening six weeks. Nothing in this league is rendered quite as meaningless as last year's results. And quickly. As the fans of Houston, Washington, Minnesota, Atlanta and Baltimore know all too well.
• Make way for Chip Kelly's first-place Eagles. How do you like the sound of that, Philly fans? The Eagles aren't elite at 3-3, but they do have a two-game winning streak and will own the top spot all by themselves in the NFC East if Dallas (2-3) can't beat Washington (1-3) in Sunday night's game. With home games against the Cowboys and the mistake-prone Giants just ahead, Philadelphia has a decent shot to reach the season's midpoint at 5-3, a record that didn't look likely after those three consecutive losses to AFC West members San Diego, Kansas City and Denver.
It's also pretty clear that we have ourselves at least a quarterback question in Eagles-land. Nick Foles played very well in relief of the injured Michael Vick, throwing for 296 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Foles, making just his seventh career start, also ran for a score (four yards) and completed passes to eight Philadelphia receivers.
Foles was efficient, poised and didn't turn the ball over, and that kind of clean game has to appeal to Kelly on a lot of levels. Foles made every throw necessary in Philly's offense, and while he's not the running threat that Vick is, the Eagles' rookie coach has repeatedly said all he cares about is putting points on the scoreboard.
Let's see if he means it. I'd put my buck on Foles keeping the job for a least another week while Kelly rides the hot hand and gives Vick's tender hamstring even more time to heal. And if Foles beats the Cowboys in Week 7? He's not going to the bench at that point. You know that. I know that. And I would guess even Vick knows that. He's been on the other side of the lose-a-job-while-injured dynamic (see Kolb, Kevin, in 2010).
• So when is Tampa Bay's high-priced rebuilt secondary going to start paying dividends? Foles looked like Drew Brees against the Bucs, and that's not what Tampa Bay had in mind when it invested so heavily in upgrading the NFL's worst pass defense. Eagles receiver Riley Cooper had four catches for 120 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay, and he's not really the No. 1 receiver type.
• Gritty, gutty win for the receiver-starved Packers, who somehow held on to beat the Ravens without James Jones (leg) or Randall Cobb (knee) able to finish the game. The Packers defense played Baltimore tough, but I was most impressed by the brains of rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who wisely stayed in bounds on a four-yard, first-down-producing run in the final minute, allowing Green Bay to run out the clock and protect its two-point lead.
How come the newbie knows how to think situational football, but Green Bay's veteran tight end Jermichael Finley goes brain-dead in a similar situation just minutes earlier? Finley turned a completion into a 52-yard gain on 3rd-and-3 late in the game, but inexplicably ran out of bounds on the play, doing the Ravens a huge favor. We see that same lack of awareness all the time from experienced players who should know better when it comes to clock management.
• This somersaulting into the end zone trend is getting silly. Seriously, somebody's going to break a rib or worse with that style of over-the-top end zone celebration, and I have a hard time thinking Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin loved seeing Emmanuel Sanders launch himself into the end zone like a gymnast. Sanders' 55-yard touchdown catch was the highlight of the Steelers' 19-6 win at the Jets, but I'd say we're one ridiculous injury away from that showboat move being strongly discouraged.
• Let's hear it, though, for the Steelers defense, which picked off Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith twice, finally producing Pittsburgh's first two takeaways of the season. That makes the Steelers 16-2 when facing rookie quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
As for the 3-3 Jets, they've turned into a model of inconsistency. Through the season's first six weeks, New York has gone win, loss, win, loss, win and loss. Let's see if that streak can continue with the Patriots visiting MetLife Stadium next week.
• So much for Weeden Fever in Cleveland. Just when it looked like the Browns might be on their way to just their second four-game winning streak since 1999 and at least a share of first place in the AFC North at 4-2, Cleveland's offense went MIA in the entire second half, after leading 17-7 at the break in a 31-17 loss to visiting Detroit.
Weeden threw for 292 yards, but had two interceptions, including an ill-advised shovel pass that was picked off by Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy with less than five minutes remaining and Cleveland down by only seven points.
