Published: Oct 17, 2023 at 10:51 AM
With six weeks in the books, about one-third of the NFL regular season is already gone. Is there a clear-cut favorite? Thanks to the 49ers and Eagles suffering defeats Sunday, every team has at least one loss.
The last time there were no unbeaten teams this early in a season was in 2017, when the 5-0 Chiefs lost in Week 6. That ’17 campaign wasn’t a dud; it didn’t lack great teams. In fact, we were treated to an all-time Super Bowl shootout between the Patriots and Eagles, both No. 1 seeds, at the end.
So, while Week 6 didn’t shine all that kindly on the current top batch of contenders — except for maybe the red-hot Lions — the Power Rankings refuse to be reactionary. Pound for pound, the Niners have been the NFL’s best team so far this season, even with their first loss Sunday and the injuries that came with it.
Sunday’s loss to the Browns was easily Brock Purdy‘s worst game of the season, and his struggles shouldn’t be glossed over, but I bet a lot of people ready to cut him down don’t realize just how good Cleveland’s defense is. Anyone who watched that game realized how tough a spot he was put in. Brandon Aiyuk dropped a would-be TD, the offense committed six penalties (12 total by San Francisco) and there were big injuries to Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams. Purdy also drove the 49ers to a spot where the game would have been won if not for Jake Moody‘s errant field-goal attempt. The penalties are a big issue (the Niners lead the league with 45), but the most surprising development was seeing the Browns clearly winning the physical battle up front. San Francisco stays on top for now, given how the rest of the week played out in the NFL.
The Chiefs have won five straight, but four of those contests were grinders, and the offense remains hamstrung a bit by middling red-zone production and too many turnovers. They would rather be in the position they are now than where they were in 2021, when the defense struggled early before getting back on track. Don’t forget that that team opened the season at 3-4, yet still made the AFC Championship Game (and led 21-3 before ultimately falling to the Bengals). The most concerning part about this team is its inability to slam the door shut. The Chiefs have only 12 fourth-quarter points this season — all Harrison Butker field goals. There’s no reason to freak out, but the lack of crunch-time production is out of character, and if it continues, it will come back to bite them against better opponents.
Good teams are allowed hiccup games now and again, and Miami did win the final three quarters against Carolina on Sunday, 42-7. But there’s a legitimate discussion about how we should judge this group, even as explosive as it is. Miami has beaten five opponents with a combined record of 5-24 to this point and was shellacked in Week 4 by the Bills, who currently sit at 4-2. That’s the evidence we have as of now. We won’t really see the big picture for the Dolphins until they’ve faced the Eagles (in Week 7) and Chiefs (in Week 9). Any team that features Tyreek Hill has a chance, and the reunion between Hill and his former K.C. compatriots in Germany will be must-see TV. But we’ve suddenly shifted to Jalen Ramsey Watch, having seen Eli Apple struggle at times again.
It feels like the Lions suffer a “Wow, they can’t afford to lose that guy” type of injury every game or two. In the win over Tampa on Sunday, it was David Montgomery. With Jahmyr Gibbs already inactive, that meant Detroit went the distance with Craig Reynolds and Devine Ozigbo in the backfield. But the Lions just sort of figure out games like puzzles, and they’re getting good at it. Jared Goff is such a trusted caretaker — and playmaker — at this point that Detroit was still able to forge three scoring drives after Montgomery left. And the defense! Aaron Glenn’s group has been dealt a few tough injuries, but continues to deliver statement performances. My guess is the unit’s effort on Sunday more than atoned for any irritation Dan Campbell felt over allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Panthers in Week 5.
