Sunday night in Foxborough marked yet another prime-time moment when the sleeping giant of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots awoke and struck fear into the rest of the AFC. After a lackluster 3-2 start that included losses to the Jaguars and Lions, the Pats dropped the Chiefs to 5-1 after a 43-40 thriller that featured almost no defense.
Looks like Belichick and Co. have enough in the tank for at least one more January run.
Statement division wins
Five weeks of NFL matchups is enough to create the division intrigue that resulted in some intense games this weekend. The Falcons were effectively playing for their season; a loss at home to the Buccaneers would have left them at 1-5 — dead in the water. Instead, a glimmer of hope remains after their 34-29 win in Atlanta.
The decimated defense allowed more than 500 yards of total offense to Tampa Bay but picked off two Jameis Winston passes and held their opponent to less than 30 points for the first time in four weeks. Even with the win, the Falcons will still likely be battling the Bucs to avoid finishing last in the NFC South.
Speaking of teams that won but still don’t have any real chance of making noise late in the season: The Seahawks steamrolled the Raiders in London, just five days after Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said he was more worried about being a bad traveler than about his goal-line offense. Apparently, he once flew over the Atlantic and got vertigo for a month. Hmmm.
Gruden’s priorities shined through across the pond as Oakland took a 27-3 beating from Seattle. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson only had six incompletions, but it was the defense that really stood out and shut down the Raiders and made their quarterback Derek Carr visibly cry on the field. No, really.
Seattle’s defensive line shellacked their opponents in the trenches, but this still is a team with many weaknesses that likely won’t contend in a strong NFC.
The biggest win of the weekend, however, may have been in Cincinnati in another classic AFC North duel. The Steelers overcame the Bengals on a final-minute Antonio Brown special, a 31-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
An offense that fizzled out all too often and seemed to dearly miss Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell (currently holding out) put the Steelers in a 1-2-1 hole two short weeks ago. The Bengals, meanwhile, had gained significant ground in the division race, and would have been up three wins on the Steelers if they had taken care of business at home.
And they easily could have — they had been the better team for most of the early season, relying on their above-average, two-way play and much-improved quarterbacking from Andy Dalton (à la 2015). Now, they will face a tough middle stretch highlighted by matchups with the Chiefs, Ravens and Saints after which they could find themselves in second or even third in the North.
The AFC South is not to be trusted, under any circumstances
A dud from an AFC South “contender”? Two duds from AFC South “contenders”? Color me surprised.
In Dallas, Jacksonville proved that its ceiling will forever be limited by the quarterback position, where Blake Bortles still somehow remains at the helm. 149 yards on 26 attempts just is not going to cut it in this high-powered version of the NFL.
But the blame does not rest all on Bortles’ shoulders. The Jaguar defense looked unrecognizable at Jerry World, surrendering almost 400 yards and four offensive touchdowns to the Cowboys. They’ll bounce back from what was likely an aberration, but road games against mediocre teams are supposed to be won if you’re good enough to contend for a bye come playoff time.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the Titans surrendered 11 sacks to the Ravens defense as quarterback Marcus Mariota only got off 15 passes for the game. After a semi-impressive win against Philadelphia two weeks ago, they lost in Buffalo and now got shut out 21-0 at home against Baltimore. The AFC South is a hot mess that looks well on its way to producing a nine-win division champion.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].