"It's a bone-headed play,'' Weeden said. "Any time you try underhand stuff bad things happen.''
We agree wholeheartedly, Brandon. Panic moves rarely work out.
• Three touchdowns for rookie Lions tight end Joseph Fauria was one of the headlines of the day. I doubt his uncle, former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, ever did that. That puts Joseph on pace at this point in his nascent career to be his family's most prolific Fauria ever.
But about those end-zone dances, Joe. They need work.
• I guess we should never be surprised by the lack of sensitivity and civility shown by a frustrated home football crowd, but cheering when Matt Schaub gets injured in Houston, the week after some crazy invades his driveway at his house? Texans fans are starting to make quite the name for themselves in the NFL.
• Well, Matt Cassel did nothing to slow the start-Josh-Freeman-now movement in Minnesota. Christian Ponder remains either injured or ineffective (or both), and Cassel turned in an underwhelming starting performance in the Vikings' 35-10 loss to visiting Carolina. Cassel threw two interceptions to Panthers safety Mike Mitchell and Carolina turned both into touchdown drives.
Apparently Cassel is better internationally than domestically, because his showing did little to replicate the strong game he had in Minnesota's Week 4 win in London against the Steelers.
• Watching Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates enter the game for the injured Houston starter, and almost immediately throw a pick-six to the Rams, all I could think of was: Playing the role of Matt Schaub in today's performance will be T.J. Yates, the understudy. Must have been like a Wednesday matinee showing on Broadway.
• Road teams were all the rage on Sunday, at least in the eight early games. Seven home teams took it on the chin in the 1 p.m. games, with only Kansas City's 24-7 win over visiting Oakland bucking that trend.
But the home teams restored order in the late-afternoon time slot, with the powerful foursome of Denver, San Francisco, New England and Seattle going 4-0.
• If this version of Cam Newton and the Panthers offense showed up most every week, head coach Ron Rivera wouldn't have to sweat his job security. I don't remember seeing Newton that sharp since his rookie season of 2011. Against the Vikings, Newton was calm, cool and collected, completing 20-of-26 for 242 yards and three touchdowns, and most importantly, nary a turnover.
• If it weren't for bad luck, the Bills would have no luck whatsoever at the quarterback position. Buffalo got a pretty nice start out of Thad Lewis in its 27-24 overtime loss Sunday against Cincinnati, so naturally Lewis was seen in a walking boot after the game and has a reported right foot sprain. That might put Buffalo in the market for Matt Flynn's services, according to several reports. Flynn was released last week by Oakland, and he could be the Bills' third starter of the season if Lewis can't play at the Dolphins next week.
Making just the second start of his NFL career, Lewis showed me a little bit of playmaking magic, throwing for two touchdowns, running for another and completing 19-of-32 passes for 216 yards without an interception. Buffalo's starting quarterback, rookie EJ Manuel, is expected to miss at least a couple more weeks after suffering a knee injury in the team's loss at Cleveland in Week 5.
• Never thought I'd write this, but Kansas City at Denver in Week 11 is shaping up as one of the games of the year in the NFL. And the two teams meet again in Kansas City in Week 13, for a quick rematch.
Both the Chiefs and Broncos won Sunday at home to improve to 6-0, although it wasn't easy against the plucky Raiders and spunkier than expected Jaguars. There's a decent shot Kansas City and Denver will arrive still unbeaten at 9-0 in Week 11. The Chiefs' next four weeks go: Houston, Cleveland, at Buffalo and bye. The Broncos are: at Indianapolis, Washington, bye, at San Diego.
• There are no moral victories in the NFL and that's almost a league rule. But good for the winless Jaguars (0-6) that they didn't play to our script and go meekly at Denver. Jacksonville trailed only 14-12 at the half, prompting boos from the Broncos' home crowd. The Jaguars lost 35-19, but the 16-point margin of victory for Denver was considerably closer than the historic 28-point pregame spread. Teams like the Ravens, Giants and Eagles didn't get that close to victory against the Broncos.