The defense really balled out, to the point that it was easy to forget the Eagles dropped the turnover battle in the loss to the Jets, 4-0. They had the ball late with the chance to seal a win, but Jalen Hurts threw his third interception of the game on what was just an awful mistake, setting up the decisive touchdown for New York. You can argue that the Eagles should have run the ball there, hanging on to a 14-12 lead inside the two-minute warning, with the Jets out of timeouts. But you can’t argue Hurts made a good decision on that pick. His first INT should have been ruled a Dallas Goedert fumble, and Hurts’ second INT came with pressure, as the injury that forced Lane Johnson to leave loomed large. Johnson’s replacement, Jack Driscoll, became a turnstile for Jets pass rushers. Hurts did have decent moments, and A.J. Brown was terrific, but the rest of the offense stunk. DeVonta Smith‘s two big drops were killers.
Don’t look now, but the globetrotting Jags have stacked three straight impressive victories after opening the season 1-2. The most pressing immediate concern is obviously the knee injury to Trevor Lawrence, especially with a Thursday game at New Orleans looming. Even if Lawrence is OK, others could be absent for that one, given that Zay Jones and Walker Little missed Sunday with injuries, and Brandon Scherff and Tyson Campbell both left the win over the Colts with new maladies. The formula for victory has firmed up lately: take the ball away on defense and give it to Travis Etienne on offense. If that’s enough for the Jags to pull off a short-week (and likely shorthanded) road win, we can fully bury Jacksonville’s slow start to 2023.
The Bills survived as the Giants cost themselves points at multiple key junctures Sunday night, one being the final play of the evening. I’ll never kill teams that show guts and mental toughness and win without their “A” game. But, boy, Sean McDermott’s decision to throw the ball on that third-and-9 late, resulting in an incompletion and, ultimately, the Giants getting the ball back, would have been a tough one to swallow had the Bills allowed 1 more yard at the end. Josh Allen made the circus TD throw to Quintin Morris, and it’s plays like that that make us love him. But he also continues to appear frustrated having to play small ball so much, and that emotion seemed to boil over on Allen’s ill-advised involvement — with an injured shoulder — in a third-quarter fracas with the Giants. This team sure likes to keep us guessing every few weeks.
The Ravens were fortunate to get away with bogging down early in the red zone. On the surface, the offensive numbers were fine in the 24-16 win over Tennessee, with 360 yards (221 passing, 139 rushing), but Baltimore going 1-for-6 in red-zone conversions explains the close score. The Ravens ran 17 red-zone plays in London. Seven were Lamar Jackson runs. Seven were handoffs. Three were Jackson passes. Of Jackson’s rushing attempts down there, only a few appeared to be designed runs; I’d like to see Lamar throwing more when close to the end zone. A win is a win, but after a 4-for-4 red-zone game at Cleveland, the Ravens have posted touchdowns on just two of their last nine trips to the red area.
I caught some heat on social media for putting the Browns as high as No. 12 last week, and the more doubt that was cast on Deshaun Watson‘s availability for Sunday, the more I started to think those critics might have been right. But Cleveland’s defense turned in an incredible showing, nearly grinding the 49ers’ offense to a halt, even if several San Francisco injuries were a factor in the Browns win. That defense now has staked its worthy claim as the best unit in the NFL, with PJ Walker doing enough in place of Watson against a 49ers team that’s comparable to the Browns defensively. What a wild, weird season to date for Cleveland, ping-ponging back and forth between excellence and disaster.
Geno Smith fell on the sword after throwing a pair of picks in a narrow, frustrating loss at Cincinnati, but the tape revealed only one interception was truly, unquestionably his fault: the red-zone grab by Mike Hilton in the third quarter. The other can be blamed on DK Metcalf stopping his route. Bottom line: The Seahawks lost the game by scoring 10 points in five red-zone trips, and blame for that can be shared offense-wide. If there was a silver lining, it was that the defense put on a show from the second quarter on, stopping Joe Burrow and the Bengals cold after they mounted consecutive touchdown drives with their first two possessions. I’m not at all giving up on this Seattle team, but this L will stick in their craw for a minute.
