They say traveling from the U.S. to London is “crossing the pond,” but try telling that to those of us who made the trip from the West Coast for Sunday’s Seahawks-Raiders game, which Seattle won convincingly.
The trip revealed some of the major obstacles — almost all of them logistical — that stand in the way of an NFL team relocating to London, but there was something fitting about returning after a long flight to see the AFC back, in many ways, to what we thought it would be entering the season.
The Patriots, their early-season struggles now seemingly way behind them, won a thrilling 43-40 game over the Chiefs, the Steelers earned a critical victory over the surprising Bengals, and the Ravens dominated the Titans after last week’s loss to the Browns.
A season after being dominated by the NFC in interconference play, 41 wins to 23, the AFC has appeared to be the superior conference so far, holding a 14-11 advantage through six weeks.
Let’s rank the top six contenders for the AFC crown before looking at other news and notes from around the league (including from that Seattle-Oakland matchup in London):
1. New England Patriots: As much as everyone wanted to bury the Patriots after losses to the Jaguars and the Lions, which came after an offseason filled with discussion of a split between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots are back to doing things the Patriot way. Sure, they lack playmakers on defense. They did last year when they lost the Super Bowl to Philadelphia, too.
But usually Belichick starts slow and figures it out as the season goes along. The win over the Chiefs was classic Patriots. They disguised coverages and made it tough on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Once Kansas City Coach Andy Reid solved the scheme, the Chiefs stormed back, but Brady got the drive at the end to win the game. The Patriots are 4-2 and have the tiebreaker for home-field advantage on the Chiefs.
“I think we have a lot of clutch players,” Brady said. “I think we have no problems grinding it out. That’s what the football season is all about. I don’t think we’ve seen our best. I think we can do a lot better, and I think that’s what we plan to do.”
2. Kansas City Chiefs: It was great to see the sportsmanship of Brady consoling Mahomes after the game. Mahomes is the real deal. I call him the Millennial Brett Favre. Defenses are figuring out some ways to slow him down in games, but Mahomes and Reid mix things up and attack in the fourth quarter.
The Chiefs are going to be challenged on defense the whole season, and that could be their downfall. Mahomes is going to face the realization he’s going to need about 27 to 30 points a game to win against good teams. He is good enough to do that. He put up 40 against the Pats on the road, and had it been him with the ball at the end of the game instead of Brady, the result might have been different.
3. Baltimore Ravens: Yes, they lost to the Browns, 12-9, last week, but they have a plus-76 point differential, and Joe Flacco, despite last week’s loss, is having one of his best seasons. I love the Ravens’ defense. It can stop the run. It can cover. What it did against the Tennessee Titans was savage.
If this were baseball, it would have been a one-hitter with the starting pitcher going eight innings and getting 17 strikeouts. The Titans only had 40 plays. They gained only 106 yards. The defense registered 11 sacks on 26 dropbacks by Marcus Mariota. According to the stat book, the Ravens had nine additional pressures. That means Mariota had only six unpressured plays.
The Ravens get the nod over Pittsburgh here because they beat the Steelers on the road.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bengals-Steelers rivalry is one of the best in the NFL, even though it usually doesn’t get primetime attention with the networks.
Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict won’t let his Bengals get intimidated by the Steelers, but often he makes the penalty that gets a suspension or costs them a game. In the third quarter, Burfict hit Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head with his arm. There was no penalty, and Bengals players tried to defend him after the game. Burfict overheard some questions by reporters and tried to chase reporters out of the locker room.
In the end, Brown got a 31-yard touchdown in the final minute to win the game, and the Steelers appear back on track. Now, after a great running effort by James Conner, the Steelers await the return of Le’Veon Bell.
5. Los Angeles Chargers: Before the season, I thought the Chargers were the favorites to win the AFC West. They had a good defense and Philip Rivers. The Chiefs then got off to a 5-1 start to take control of the division. But don’t sleep on the Chargers.
The Chargers blew out the Cleveland Browns, 38-14, on Sunday. They rushed for 246 yards, and Rivers was as sharp as ever. The Chargers are 4-2, with a plus-31 point differential. Last year, they started 0-4 and still won nine games. Six games into this season, they are on a roll.
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Losing a home game to the Steelers hurt, but the Bengals are 4-2, have a great defensive line, and quarterback Andy Dalton is playing well this season while surrounded by very good skill-position talent on offense. This team has staying power and is a legitimate contender for the AFC North title as well as a wild-card spot.
They do have a tough assignment this week, however, visiting the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.
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— One team notably absent from the above list? The Jacksonville Jaguars. They suffered a brutal loss Sunday, falling on the road to the Cowboys, 40-7. This is the same team that dominated the Patriots in a Week 2 victory but has since seen its roster depleted by injuries, including to star running back Leonard Fournette.
Perhaps most concerning is that a defense with eight Pro Bowlers suddenly can’t stop anyone.
“We got our [butts] kicked today,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Blake Bortles is getting back to his old form, which is not a good thing. Asked about the challenge of playing Bortles, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said: “I mean, the score was 40-7. I played limited snaps. What challenge? I had 25 snaps. The score was 40-7. What are we talking about here?”
Still, there is enough talent on the Jaguars’ roster to bounce back, particularly in an AFC South with no clear-cut favorite.
— Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold continues to make life tough for the Giants. The other New York team took Saquon Barkley instead of Darnold, who was 24 of 30 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 42-34 win over the Colts, outdueling Andrew Luck to move to 3-3 as a starter. The Colts went into a two-deep zone against him, and he kept hitting short passes. So far, he has been the best of the four starting rookie quarterbacks, and the future and present for the Jets are bright.
— I spoke last week with Osi Umenyiora, the former Giants defensive end who is working with the NFL to promote the sport in London. He predicted there might be a team in the city by 2022.
It’s getting closer. The NFL has three games involving six teams there this month. Despite rain, the Wembley Stadium field held up well Sunday. The crowd was great. The practice facilities were good. But the problem remains the travel and the distances, which is particularly brutal for teams coming from somewhere other than the East Coast. It’s hard to imagine how things would work if a team was based there full time.
— The Seahawks won the game, 27-3, to make it to 3-3. As for the Raiders, it looks bad. They have 31 new players yet the oldest roster in the league. They can’t put pressure on opposing quarterbacks since trading Khalil Mack, and their two 6-foot-8 rookie offensive tackles — Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker — are getting destroyed. Jon Gruden the coach is getting hurt by Jon Gruden the player selector.
The result was the sixth straight blowout in international games. One lesson learned: The Seahawks flew from Seattle on Wednesday night and had two light practices. The Raiders flew Thursday and had little time to adjust to the time change. It certainly seems better to go earlier than later.
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