It was a long season-and-a-half for the New England Patriots, and the post-Tom Brady era looked bleak. The emergent Bills appeared built to claim the AFC East for years to come while New England, with their rookie quarterback, were set up for a tedious rebuild. But before Pats fans had much time to process what it would be like to lose and lose often, the team started winning. And winning some more. Thursday night’s 25-0 slaughter of the Atlanta Falcons was New England’s fifth win in a row. And thanks to Buffalo’s recent fall from grace, guess who’s back atop the division? (Feel free to imagine a sly-looking Bill Belichick while you read the rest of this article.)
It’s Belichick’s defense that has turned the 7-4 Pats into legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The unit has held its last three opponents (including the Browns and Panthers) to 13 total points. The defense is deep. It is fast. It is physical.
Linebackers Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower are dominant. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger consistently break up passes and make bruising tackles at safety. Undrafted cornerback JC Jackson has been a revelation, especially given the scrutiny he faced as Stephon Gilmore’s replacement. On Thursday night, Jackson held the Falcons to just one catch on three targets for seven yards. No way was this version of the Pats’ defense giving up to 28 points to this version of the Falcons offense. Matt Ryan looked as shell-shocked and beaten down as we’ve ever seen him.
Mac Jones has matured under center as the season has gone on, and he’s certainly having the most successful year among the rookie quarterbacks. But Jones is still good for a throw or two per game he wishes he could have back and lacks some of the explosive playmaking abilities of the best NFL quarterbacks. Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees did a heck of a job confusing Jones and the Patriots offensive line. Had Jones been Tom Brady in his prime, the score on Thursday might have been 45-0
While the Patriots are by no means perfect they are getting some major assists from their AFC brethren, some of whom have gone from dominant to dire. On Sunday, the Bills were annihilated from start to finish by Frank Reich and the scrappy Colts who left Buffalo with a stunning 41-15 win.
A preseason Super Bowl favorite for so many, the Bills started off a strong 5-2, though they didn’t beat any of the NFL’s elite teams, whatever that means these days. Then two weeks ago they fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the ultimate embarrassment. Against the Colts, Sean McDermott was outcoached.
There were drops galore for the Bills, including a few by Dawson Knox. But that wasn’t the only problem. There were untimely penalties, poor play from backups, and four turnovers. Unlike the Pats and the Chiefs, who beat Dallas on Sunday for their fourth straight win, the Bills may have peaked too early. Or perhaps Josh Allen’s brilliance last season was unsustainable – and he is a very good quarterback, rather than a great one.
The Tennessee Titans also lost in baffling fashion on Sunday, to arguably the worst team in the NFL, the Houston Texans. They still hold a two-game lead in the AFC South but without Derrick Henry and to a much lesser extent, Julio Jones, their offense looks lost.
Even the Chiefs, who have found some magic, don’t have the overwhelming offense we’ve seen in the past. And Baltimore, who pulled off a scrappy win over the Bears with Tyler Huntley, are inconsistent and boast a quarterback in Lamar Jackson who seems to get sick an awful lot for a 24-year-old elite athlete.
So, while defense doesn’t always win championships, it certainly helps when the opposing offenses aren’t up to snuff. Thus, at this point we can safely welcome New England and their bruising defense back into Super Bowl contention. In the NFL, some things never change.
Video of the week
We at the Guardian would like to extend our sincere apologies to every parent who was forced to explain to their children why Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was penalized for this horrific crime.
That fact that this penalty carries the same weight as a defender driving a quarterback’s head into the ground is idiotic.
MVP of the week
A running back has not been named NFL MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012. That may change this season. Jonathan Taylor added another exclamation mark to his explosive season on Sunday. He accounted for five touchdowns in the Colts’ victory over the Bills, who entered the game with the league’s top-ranked defense. Taylor juked and muscled his way to four rushing scores, a receiving touchdown, and 204 yards of total offense. He is now tied for the NFL record for most consecutive games (eight) with a score and more than 100 yards from scrimmage.
Stat of the week
10,000 career passing yards for Jimmy Garoppolo. This feat surprised Garoppolo. It’s also a surprise to all those who had assigned Garoppolo to quarterback purgatory when San Francisco drafted Trey Lance. But the league is a funny place and Garoppolo has had a resurgence of late, including a clean performance in San Francisco’s 30-10 win over Jacksonville on Sunday. In his last three starts, Garoppolo has thrown for six touchdowns and just one interception. It’s no coincidence that the 49ers are another team that seem to be peaking at the right time, though they’d be much better off in the AFC.
Quote of the week
“I’m excited for the kids to go to school tomorrow and wear the Vikings stuff” – Vikings wide receiver (and Minnesota native) Adam Thielen.
What a cathartic win for the Vikings over division rival Green Bay and the quarterback who has historically owned them more than he owns the Bears. But it was Kirk Cousins, not Aaron Rodgers, who won the day. He marched the Vikings down the field for the 29-yard Greg Joseph field goal that gave Minnesota a 34-31 win as time expired.
Green Bay, at 8-3, still have a commanding lead over the 5-5 Vikings in the NFC North but this win puts them deeper into the playoff conversation. It was also a statement win over a hated rival. A win which, as Thielen explained, will have the locals beaming with pride this week.
Elsewhere around the league
— Justin Herbert was back to his best with a superb performance in the Los Angeles Chargers’ 41-37 Sunday Night Football victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chargers gave up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter but Herbert’s third touchdown pass of the game sealed victory. Herbert also had 90 yards rushing on the night. He had help from Austin Ekeler, who ran for two TDs and caught another couple.
— The Bengals defense seems to have had a resurrection during the bye week. They smothered Derek Carr and Co in the team’s 32-13 win over Las Vegas. The Raiders converted just one of seven third-down attempts.
— The Chiefs’ acquisition of linebacker Melvin Ingram from the Steelers may turn out to be this season’s biggest difference maker. Kansas City are 3-0 since Ingram joined. Ingram has been a great scheme fit for the Chiefs, and has also allowed Chris Jones to play inside. Those two are a fearsome pair.
— Cam Newton missed his chance to pull out a late drive for the Panthers in a 27-21 loss to the Washington Football Team but he did relish his “homecoming” to Carolina. He also revealed that 21 November is a significant day for him: it is when he reached rock bottom after being arrested for stealing a laptop while in college.
— The Seahawks’ slide continues after Sunday’s 23-13 loss to Arizona. There are few positives for the Seahawks. Their offense is on life support, and their run of losses won’t even yield them a high first-round draft pick in 2022: they traded that to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams in what may go down as one of the worst deals (for the Seahawks anyway) the NFL has seen. The Jets also netted third-round picks and a first-rounder in 2021 in that deal.
— There were a slate of away victories on Sunday, meaning the winning percentage for home teams this season remains under .500. This “elimination” of home-field advantage is a trend that has continued since 2019. 2020 can be blamed on a Covid year with minimal fan attendance. But home teams having losing records in 2019 and 2021 is fascinating. Perhaps it’s a scheduling happenstance, or maybe the type of fans who can rock a stadium have been priced out.