Dak Prescott returned from injury to start for the Dallas Cowboys, but otherwise Week 7 provided a reminder that order is rarely restored during an NFL season. Geno Smith kept cruising, while Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers continued to slide. Christian McCaffrey became a San Francisco 49er, and his former team posted its best win of the season. P.J. Walker has one fewer victory than Russell Wilson.
This is what to know.
Tom Brady is not having a good time. This past week, Brady had to reassure reporters at a news conference that there would be “no retirement in my future.” Does he wish he had stuck to the one in his past? It’s possible after the Buccaneers lost for the second straight week as a double-digit favorite, falling to the Carolina Panthers, 21-3, two weeks after the Panthers fired their coach and days after they sold off two of their best skill players for draft picks.
Brady completed 32 of 49 passes for 290 yards, a respectable total that doesn’t explain his poor level of play. At 45 and behind a banged-up offensive line, Brady has been skittish in the pocket, eager to ditch the ball a split-second early rather than risk taking a hit. The game would have been drastically different had Mike Evans not dropped a sure touchdown on the Bucs’ opening series, but one play shouldn’t allow the Panthers to dominate.
Brady needs to improve, but he is the least of Tampa Bay’s problems. The Buccaneers lack explosive players, especially along the lines. So stout in recent years, they cannot stop the run or run the ball. The Panthers ran for 173 yards, and the Bucs gained 2.9 yards per carry.
The Buccaneers are constructed around the same core that won the Super Bowl two years ago, which sounds like a feature but may be a bug. Time moves quickly in the NFL, and many of those players have aged out of their prime and into the start of their decline. Drafting in the back end of the first round, the Buccaneers have struggled to add impactful young players around them. “The older guys got to prove they can still play, and the younger guys have to prove they belong,” Coach Todd Bowles said.
Tampa Bay can find solace in the lousiness of the NFC South. Despite a sub-.500 record, the Bucs are tied for first with the Falcons, and Tampa Bay holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. But Brady did not return to merely make the playoffs. The Buccaneers are a long way from being a team capable of doing damage in January, and they only have four days to fix things before they host Baltimore on Thursday night.
As bleak as things are for Tampa Bay, Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks deserves immense credit. Wilks, who joined Brian Flores’s lawsuit alleging discrimination against the NFL, was given an unfair task, and his team ended up trouncing the Bucs, who had not lost to the Panthers since Brady’s arrival.
The 49ers made a great trade for Christian McCaffrey. As a sheer value proposition, trading four draft picks — including second- and third-rounders next year — for a running back is somewhere between inadvisable and indefensible. In the context of the 49ers acquiring McCaffrey, it makes perfect sense.
The McCaffrey era began with a rotten result, a 44-23 loss to the Chiefs, but that doesn’t change the smart calculus San Francisco employed in making the deal. The 49ers studied the NFC and saw a conference ripe for the taking, and that was before the Buccaneers and Packers each suffered another horrendous loss Sunday. The Philadelphia Eagles are a juggernaut now but unproven in the playoffs, and the conference stalwarts — the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay and Tampa Bay — are in disarray. This is the right year for a team to boost its championship equity, and the 49ers had clear room to upgrade at running back after an injury to Elijah Mitchell.
In Deebo Samuel, the 49ers already had the best running wide receiver in the NFL. Now they can pair him with the best receiving running back. The possibilities with Samuel and McCaffrey on the field together are mind-blowing, and the defensive resources required to contain them should provide a turbo boost for George Kittle’s production.
The reasons to be pessimistic about spending on running backs are well-established. Though McCaffrey has succumbed to the injury volatility of his position, he has otherwise been an outlier in both skill set and overall talent.
In April, the Buffalo Bills might make their mid-round selections with regret. If they had matched the 49ers’ offer for McCaffrey, they could have filled their lone weakness with one of the best running backs in the NFL. The Bills are still the best team in the league, but they missed an opportunity to separate themselves further in a way that could haunt them come January.
Joe Burrow is heating up again. When Burrow started clicking last year, his deep passing carried the Bengals all the way to within a first down or two of winning the Super Bowl. The Bengals began their AFC title defense with two losses, but as Burrow is meshing with his rebuilt offensive line, Cincinnati is asserting itself again as one of the best teams in the AFC.
Burrow passed for 481 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for another, in a 35-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Burrow threw for 345 yards in the first half, throwing two deep touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase, who after a slow start has 262 receiving yards over the past two Sundays.
The Bengals have won four out of five, including a blowout of the New York Jets that looks more significant now than it did then. Only Buffalo and Kansas City have better point differentials among AFC teams than Cincinnati’s plus-41. The Bengals are dangerous.
