Judgements V: Thanks to the Raiders, AFC now more wide open than ever
The Las Vegas Raiders did more than tag Kansas City with its first loss in nearly a year. They threw the AFC into a wide-open scramble at the top.
Until Sunday, the Chiefs were the prohibitive favorite to return to the Super Bowl. After all, they were the defending champions, had Patrick Mahomes and were lapping the field. But all that changed with a 40-32 beatdown by Las Vegas, a defeat that could turn the AFC into a free-for-all.
First of all, three of the league’s five unbeaten teams are there. That would be Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Tennessee, and not one of them is going away. In fact, the Steelers are off to their best start (4-0) since 1979, and if you believe in history you must believe in the Steelers. They won Super Bowl XIV that season.
Yeah, I know, they haven’t beaten anyone with more than one win, but who cares? They all count.
Then there’s Buffalo. The Bills are off to a 4-0 start, too, and if they beat Tennessee Tuesday it will be the first time they’re 5-0 since 1991 when they, too, went to the Super Bowl. Prior to the season I believed they were the biggest threat to Kansas City. I still do.
Speaking of Tennessee, the biggest obstacle for the Titans this season has been COVID-19, with over 20 persons associated with the Titans testing positive. It’s hard to know what impact the layoff will have, but it’s not hard to imagine what is possible.
They have Derrick Henry and a rejuvenated Ryan Tannehill, and they know what it’s like to go deep in the playoffs. They lost to Kansas City in last season’s conference championship game after upsetting New England in New England and the Ravens in Baltimore.
Ah, yes, the Ravens. They’re 4-1 and the defending AFC North champion. They have Lamar Jackson. They have John Harbaugh. And they have a defense that just shut down Joe Burrow. If there’s a potential hiccup, it’s only that they play in the toughest division out there. Color them playoff probable.
Now, what about Cleveland? Glad you asked. A year ago, preseason forecasters had the Browns ticketed to win their division. They did not. They finished third at 6-10. This year there were no expectations, and look what’s happening: The Browns just won their fourth straight game to move to 4-1, tied with Baltimore in the AFC North. Better yet, they’re off to their best start in 26 years.
Sunday’s game with Indianapolis, the league’s top-rated defense, was supposed to tell us if we can believe in the Browns. And it did. You can. They have so much talent on both sides of the ball that they can and should pose a problem to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Granted, they were flattened by the Ravens in the season opener, but that was four weeks ago.
These Browns are confident. They’re hot, winning as many games the past four weeks as they did in 2015-17. And they’re going to be a tough out for Pittsburgh next weekend.
Oh, and did I mention the Raiders? I should. So I will. I didn’t take them seriously until Sunday, with the AFC West looking more like a game of solitaire for Kansas City. But now you have to wonder. Patrick Mahomes had never lost to the Raiders. Derek Carr had never beaten the Chiefs. Plus, Kansas City was 28-2 in its last 30 division contests and on a 13-game winning streak since last November.
Then Sunday happened, and hallelujah. The AFC hasn’t been this wildly unpredictable in years. Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
The NFL needs a comprehensive COVID plan. The league seems content to throw buckets of water on an impending wildfire – postponing and moving games instead of facing the threat of a shutdown head on. Schedules have been thrown in a Cuisinart, with the Broncos, Chargers, Buffalo and Pittsburgh affected … and not because of something they did but because of what their opponents did not – namely, take this threat seriously. Maybe that’s because the NFL hasn’t taken it seriously, with no contingency plans or coherent program to address a pandemic it knew would infiltrate teams. Instead of hitting a pause button or shortening the season, the league continues to play Whack-A-Mole with the schedule. Exhibit A: The Patriots and Broncos just spent the week preparing for each other. Now they’ve been told that, nope, they’re not playing. Instead, they’ll be given an unexpected Week 5 bye. Except it’s not a bye. They practiced all week, for crying out loud. Someone tell the suits at 345 Park Ave. to come up with a proactive … not reactive … plan.
