Enough of the NFL schedule has elapsed to provide something like clarity. Leaves have reddened, the sweater drawer is getting use, and snow fell in Denver on the Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs. This year, more than any other year, circumstances can change and evaluations remain fluid. But the passing of seven weeks allows for the formation of conclusions.
We know the Pittsburgh Steelers are the foremost challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC. We know Tom Brady made a good decision leaving a talent drain behind in New England and taking over a loaded Tampa Bay roster. We know Davante Adams (13 catches for 196 yards in Green Bay’s victory over Houston) is maybe the best wide receiver in football. We know the San Francisco 49ers shouldn’t be counted out as long as Kyle Shanahan is in charge. We know the Seattle Seahawks play as if they’re trying too hard to win an Academy Award. We know the Atlanta Falcons can never be counted on to finish anything.
Week 7 included a collection of oddities: a touchdown that caused its team to lose, concurrent last-minute drives in response to last-minute scores, a putrid performance by the Patriots and miracle comebacks by the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. It is becoming an unpredictable season even aside from novel coronavirus complications, and Antonio Brown isn’t even here yet.
Here is what to know.
The Patriots are toast. Betting against Bill Belichick is a fool’s errand. Every time the Patriots have been down over the past two decades, they have retooled and recovered and often won the Super Bowl in the process. Six Lombardi Trophies demand the benefit of the doubt. But when have the Patriots ever looked like they did Sunday in a 33-6 annihilation at the hands of the 49ers and former Brady backup Jimmy Garoppolo? When has Belichick ever faced a situation as grim as this one?
The Patriots are 2-4 and bereft of talent. Years of squandered draft picks have caught up to them. Wide receivers and tight ends from the past two draft classes are falling out of trees across the league, and the Patriots missed on all of them. Julian Edelman’s great career appears to be nearing its end. It was fair to wonder last year whether the Patriots’ offensive problem was Brady’s aging or a dearth of weapons. This year, it seems clear it was the latter.
Cam Newton’s dazzling start with the Patriots feels as though it happened a lifetime ago. His positive coronavirus test derailed him, and he has not recovered. Newton completed 9 of 15 passes for 98 yards and three interceptions before Belichick benched him in the second half for backup Jarrett Stidham. (Belichick said afterward Newton is his quarterback and that he only wanted to give Stidham experience in a blowout.)
Belichick is the best there is, and in 10 games this outlook could seem silly. But the Patriots sure look like a bad team that’s going to miss the playoffs.
Tom Brady still has it. As Belichick called timeouts to try for a cosmetic score, the Buccaneers were pulling away from the Las Vegas Raiders for a 45-20 victory. Brady completed 33 of 45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns. One of them, a beautiful parabola to Scotty Miller in the back corner of the end zone, was thrown as well as a quarterback of any age could hope — 23, 33, 43, doesn’t matter.
The Bucs improved to 5-2 with a roster starting to jell. They will insert into that mix Brown, who officially signed his contract Sunday, Bucs General Manager Jason Licht said on the team’s radio broadcast. Brady vouched for Brown, but the addition seems both unnecessary from a football perspective and questionable from an off-field perspective.
Brown will join the Bucs after he finishes serving an eight-week suspension for a number of transgressions, including sending threatening text messages to a woman accusing him of sexual assault. The NFL is still investigating rape and sexual assault accusations against Brown by another woman who worked for him, for which he could face future discipline.
Tampa Bay has a very good thing going. Brown has been trouble since the end of his Steelers tenure in 2018.
The Steelers are the last undefeated team in the NFL. In Sunday’s marquee showdown, the Steelers seized control early and held off the previously unbeaten Tennessee Titans to win, 27-24, in Nashville. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for how well prepared the Steelers were — by the time Pittsburgh led 14-0, Derrick Henry had one carry for one yard — even while playing without middle linebacker Devin Bush, the heart of their defense, for the first time since his season-ending injury.
The Titans made an impressive comeback bid and would have forced overtime had Stephen Gostkowski’s 46-yard field goal try not sailed wide right. It was hard not to leave the game without thinking both teams would be a factor late this year.
The Mike McCarthy era is capsizing. Before Dallas hired McCarthy, the former Packers coach gave numerous interviews boasting of how he had updated his coaching methods and embraced analytics. He then hired a defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, who had not held that position since 2014, and he did not change the offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, he inherited.