Six points. No touchdowns. A lousy 2 of 12 on third downs. An interception inside their own 15-yard line. The Tampa Bay offense had its worst outing of the season in Sunday’s 20-6 loss to Detroit, and yet it’s hard to say that it was a shocking breakdown. Though Baker Mayfield struggled, we can’t pin this game entirely on him. The run game has been a travesty this season, marred by poor performances by the O-line and backs. Todd Bowles punting on fourth-and-2 while down 14 points in the fourth quarter tells you everything you need to know. Yeah, the Lions’ defense was terrific Sunday, but the decision to punt suggested Bowles had more faith in his defense causing a turnover than he did in his offense gaining 2 yards. That makes me worried for the long haul.
The Bengals came out like gangbusters on their first two drives of Sunday’s 17-13 win over the Seahawks, scoring touchdowns on both. Just like that, following a strong Week 5 showing, their offense had magically regenerated itself. Until it hadn’t. Over the next eight drives, Cincinnati netted a feeble five first downs and 86 yards. The defense had to go into whatever-it-takes mode, especially as Seattle continually drove deep into Cincy territory. This D has enjoyed its share of red-zone heroics in recent years — with critical plays from Germaine Pratt to Sam Hubbard to Vonn Bell and on — and that group added some new contributors as it held Seattle to 10 points on five red-zone trips. Cincinnati might have limped to the bye at 3-3, but getting to this point at .500 is admirable.
They have earned rest this week after evening their record at 3-3. With three winnable games coming out of the bye — “at” Giants, vs. Chargers, at Raiders — this team cannot be dismissed, especially with an Aaron Rodgers miracle return not yet ruled out. Few Jets games have been pretty, and points remain a premium. That said, when you can beat a Super Bowl-caliber team with starting CBs Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed out — and pick off three passes in the process — you may dispense artistic merit in such cases. The Jets are lucky their mistakes against the Eagles didn’t sting more, and 1-for-4 in the red zone won’t often cut it. This win, however, like seeing Rodgers throwing passes pregame, reminds us that anything remains possible.
Some of the more pleasant early developments against the Saints were a run game that showed life and the Texans winning up front. Devin Singletary gave Houston’s ground game a boost and could take carries away from Dameon Pierce, which is something to watch. Both lines of scrimmage were won by Houston early, with the Texans’ defensive line dominating the Saints most of the game. After being worn out late against Atlanta, DeMeco Ryans’ defense stood tall even while letting the Saints move the ball throughout the second half. My prediction is that the Texans will enter the offseason as a popular darling — but given the steady hand with which C.J. Stroud is leading this team, I might need to shorten my timeline.
The Rams called three run plays and dropped back 17 times in the first half on Sunday against Arizona. On the opening drive of the second half, Sean McVay flipped the script on its head — he opened with eight straight called runs, with Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers sharing the load. The day belonged to Williams (who finished with a career-high 158 yards) and Cooper Kupp, who amassed most of his 148 receiving yards early on. That kind of night-and-day approach to the game plan might not work against every opponent, and the Rams haven’t been able to play a lot of complete games offensively this season. There’s plenty to clean up from this one, such as the third-down offense (they went 4-for-11 in conversions and took two of their three sacks on the money down), with a tough Steelers defense on tap in Week 7. And unfortunately, Williams and Rivers both left Sunday’s win with injuries.
The Saints appear incapable of having all three units play well, or evenly passably, in the same game. The offense was strong in Week 5 but highly inconsistent on Sunday. The defense was pushed around early by the Texans. NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Blake Grupe missed two big kicks in the loss. Whatever Saints fans might think of offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., there are only so many fancy play calls that can overcome an underachieving offensive line and an erratic Derek Carr. The Saints have scored 20 fourth-quarter points in six games. Ten of those were in a blowout of the Patriots. Zero came in two brutal losses on the road, at Green Bay and at Houston. This is a decidedly average team until further notice.