Dak Prescott’s tears and immediate surgery tell you all you need to know about the severity of his ankle injury. Translation: He won’t be coming back this year. Too bad. He was having a record-breaking season and making a case for a massive multi-year deal. Then this happened. With Dak gone, Andy Dalton takes over, and, normally, I’d say game, set and match. Except 1) it’s the NFC East, where seven wins might take you to the playoffs; 2) it could force the Cowboys to put the ball more in the hands of Zeke Elliott, which is always a good idea and 3) Dalton took Cincinnati to the playoffs in his first five seasons there. They haven’t been back since.
The polls just closed for Comeback Player of the Year. No reason to vote. It’s over, with Alex Smith the no-brainer choice. Once, physicians weren’t sure he could walk again. On Sunday, he walked into the Washington huddle and played. Astonishing.
It’s time to worry about the 49ers. Super Bowl losers historically struggle the following year, and the 49ers are in a death spiral. At 2-3 they’re last in the NFC West. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just demonstrated he’s not ready to return … which is another way of saying he was so bad vs. Miami he was benched at the half. And all three of their losses are at home, where they were 6-2 a year ago. They’re winless there now. But that’s not the worst of it, people. Look what’s ahead. The 49ers now play, in order: the Rams, New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, the Rams again and Buffalo. Add them up and you have a combined record of 20-6, including two undefeated teams (Green Bay and Buffalo). San Francisco’s two wins were against the Giants and the Jets, a combined 0-10.
The Ravens’ defense is what we thought it was. Which is brutal on rookie quarterbacks. Joe Burrow found out the hard way Sunday, sacked seven times, forced into two of the Bengals’ three turnovers and failing to produce a TD for the first time this season. OK, so it was hard lesson for Burrow. But it was a familiar story for the Baltimore defense. It forced at least one turnover in 18 consecutive games.
THIRD AND 20
1. No one should be surprised by the firing of Falcons’ coach Dan Quinn. But GM Thomas Dimitroff, too? Sorry, never saw that coming. Nevertheless, something had to be done. The Falcons are a mess. They haven't won this season and are 24-29 since the meltdown in Super Bowl LI, including 14-23 the past three seasons. If that's not reason enough, then there's this: A team with Matt Ryan as its quarterback and Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley as receivers hasn’t had a passing touchdown in its last 31 series. I’m not sure if that's more an indictment of Quinn or offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. What I am certain is that it was just another reason for owner Arthur Blank to pull the plug sooner rather than later.
2. Gotta hand it to Hall-of-Fame coach Tony Dungy. When asked last week on our first “Eye Test” podcast how to defend Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, he nailed it -- saying, “It’s simple … but it’s not easy.” Excuse me? You must have two key elements, Dungy explained, with the most important a four-man rush to pressure the pocket. Forget blitzing the guy, Dungy said. It won’t work “because he’ll kill you.” So the Raiders didn’t, rushing three and four linemen. The other element? Turnovers. Gotta create them. The Raiders did, forcing Mahomes into his first interception of the season, a turnover that set up their game-clinching TD. Result: We may finally have someone to challenge Kansas City in the AFC West.
3. Carolina was supposed to be toast without Christian McCaffrey, but tell that to Mike Davis. The Panthers are 3-0 since he took over for Run CMC, with Davis the Panthers’ leading rusher AND receiver. All the guy’s done is produce 351 yards from scrimmage, including 219 yards rushing, catch a team-high 22 passes and score twice. In other words, play like Christian McCaffrey II.
4. I’m not sure what’s going on with Philip Rivers, but I am sure that if he doesn’t clean up the mistakes that plagued him last season the Colts aren’t going anywhere.
5. Finally, we have a Brandin Cooks sighting. Once upon a time the Texans hoped he could replace DeAndre Hopkins, but that was the hope. The reality was that he never would -- with 10 catches and no TDs his first four games. Nevertheless, he finally made an impact, with five catches of 20 or more yards Sunday, 161 yards for the afternoon and, yes, a 28-yard TD that clinched the Texans’ first victory.
6. If I were Dwayne Haskins and saw Aaron Donald next on the schedule, I’d be sick to my stomach, too. Donald had half of the Rams’ eight sacks Sunday vs. Washington.
7. Next up for Cincinnati: Protection for Joe Burrow. Not just for his sake but for the sake of frustrated Bengals’ fans everywhere.
