In Cleveland, the journeyman quarterback who’s been cut a staggering 11 times in his career — at one point, he was the XFL’s leading passer — outlasted the league’s newest star in an upset no one saw coming.
P.J. Walker, formerly of the Colts, Panthers, Bears and Houston Roughnecks, stepped in for Deshaun Watson and helped the Browns hand the 49ers their first loss of the season — and Brock Purdy the first regular-season loss of his career.
“They tie their shoes just like us,” Walker said after the Browns’ 19-17 win. “They good, but we all here for a reason.”
In New York, a similar script unfolded as another unbeaten went down: Zach Wilson led the Jets to their second win in a row, a 20-14 upset of the heavily favored Eagles. It was the Jets’ first victory against the Eagles in franchise history (New York had somehow previously been 0-12 against Philadelphia), and at 3-3, Robert Saleh’s squad seems to have calmed the storms that followed Aaron Rodgers’ gutting, Week 1 injury.
How’s that for Week 6 in the NFL? The league’s two remaining unbeatens — the 49ers and Eagles — both suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of a backup quarterback.
In Miami, the Dolphins spotted the winless Panthers an early 14-0 lead, turning some heads across the league, before coolly ripping off 35 straight to put the game out of reach. Carolina’s 0-6 start is the franchise’s worst since 1998, and though the Dolphins have yet to beat a contender, Mike McDaniel’s offense is averaging 37.1 points a game a month and a half into the season. That’s the fifth-highest total since 2000. So far, they’re in good company.
Top scoring offenses, Weeks 1-6
In Houston, another team with a rookie passer has already matched its win total from 2022. C.J. Stroud appears to have a stranglehold in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race, and the Texans are 3-3 after beating the Saints 20-13.
In Chicago, Justin Fields left the Bears’ 19-13 loss to the Vikings with a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand, a league source told The Athletic’s Dianna Russini. Although X-rays were negative, he’ll have an MRI on Monday, leaving his immediate availability in a crucial season for him uncertain.
Here’s what stood out from the afternoon slate of Week 6:
Jets keep ’embarrassing’ elite QBs
While their AFC East rivals continue to flounder — after Sunday’s 21-17 loss in Las Vegas, Bill Belichick’s Patriots are 10-18 in their last 28 games — the Jets have found new life.
Credit to Robert Saleh, the coach who stubbornly stuck with his struggling starter, Wilson, amid three consecutive losses after Rodgers went down. A month later, he’s been proven right.
And credit to Wilson, who’s fought through the ridicule and early-season (and early-career) lumps that have defined the bulk of his tenure in New York. Beating a bad Denver team last week was one thing; handing the reigning NFC champions their first loss of the season is another. Wilson didn’t light up the Eagles, but he did finish the game without a turnover. On the other side, Jalen Hurts threw three interceptions.
Garrett Wilson had a team-high eight catches for 90 yards Sunday for the Jets. (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)
Central in the Jets’ turnaround is Saleh’s defense. Coordinated by Jeff Ulbrich, the unit got the best of Eagles coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson on Sunday, limiting a typically explosive offense to three plays of 20 yards or more. Philly didn’t score a point after halftime. That was the difference.
In three games this season against some of the best quarterbacks in football — that includes Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and now Philly’s Hurts — none has finished with a passer rating above 64. Combined, the three QBs have thrown three touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
“Through these first six weeks, we’ve played a gauntlet of quarterbacks,” Saleh boasted after. “I know we haven’t gotten all wins, but we’ve embarrassed all of them.”
That’s why they’re still in the hunt, and why Saleh’s name should be in the Coach of the Year conversation.
Browns spoil Purdy, 49ers’ streak
This was a slugfest befitting the two stiffest defenses in football. The surprise wasn’t just the final outcome — Browns 19, 49ers 17 — but how they did it, and who they did it without. Missing Sunday’s game because of injury: quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Nick Chubb as well as two key pieces on the offensive line, Jack Conklin and Joel Bitonio. That left them 9.5-point underdogs heading in.
Now, Cleveland benefited from some iffy officiating late in the game, a missed 41-yard field goal from Jake Moody with six seconds left and the fact that the 49ers were down two key offensive weapons by game’s end in Christian McCaffrey (oblique) and Deebo Samuel (shoulder). But the Browns aren’t apologizing for this one, nor should they: This was an impressive win for Kevin Stefanski’s team, which is now 3-2 and in the thick of an early, crowded AFC North race.