With no indication the Steelers are replacing play-caller Matt Canada or QB Kenny Pickett any time soon, they must find internal solutions to get the offense on track — like, say, an anything-goes self-scouting mission during the Week 6 bye. No group needed that more than the offensive line. I thought Broderick Jones played well against Baltimore; continued improvement would be huge. So would the interior getting better, and Chukwuma Okorafor cutting down on penalties. If they fix those problems, the Steelers might have an offense that can win games.
The Packers have dug their own holes during their 2-3 start, with two road losses coming by a combined five points, and they can’t afford to dig another one at Denver in Week 7 coming out of their bye. They must find ways to get going offensively earlier in games. In their three defeats, they’ve logged 16 first-half points — and only six in the past two losses. Green Bay’s last first-half TD in any game came in Week 2 at Atlanta, and the team has been outscored 69-26 in first halves this season. Jordan Love isn’t alone in terms of sharing blame. But in Weeks 1 and 2, the quarterback committed zero turnovers, and he posted just one in Week 3. Over the past two games, he’s thrown five picks. Without the defense playing lights out, that won’t cut it.
In his first start following the news that Anthony Richardson will be out an extended period, Gardner Minshew turned the ball over four times in the loss to Jacksonville — and it could have been even worse. This isn’t what we expected from Minshew, given that he entered the game with zero turnovers on the season, but it’s a reminder that in his two starts for the Eagles last season, Minshew threw three picks and fumbled four times (losing one). Owner Jim Irsay told ESPN on Monday that Richardson is “probably” done for the season, so it’s likely to be Minshew from here on out. The Jonathan Taylor–Zack Moss duo probably will take a bigger share of the load, but the Colts really are entering a tricky stretch facing back-to-back strong defenses in the Browns and Saints.
Arthur Smith’s decision to go for two after cutting Washington’s lead to eight points early in the fourth quarter (the attempt failed) was not why the Falcons lost Sunday. Analytics folks have been screaming for years that going for two increases a team’s chances of winning, and some coaches are finally listening. The real problem: Desmond Ridder followed up arguably the best game of his young career last week with arguably his worst — against a Commanders defense that just had 40 hung on it by the Bears. Ridder’s three picks (especially the last one) and two turnovers on downs did Atlanta in, raising questions about the quarterback and an offense that has failed to top 16 points in half the Falcons’ games. The defense had five sacks and allowed fewer than 200 yards, but it wasn’t enough.
The good news is that the Vikings are now 1-0 without Justin Jefferson this season. The bad news: The offense didn’t really have much to do with Sunday’s 19-13 win in Chicago. The hope was that Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson and maybe Alexander Mattison could each help absorb some of Jefferson’s production, and they did, at least to some extent — but the offense really labored outside of the impressive touchdown drive right before halftime. In six second-half possessions, Minnesota gained a grand total of 36 yards. That left the team’s fate in the hands of the defense. Say the words “backup QB” to a Vikings fan and watch the color leave that face. Chase Daniel, Cooper Rush and Matt Moore are recent QB2s who have beaten Minnesota, and it looked for a second like Tyson Bagent would join the illustrious club before the defense forced two critical second-half turnovers.
Ryan Tannehill’s ankle injury sets up a possible preview for the rest of the season at quarterback. When Tannhill left Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, it was Malik Willis who replaced him. Willis did a pretty decent job in the fourth quarter, even if Tyjae Spears’ 48-yard screen might have inflated the QB’s stats a bit. But with Tannehill’s future with the team already in question before the injury, you can bet the Titans will consider taking a look at Will Levis, too. Levis has been QB3 in all six games, but now has the door open to show Tennessee why it drafted him with the 34th overall pick in the spring. The Titans aren’t cooked at 2-4, but it feels like evaluating both Willis and Levis supersedes winning at all costs now.
