Known for being a month of unpredictability and little importance, September of NFL’s 100th season concluded with a flurry of bizarre results, mostly affecting the AFC.
No result in the conference was more notable than the Browns (2-2) dismantling of the Ravens (2-2), 40-25, in Baltimore.
Nick Chubb — 20 carries, 165 yards, three touchdowns — helped power Cleveland to a monumental win that now puts them on top of the AFC North.
That’s an unanticipated slot for a team that was off to a disastrous start that made Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd and an army of Baker Mayfield haters giddy just days ago.
The AFC North now shares similarities with the logjam that is AFC South.
The inconsistently-average division saw the Texans (2-2) and Colts (2-2) suffer demoralizing losses at home, while the Jaguars (2-2) and Titans (2-2) produced wins that evened out their record.
The Patriots (4-0) and Chiefs (4-0) each survived road scares by the previously-unbeaten Bills (3-1) and Lions (2-1-1). Thanks to a handful of upsets on Sunday, the 49ers (3-0), who were on a bye, are the only other undefeated team remaining.
At this point, it’s apparent that the the December 8th matchup between Kansas City and New England will be one of two contests between those teams this season. The AFC Championship Game in January should be a rematch of last season’s all-timer. It would be shocking to see any other AFC squad masquerading as the conference’s third best team in that game.
After the beasts, there are a few talented teams looking to right the ship in the Browns and Chargers (2-2). Then there’s Texans and Ravens, who have two gifted quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson, but have other holes that leave them liable to the occasional sink fest.
The Bills have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but Josh Allen’s accuracy issues leaves them suspended for the time being.
By January, one or two teams in the AFC will get to 11 wins outside of the Patriots and Chiefs. But will they be a viable threat to either team in the race toward Super Bowl LIV? It’s too early to say for sure, but that answer looks like a resounding “no” for now.
– Down goes Dak Prescott in the Cowboys in New Orleans. The Saints held Dallas to 257 yards of total offense — 45 rushing yards — in a stingy 12-10 win that forces us to reassess the NFC. Teddy Bridgewater had his own issues on Sunday night, struggling to throw for a touchdown and therefore keeping the game closer than it needed to be. Luckily, with a stingy effort from their defense, and 184 total yards of offense from Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the Saints did just enough to produce a huge victory in the Bayou. Drew Brees is expected to miss another month or more, but in a struggling NFC South that already is without Cam Newton in Carolina, and the mess that is the Falcons (1-3), the Saints are in good position as the Fall season begins.
– The Buccaneers (2-2) led the Rams 21-0 and 45-27 in Los Angeles before overcoming a few mistakes for a shocking 55-40 win over the defending NFC champions on the road. The win was the weekend’s most shocking, and similar to Tampa Bay 48-40 win in New Orleans to kickoff the 2018 season. Under head coach Bruce Arians and possibly wunderkind offensive coordinator Byron Leftwhich, even the inconsistent Jameis Winston should look good at times. Minus an embarrassing pick-six late to the Rams’ Marcus Peters, Winston was electric — 28-of-41, 385 passing yards, four touchdowns — and gaffe free, mostly targeting the underrated Chris Godwin — 12 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns.
Jared Goff did his best to battle back from an ugly outing, finishing 45-of-68 for 517 yards and two scores, but his three interceptions were too much to overcome. Suddenly, the Rams (3-1) find themselves in a tough spot, as they travel to NFC West rival Seattle in three days for a Thursday night contest.
– Down goes Nick Foles and Cam Newton, and to the bench goes Eli Manning. In comes Gardner Minshew, Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones. The latter trio has combined for a 6-1 record this season over the last two weeks. Jones has faced too easy opponents and Allen received a huge boost from Carolina’s stout defensive front yesterday, but Minshew overcame an erupting Denver defense early to produce a game-winning drive resulting in a walk-off 33-yard field goal by Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo. Even with better teams like the Colts and Texans in the division, and the moderate drama surrounding Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have rallied behind their eclectic rookie quarterback to pit themselves in the thick of things in their division. The Panthers (2-2) may not have enough to remain in the NFC mix, but there is a long season ahead. The same goes for the Saquon Barkley-less Giants. Jones has been solid, but he’ll see his first real test when New York hosts the Vikings (2-2) and their defense next week, before heading to New England for a Thursday night contest four days after. Regardless, all three passers have been impressive to close out September.
THE BETTER HALF
1. New England Patriots (4-0) (Last week: 1). Their defense is the best in a league that includes the mighty impressive unit over in Chicago. This year’s version of Tom Brady is obviously miles ahead of Peyton Manning’s final form, but there are striking similarities between the 2019 Patriots and the 2015 Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 2). They survived in Detroit. Even on an off day, Patrick Mahomes delivered.
3. New Orleans Saints (3-1) (Last week: 6). Thanks to an impressive defensive stand versus the Cowboys, Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints move above the team that has handed them their last two losses. Now that he’s settled in, Bridgewater should be able to do enough to keep the Saints afloat without Drew Brees.
4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 3). That was a bad home loss. It happens. But to surrender 55 points at home means something is wrong with the defense. Is it fixable?
5. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 4). Dak Prescott’s hot streak came crashing down in New Orleans. Will he bounce back at home against Green Bay?
6. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was as big of a win as any team has had in 2019. Carson Wentz finally delivered in a big game, on the road, nonetheless. The Eagles still have major issues on defense, but their overall level of talent pits them near the top of the NFC.
7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers finally caught fire on Thursday, just in time for their red-hot defense to be extinguished. They’ll need to return to their previous form in Dallas next week.
8. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 14). No matter who plays quarterback for the Bears, they just need to play well enough to compliment the NFC’s very best defense. The Bears are a contender in the same sense as they’ve always been — a great defense mixed with a shaky quarterback(s).
9. Seattle Seahawks (3-1) (Last week: 10). They still look like a wild card team, but Sunday’s road dominance was a good sign.
10. San Francisco 49ers (3-0) (Last week: 16). Thanks to a number of disappointing efforts by teams that played this week, the bye-week 49ers move up here.
11. Cleveland Browns (2-2) (Last week: NR). After a disastrous start to their season, the Browns’ talent won out in Baltimore.
12. Baltimore Ravens (2-2) (Last week: 7). All of the sudden, Lamar Jackson’s breakout performances versus the Dolphins and Cardinals — two teams with a combined 0-7-1 record — don’t look so good. How will he respond to reoccurring criticism?
13. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) (Last week: NR). The Chargers are under the radar for a reason — they haven’t played up to par. But in a middling AFC, they’re in position to reassert themselves.
14. Detroit Lions (2-1-1) (Last week: 13). It’s dumbfounding that the Lions aren’t 4-0. But then again, dumbfounding is what the Lions usually are. In translation — Lions are gonna Lion.
15. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 15). Their defense is extraordinary. Their quarterback is need of a masterclass in smart quarterback play.
16. Indianapolis Colts (2-2) (Last week: 9). That was as disappointing a loss as any this weekend. Were they caught looking ahead to next week’s Sunday Night Football matchup in Kansas City?
Next up: Minnesota, Carolina, Tennessee, Houston, Tampa Bay/Oakland/Jacksonville