By now, expectations can both be fulfilled and upended. Russell Wilson remains an MVP favorite, as his five touchdowns — including the game-winner to a backup tight end in overtime — attested in the Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and irrepressible wide receiver Mike Evans. The Green Bay Packers looked like an NFC favorite a week ago, only to stumble in telling fashion at the Los Angeles Chargers. Meanwhile, eulogies are being prepared for preseason darlings Chicago and Cleveland.
It’s getting cold, and the stakes are getting higher. Here is what to know from Week 9 of the NFL season:
The race to the bottom is getting fierce. The Washington Redskins haven’t scored a touchdown in three weeks and the winless Cincinnati Bengals just benched their longtime quarterback, but the New York Jets exited Week 9 as the NFL’s most hapless team. The Jets lost going away at Miami, a previously winless outfit openly tanking for the first pick in the draft, and they trailed all game.
The Jets traded one of their best defensive players, tackle Leonard Williams, and this week found themselves embroiled in a war of hurt feelings with safety Jamal Adams, probably their best player, over rumors they had taken trade offers for him. Quarterback Sam Darnold has regressed in his second season under alleged offensive guru Adam Gase, who is now in possible one-and-done territory, despite a reportedly close relationship with new general manager Joe Douglas, who has an even bigger cleanup project on his hands than he could have envisioned when he left the Philadelphia Eagles.
“You can’t be embarrassed by this [expletive],” Gase said afterward. You sure about that?
Brian Flores earned the first win of his coaching career, and given the talent on Miami’s roster, he earned the bath of orange Gatorade his players gave him. It would be interesting to know how Dolphins management felt about the victory. Amazingly, the Dolphins might not hold one of the draft’s first two picks — likely to be quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert — if the season ended today, depending on how strength of schedule shakes out.
There’s a long way to go for those top two picks. Avert your eyes, Tua and Justin. After an upcoming bye, Washington will play the Jets in Week 11. The Jets will also play the Bengals and see the Dolphins in New York for a rematch. Some terrible, terrible football awaits.
The Chiefs need to take it easy with Patrick Mahomes. Keeping Mahomes healthy for the long term should be Kansas City’s priority, and the Chiefs are fortunate their circumstances ensure it will not cost them anything in the near term. The Chiefs’ 26-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings behind backup Matt Moore and Harrison Butker’s 54-yard, walk-off field goal reinforced the team’s ability to rest Mahomes without sacrificing competitive considerations.
Mahomes dislocated his right kneecap Oct. 17 but avoided serious ligament or nerve damage. If the Chiefs pushed, Mahomes probably could return next week — he has participated in practice the past two weeks. The Chiefs should be extra cautious and hold him out next week at Tennessee, in part because they can afford to.
The Chiefs (6-3) hold a two-game lead in the AFC West, where they are the only team above .500. With or without Mahomes, they’re going to win the division. In two starts, Moore has completed 69 percent of his passes for 542 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Andy Reid is a brilliant offensive coach who can coax victories out of a solid backup such as Moore through scheme — and dynamic wide receiver Tyreek Hill — even against a quality opponent such as Minnesota. To beat the New England Patriots or win the Super Bowl, the Chiefs need Mahomes.
It would be nice if the Chiefs could keep pace with New England and earn a seed that would place their potential playoff showdown in Arrowhead Stadium. But that ship sailed when Kansas City lost its third game. The Chiefs are going to have to beat the Patriots on the road to make the Super Bowl. Whether they get a first-round bye matters less than Mahomes’s full health.
The Patriots will have a rough road back to the Super Bowl. The Patriots’ 37-20 loss in Baltimore on Sunday night should not be considered alarming. They’re 8-1, and any reasonable analysis would suggest they’re the best team in the AFC. Whenever possible, bet on Bill Belichick.
That said, if the Patriots reach a third consecutive Super Bowl, they will have earned it. The AFC is by far the weaker conference, but this year it could present a gantlet at the top. Depending on how seeding breaks down, the Patriots may have to beat Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in consecutive weeks. Those are the two most uniquely talented quarterbacks in the NFL, and they play for coaches who have developed systems perfectly tailored to their skills. The Patriots would be favored to beat them both, but pulling off two wins would still be a feat.
The Texans took control in the AFC South. One week after every AFC South team won and muddled the divisional outlook, the Houston Texans asserted themselves by trouncing the Jaguars in London and watching the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans lose back in the States.
The Colts are still undefeated in the division and have beaten the Texans, which is significant for tiebreaker purposes. But the Texans still get to play Indianapolis at home (in Week 12), and they have the best player in the division — and one of the best in the NFL — in Deshaun Watson. He thrived even after taking a cleat to the face last week. Watson credited his ability to play through the injury to eating Popeyes spicy chicken sandwiches, which must have taken some explaining in England.
Sunday became hugely regrettable for the Colts. They lost quarterback Jacoby Brissett to a knee injury early after lineman Quenton Nelson landed on him. They still played well enough behind backup Brian Hoyer to be in position to win. But Adam Vinatieri hooked a potential game-winning, 43-yard field goal into another dimension. It was such a bad miss that, on top of Vinatieri’s early-season struggles, it made you wonder whether it marked the end of his Hall of Fame career.
The Steelers aren’t dead. Anybody still think the Pittsburgh Steelers made a mistake by trading a first-round draft pick for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick? Even with Ben Roethlisberger shelved for the season, Pittsburgh is primed to make a playoff run in the lousy AFC — and Fitzpatrick is a major reason. Sunday, he picked off Hoyer near the goal line and returned it 96 yards for a game-turning touchdown. If anyone other than Hill has run faster on an NFL field this season, we haven’t seen him.
The Steelers own Fitzpatrick’s contractual rights for another two seasons at salary cap hits of $1.9 million and $2.7 million, plus a fifth-year option. They acquired a foundational piece at a premium position who makes their roster building easier in the short term. And the draft pick it cost them will not be high. The Steelers are 4-4, and they still play the Browns twice, the Bengals, the Jets and the Cardinals. The jury is already in — getting Fitzpatrick was a steal.
The Packers have a weakness. Nothing went well Sunday for Green Bay, which snapped a string of impressive performances with a 26-11 loss at the Chargers. But one phase stood out most for the Packers.
They entered Sunday with the 26th-ranked run defense in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The Chargers had rushed for fewer than 40 yards in four consecutive games. And then Los Angeles rushed for 159 yards on 38 carries, led by Melvin Gordon’s 80 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. The Packers remained in first place at 7-2 because every NFC North team lost Sunday, but the rest of the league now knows with certainty that they can be run on.
Green Bay’s porous rush defense will receive another stress test next week, when the Packers host Christian McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers.
It’s getting uglier for the Browns — and not just on their feet. As CBS sideline reporter Jay Feely reported at halftime, the NFL told wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to change their cleats at halftime if they wanted to play the second half. Landry had started Cleveland’s 24-19 loss to the Denver Broncos with a gold pair of shoes, and Beckham sported a white pair with a sad clown motif.
Beckham caught five passes for 87 yards, and he also drew a key pass interference call on cornerback Chris Harris on the Browns’ last touchdown drive. But he has been a nonfactor in a malfunctioning Browns offense. His only touchdown all season came in Week 2. In the past six games, Beckham has averaged 4.3 catches for 57.2 yards. Over that span, Beckham has caught only 56.5 percent of the passes he has been targeted on.
Beckham’s acquisition fueled Super Bowl hype for the Browns, who sunk to 2-6. His lack of production is one of many factors that have placed first-year coach Freddie Kitchens in the fire. Like Gase, Kitchens could be in jeopardy for a one-and-done tenure.