This is who the Packers are. “I’m not worried about this squad,” quarterback Rodgers said after the Packers’ third straight loss, a 23-21 defeat against the lowly Washington Commanders. “In fact, this might be the best thing for us.”
Rodgers’s optimism is not grounded in reality. None of the Packers’ flaws are easily fixed on the fly, and it’s hard to imagine them solving all of them. Their run defense is terrible and not helped by defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s stale designs. Their offensive line isn’t holding up, and stabilizing left tackle David Bakhtiari’s uneven recovery from knee surgery hit another snag this week, when the Packers made him inactive. The receiving corps is not up to the task of replacing Davante Adams, at least this season; promising rookie Romeo Doubs had a key drop on fourth down. Rodgers is 38, playing with a taped-up right thumb and providing a stark reminder that quarterbacks aging well into their 40s cannot be taken for granted.
The Packers failed to convert a single third down for the first time since Week 6 of 1999 (Brett Favre vs. Denver), per @ESPNStatsInfo— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) October 23, 2022
Aaron Rodgers was 15 years old. https://t.co/AINetBCNyb
On Sunday, the Packers got a pick-six from linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and led 14-3 in the first half. They could not surpass 100 yards of offense until the fourth quarter and needed an acrobatic touchdown catch from running back Aaron Jones to make it a one-possession game. The Packers already trail the Vikings by 2½ games in the NFC North.
Sauce Gardner called game. On fourth and three, with the Jets protecting a seven-point lead in the final minutes, Denver quarterback Brett Rypien saw Courtland Sutton, his best receiver, one-on-one with a rookie cornerback. He eschewed a short pass for a conversion and went for it, zipping the ball to Sutton in the end zone. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner again showed he is not any rookie cornerback: He used his speed and long arms to erase the separation between him and Sutton and whacked the ball loose.
The Jets have plenty to be thrilled about within their 5-2 start in Coach Robert Saleh’s second season, but no development has been more significant than the instant emergence of Gardner as a cornerback an entire defense can be built around. Gardner, the fourth pick, has been a menace. He is a tall cornerback with an unusually long wingspan who moves like a small cornerback. He’s already one of the best at his position, and he’s a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors.
The Titans own the AFC South. After the Titans dealt A.J. Brown for draft picks, it appeared they would use the season to reset their salary cap and start building the bridge from Ryan Tannehill to rookie quarterback Malik Willis. But Coach Mike Vrabel is too competent, and their division is too wretched, for that to happen.
Somebody has to win the AFC South, and it looks like it’s going to be the Titans. They improved to 4-2 with a 19-10 victory over the Colts, giving them a season sweep of Indianapolis and a lead in the division. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence have regressed after a hot start. The Houston Texans are feisty but devoid of talent. The Colts are 3-3-1 but have the advanced statistical profile of one of the league’s worst teams.
Saquon Barkley is an offensive player of the year candidate. The Giants did it again Sunday, collecting breaks and taking advantage of them on their way to a close victory. This time it was 23-17 over the Jaguars, and it ended with Jacksonville driving to the Giants’ 1-yard line but falling inches short as time expired.
The Giants are 6-1 primarily because they have outscored opponents 97-55 in the second half. Coach Brian Daboll deserves credit for making adjustments, but the driver of that success has been Barkley. His physicality and speed have worn down defenses and made the game easier for quarterback Daniel Jones. Barkley ran for 110 yards Sunday and gained another 25 on four catches. He is second in the NFL in rushing, and it’s hard to find a non-quarterback more essential to his offense’s success.
Why can’t the Seahawks win the NFC West? Seattle moved into first place Sunday with its 37-23 victory at the Los Angeles Chargers. Nothing about the Seahawks’ 4-3 record is fluky. Smith is playing quarterback better than anyone this side of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, and their running game might be the most explosive in the NFL. Rookie Kenneth Walker III rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 74-yarder on which he ran away from the Chargers’ defense.
The Seahawks are challenging for the division title after dealing away Russell Wilson because they executed what could be a franchise-shifting draft. They took starting cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen in the fourth and fifth rounds. Starting offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas were chosen in the first and third rounds. Walker, the Doak Walker Award winner out of Michigan State, has replaced Rashaad Penny and provided an upgrade.
The only downer for Seattle was the sight of DK Metcalf riding into the locker room on a cart with a knee injury after he landed awkwardly while making a catch. Metcalf was smiling and telling teammates he would be okay as he exited. Coach Pete Carroll told reporters that further testing Monday would determine Metcalf’s status.