Walker finished 18-for-34 for 192 yards and two interceptions but found some rhythm with wideout Amari Cooper, who snared four catches for 108 yards, including a ridiculous sideline grab. That proved enough on a day Purdy, who was vying to become just the second QB in league history to win his first 11 starts (Ben Roethlisberger being the other), finished 12-for-27 for 125 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He was constantly hounded by the Browns’ suffocating defense but did enough late to give his team a solid chance to escape with the win, leading a nine-play, 45-yard drive as time expired that set up Moody’s 41-yard attempt. But the kick was a foot wide, and the Dawg Pound erupted.
A week ago, the 49ers looked utterly unstoppable in a prime-time thrashing of the Cowboys; on Sunday, they couldn’t scrape out a win against a backup quarterback. That’s life in the NFL. Plenty of that is a result of what Jim Schwartz is doing as the Browns’ defensive coordinator, remaking a unit that already had talent at all three levels but now is playing like the most vicious group in football. Yards aren’t always the most telling stat, but consider: The Browns have allowed just 1,002 through five games, the fewest since 1971.
It was the 49ers’ first regular-season loss since Week 8 of last season, snapping a streak of 15 in a row. It was also the first time in nine games they haven’t scored 30 or more.
“It wasn’t just Brock, it was everybody,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Everybody had their turn on offense, and it starts with me.”
Ridder costs the Falcons (twice)
Falcons coach Arthur Smith has backed his embattled quarterback Desmond Ridder this season, but that type of unwavering faith is going to be a tougher sell after Sunday’s dispiriting 24-16 loss to the Commanders.
Because this one hurt.
And the quarterback cost them.
Two of Ridder’s three interceptions Sunday killed Atlanta’s comeback bid. Twice in the fourth quarter, the game still within a score, Ridder coughed it up with throws in Washington territory he shouldn’t have made. After the first, a careless heave that was picked off easily in the end zone, Smith stared forward for several seconds, fingers on his chin, frustration simmering.
That look said a lot.
Second-year QB Desmond Ridder had another rough outing for the Falcons on Sunday. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)
You have to wonder how long Smith will stick with Ridder, the second-year QB out of Cincinnati, considering the uptick in expectations around this Falcons team this year. Atlanta’s now lost three of four, averaging 9.6 points per game in those losses. Ridder has thrown five picks in his last three outings. This won’t cut it.
But the criticism in Atlanta will stretch beyond the quarterback, including to the head coach. The Falcons are still 3-3 and in a winnable division, but they won’t stay competitive with this type of quarterback play, or with an offense that continues to struggle.
Smith is going to have a decision to make sooner or later.
The Bengals are heating up
We probably should have seen this coming. We’ve seen it before.
But there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence at hand — besides, of course, last season — that pointed to a Cincinnati turnaround this early in the season. Back in September, when Joe Burrow wasn’t himself, the Bengals didn’t look right and the coach was stressing “it’s a long season,” it was pretty difficult to see this coming, especially quickly.
Put simply, they were playing some bad football. Burrow, hobbled by a lingering calf injury, was inconsistent at best, awful at worst. The offense was out of sync. And the Bengals were 1-3 after getting trounced 27-3 by a mediocre Titans team on Oct. 1.
Coach Zac Taylor never panicked, stressing that his team had been in a similar spot just a year earlier: After an 0-2 start sounded the alarm bells around Cincinnati, the Bengals finished 12-4, ripping off 10 consecutive wins late in the season.
“I always feel like we are in it,” Burrow said after the loss to the Titans.
The QB’s words ring true two weeks later. The Bengals can breathe a sigh of relief heading into the bye: They’re 3-3 after Sunday’s 17-13 win against the Seahawks, and Burrow is starting to play better. After carving up the Cardinals last week in a 34-20 win, he started 13-for-15 for 123 yards and two touchdowns on his first two drives Sunday.
The Bengals’ defense held firm late, sacking Geno Smith a total of four times to close out the win. That’s a good sign moving forward because Cincy won’t be able to lean on its offense every week.
“It’s a lot easier to fix things when you are 3-3,” Burrow said.
His first four games of the season: two touchdowns, two interceptions, 728 yards and a passer rating under 70.
His last two: five touchdowns, two interceptions, 502 passing yards and a passer rating near 100.
Burrow hasn’t yet regained his MVP-caliber form, but as Taylor pointed out a few weeks ago, there’s a lot of season left. Don’t write off the Bengals yet.
(Top photo of P.J. Walker: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
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