8. The best team in the NFC East is not in the NFC East. It’s in the NFC West, and it’s the Los Angeles Rams. With Sunday’s defeat of Washington, they completed the sweep of the NFC Least … and you can look it up. In four games vs. the division, the Rams outscored opponents 104-55. In their one game outside the division, they lost to Buffalo, 35-32.
9. Old Guys Still Rule. At 73, Houston’s Romeo Crennel is the oldest head coach in NFL history. He’s 1-0, doing in one afternoon what Bill O’Brien could not the previous four weeks, and just became the first individual in league history to win two debuts as an interim head coach. But say this about O’Brien: He wasn’t solely responsible for the Texans’ 0-4 start. The schedule was, too, with Houston losing to opponents with a 13-5 record, including undefeated Pittsburgh.
10. Turnovers are to Daniel Jones what handbags are to Queen Elizabeth. He doesn’t go anywhere without them, throwing 17 interceptions and losing 14 fumbles in 18 career games. Worse, he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in four consecutive games and won once in his last 14 starts.
11. The Raiders found their Tyreek Hill in Henry Ruggs III. Rewind the video of his 72-yard touchdown catch, and you know why Vegas made him its first pick of this year’s draft. They wanted someone to stretch the field. They have him.
12. With Fitzmagic back in Miami, don’t look for Tua Tagovailoa in the Dolphins’ huddle anytime soon. Ain’t happening.
13. What a difference having Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Nolan move from the coaches’ booth to the sidelines ... and, no, I'm not serious. The Cowboys allowed 34 points in Sunday’s last-second win, their fewest over the past four weeks. Of course, it was 34 points to the lowest-scoring team in the NFL. The 34 were more than double … yes, double … the most put up by the New York Giants in any game this year (16 in the season opener).
14. Hard to believe, but Kendrick Bourne’s touchdown catch was the first by a 49ers’ wide receiver this season.
15. Myles Garrett is a load. No explanation needed.
16. It keeps getting harder to be a New York fan. The Giants are 0-5. The Jets are 0-5. Henrik Lundqvist just left the Rangers. The Yankees are kaput, and the Knicks are the Knicks. Now, more than ever, we need Broadway Joe to guarantee a win. Any win.
17. Just a hunch, but Russell Wilson gets an MVP vote this year.
18. Great note from Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia: The Eagles' Travis Fulgham, who last week made his first NFL catch, now has as many 150-yard games this season as Terrell Owens had in 2004.
19. Watching Seahawks' games is like watching the NBA. Tune in the last two minutes, and you'll know what happened.
20. Start the countdown on Adam Gase. In two seasons with the Jets, he's lost twice as many games (14) as he's won (7) and had six losses of 20 or more points.
STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Believe it or Don’t: For the 12th time in his career, Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick produced 300 yards and three TDs in a game – passing Hall-of-Famer John Elway’s career total.
ONE THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
The Browns scored 30 or more points for the fourth straight week. They haven’t done that since 1968.
AND ONE FOR BOTH OF US
Congratulations, Jacksonville. The Jags are the first team in league history to lose three straight games in a season to winless opponents (excluding the season opener).
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES
“No one gets credit for doing the right thing now because they didn’t do the right thing Monday, and maybe that’s why we’re in this mess.” – tweet from an unknown Patriots player.
“I knew if we got the half yard we win the game. I was trying to win it. I told them in the headset, 'We didn't come here for this. Let's go win it.' " -- Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer on refusing to kick a late field goal that would have put the Vikings up by eight.
"I earned that one. I think that was the worst game I have played of the five so far." -- Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET RECIPIENTS
Pittsburgh WR Chase Claypool. That sound you hear is Fantasy Football players rushing to add the Steelers’ rookie to their roster. The team’s second-round pick in this year’s draft, Claypool scored more TDs in one afternoon (4) than Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Devante Adams have this year … combined … and more than anyone in Steelers’ history since Roy Jefferson produced four scores in 1968. At this point, the only question I have is: How in the world did he last until the 49 pick?
Washington QB Alex Smith. There’s no way to overstate the emotional reaction to his return. His family stood up in the stands in Washington. TV viewers stood up in their dens at home. The poor guy suffered through 17 leg surgeries and somehow made it back to an NFL huddle for the first time since November, 2018. OK, so he didn’t complete a pass longer than six yards, and Washington didn’t win. It doesn’t matter. He played. All hail, Alex Smith.