First halves haven’t been a problem for the Cardinals, who have outscored opponents by 23 points in the opening 30 minutes of games. Third quarters haven’t been terrible, with Arizona getting outscored 34-23. But in the fourth, the Cards have been abysmal, scoring seven points all season (with one touchdown back in the Week 3 upset of Dallas) while allowing 64. That’s how you arrive at a 1-5 record. Arizona was awful in the red zone on Sunday, too, with Joshua Dobbs kicking off the fourth quarter with a pick down there to prevent the Cardinals from tying the game. The Rams promptly drove 88 yards to extend their lead to 23-9. It didn’t help that Dobbs twice had Hollywood Brown open for touchdowns in the first half, but couldn’t connect with him either time.
It’s becoming harder to see how Sean Payton and Russell Wilson are going to thrive in their arranged pairing, considering the Broncos are amid their worst start in nearly 30 years. Wilson has looked solid to strong at times, but mistakes at critical junctures have really marred his play this season. Payton has looked weary at times, even if he’s coaxed much better effort from the team since the 50-point loss to the Dolphins. The defense especially came to play in last Thursday’s 19-8 loss at Kansas City, and maybe it’s a stepping stone for better play down the stretch. But if Denver doesn’t get more from Wilson, Jerry Jeudy and the offensive line, it’s going to be difficult to project much actual progress toward winning.
It’s broken-record time, as the Patriots once again fell in an early (double-digit) hole they couldn’t pull themselves out of, stricken by too many mistakes. At least the Pats showed some fight, as they gave themselves a remote chance to pull off a comeback against the Raiders. Following the blowout losses to Dallas and New Orleans, it’s progress. But for anyone holding out hope that there’s some untapped Bill Belichick magic, I’d remind them that the roster is in incredibly tough shape. Even in August, with nearly everyone healthy, the personnel (especially on offense) felt thin compared to the other AFC East teams. Now, with so much of the defense banged up, it’s not pretty. Oh, and the Bills and Dolphins are up next.
One year ago, Tyson Bagent was preparing for the West Chester Golden Rams, as the quarterback for Division II Shepherd University. This week, with Justin Fields (right thumb) doubtful to play, he’ll be studying how to find holes in a Raiders defense that has shut down the opposition the past couple games. In his NFL debut, taking over for an injured Fields, Bagent had some highlights, completing seven straight passes at one point and leading a clutch TD drive, sneaking it in himself from a yard out. But he also was strip-sacked on his third snap and had a bad underthrow on a pass that was picked. With Fields potentially out for a spell, it could be Bagent time in Chicago. He wasn’t drafted, but Bagent was far from the worst QB at the Reese’s Senior Bowl earlier this year, with his current offensive coordinator (Luke Getsy) as one of the game’s coaches. Bagent is no Fields athletically, but he can move pretty well and spins a nice ball. There will be rough moments, for sure, but something tells me he has something interesting to offer.
Has a team ever lost a game like the Giants did Sunday, finishing both halves at the 1-yard line? Between the pre-halftime fiasco and end-game letdown, this was the cruelest way to squander Big Blue’s best defensive performance in recent memory. For three quarters, New York kept Josh Allen off the board, holding Buffalo to fewer than 150 yards. Brian Daboll seemed to expect even more from that unit when he kicked the field goal on fourth-and-1 from Buffalo’s 11-yard line early in the fourth, all but wasting a great Saquon Barkley drive. Tyrod Taylor did a lot of good things, but his pre-halftime clock error cost the Giants three points. Daboll opted not to go for four more on that fourth-quarter field goal, and Darren Waller could have had six on the final play. The Giants lost by five.
We might be fresh out of unbeaten teams after Week 6, but we do have one team that stands alone at the bottom — the 0-6 Panthers, who would have enjoyed this week’s bye had they somehow found a way to hang onto a 14-0 lead in Miami. It never felt likely, but you’d hardly call Sunday a poor showing. The Panthers ran the ball relatively well, and Bryce Young played a turnover-free game with some encouraging moments. The defense wasn’t great but did force three three-and-outs and had a pick-six. Look, I think there’s a decent chance the Panthers won’t finish the season in this spot, or at the very least, I’d be shocked if they don’t win a game. In fact, I’ll say they win a game before the end of November. There is talent here.