The only change McCarthy has prompted in Dallas has been to reduce an underachieving team to an unmitigated disaster. Yes, the Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott for the season to a dispiriting injury. But subbing in Andy Dalton cannot account for the startling lack of resistance the Cowboys’ defense offers, nor the number of total breakdowns in protection.
The Cowboys, 2-5 after a 25-3 catastrophe in Washington, are plagued seemingly every other play by some combination of confusion and insufficient effort. Maybe the most telling moment about how the Cowboys are not reacting to McCarthy came in the third quarter, when Washington linebacker Jon Bostic drilled Dalton in the head as he slid with a dirty hit, knocking Dalton out of the game, and no Cowboys confronted Bostic.
“We speak all the time about playing for one another, protecting one another,” McCarthy said in a Zoom news conference. “It definitely was not the response you would expect.”
The Cardinals are here to stay. In a bonkers game that featured DK Metcalf making the play of the year while on defense, Arizona showed it has what it takes to compete in the best division in football. The Cardinals outlasted the Seahawks for a 37-34 overtime victory that was bananas even beyond the Seahawks’ standard.
Arizona erased a 10-point deficit in the final minutes of regulation, setting up the tying field goal with brilliant run plays with no timeouts against Seattle’s high safeties and tremendous awareness by Cardinals rushing the ball to officials to get the ball spotted. In overtime, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph snuffed Seattle’s first drive with a sack of Russell Wilson on an exotic blitz.
Then the Cardinals blew it by icing their own kicker on — for some reason, when they could have at least drained the clock — second down. After Zane Gonzalez missed on the actual try, the Cardinals recovered with an interception by first-round draft pick Isaiah Simmons — which came only after a Metcalf touchdown was called back. The pick led to Gonzalez’s redemptive game-winner. After they could finally exhale, the Cardinals are 5-2, and Kyler Murray is a threat to beat anyone.
Michael Thomas is having a rough season in New Orleans. A year ago, Thomas caught 149 passes for 1,725 yards and had a strong case as the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. This year, his season has been beset by injury and trouble.
Thomas suffered a high-ankle sprain late in Week 1. Upon his return to practice in Week 5, he slugged safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and was suspended. After a bye, he showed up on the injury report with a hamstring issue. He did not play Sunday, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported he may not play next week, either.
The Saints, who made Thomas the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL heading into the 2019 season, have to be concerned.
The Falcons discovered another novel way to lose. With 1:12 left and Atlanta trailing the Lions 16-14, Todd Gurley II plunged two yards for a first down at the Detroit 10. The Lions called their last timeout, and a few kneeldowns would set up a near-automatic, game-winning field goal with no time left.
“I had my helmet on thinking the game was probably going to be over,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said.
The slapstick nature of the Lions’ 23-22 victory over Atlanta could be distilled into one image: Gurley lying deflated on the goal line while a Lions defender stood over him with arms in the air, imploring an official to signal a touchdown.
Gurley scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:04 left, giving the Falcons a 22-16 lead after an ensuing two-point conversion. But the score hurt the Falcons’ chance to win. The Lions were out of timeouts, and by kneeling at the 1, the Falcons could have drained the clock and set up a virtually automatic field goal. The Lions let him score, and Gurley tiptoed toward the goal line before stumbling inches too far.
Given an opportunity, Stafford led a brilliant drive — eight plays, 75 yards — that finished with an 11-yard, sidearm strike to tight end T.J. Hockenson with the clock showing zeros. It was a wild finish, perhaps only possible with the Falcons involved.
Baker Mayfield bounced back. The status of Mayfield as a franchise quarterback had become a debated topic in Cleveland after a string of unsightly performances, and those conversations grew loudest after Mayfield bottomed out against the Steelers last week. It may have come against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals’ defense, but Mayfield delivered a game that quieted concerns for now in a 37-34 shootout.
Even after Odell Beckham Jr. left with a knee injury in the first quarter, Mayfield outdueled Joe Burrow — who has a stranglehold on rookie of the year honors — and threw five touchdown passes, the last a 24-yard heave to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds remaining in response to Burrow’s go-ahead touchdown with 1:06 left.
Mayfield had total command throughout, completing 18 passes in a row at one point. He will have to do more than dominate the Bengals. But the Browns are 5-2, and Mayfield stabilized his season with his best game of the year.