Tom Brady chose well.
The Buccaneers are so talented in so many areas that Brady only needed to throw for 166 yards for Tampa to beat the previously undefeated Packers, 38-10. If it wasn't already clear the Bucs were top-tier title contenders heading into Week 6, it should be now.
In a league drowning in points, possessing one of the few difference-making defenses is the ultimate weapon. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is orchestrating his dream unit, with the best linebacker duo in football (Devin White and Lavonte David) setting the tone for a physical, ball-hawking secondary that will trade off giving up a few big plays to make just as many, like the game-changing picks of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Losing standout nose tackle Vita Vea to a broken leg in Week 5 hurt, but as Sunday showed, it may only hurt so much. The Packers averaged 3.3 yards-per-play against Tampa, less than half of what they'd averaged in Weeks 1-5 (6.8), leading to 107 net passing yards on 39 dropbacks! (And I don't use exclamation points lightly.) Vea's absence won't completely erode a run defense that makes the opposition one-dimensional, that makes Bowles' creative blitzes possible, that allows defensive backs like Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr. to take more chances.
The fact that Brady and the Bucs' passing game still has room to improve only makes this Tampa team look scarier. If the Bucs can play perhaps the best game any team has played all season even before truly getting receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans in gear, then the ceiling is a home appearance in Super Bowl LV. The offensive line is performing like a top-five group, and running back Ronald Jones is Making The Leap in Year 3. When Rob Gronkowski starts making plays downfield and showing terrific body control in the red zone, like he did Sunday, something special is brewing.
This Bucs team can win in a lot of ways, perhaps even more than Brady envisioned when he moved to the Dirty NFC South. It's debatable whether Brady truly had any other options in free agency, so perhaps there's a bit of luck inherent in the Bucs looking this good. As Brady has shown from the Tuck Rule through the 2018 AFC Championship Game coin toss, he's always ready to take advantage of a little luck along the way. A 10th Super Bowl appearance -- matching the number of times his "washed up" buddy LeBron James has appeared in the NBA Finals -- feels like a far more realistic goal than it should for any 43-year-old quarterback, because the team around him is looking like a juggernaut.
Expectations about the Bucs changed Sunday. For the rest of this week's Debrief, I wanted to focus on how five other teams responded when facing forks in the road in Week 6.
On the righteous path
1) No team under .500 has a higher ceiling than the 2-3 Denver Broncos. If you're looking for a surprise playoff team, look no further.
Like every Vic Fangio squad, it starts with defense. The Broncos rank sixth in net passing yards allowed per attempt and sixth in points allowed per drive despite having seven defensive players on injured reserve, including Von Miller, A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey. Fangio helped shut down Cam Newton on Sunday by sending an endless array of looks that confused the patchwork Patriots offensive line. Denver was ready for Newton's read-option plays. The Broncos' secondary is coached up to prevent big plays, with slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, safety Justin Simmons and multihyphenate Kareem Jackson playing well. After a slow start, pass rusher Bradley Chubb again looks like a superstar in Year 3.
My optimism around the Broncos starts with the baseline that they have a top-10 defense and builds with a return to health of their offense. It should be no surprise they looked better Sunday with quarterback Drew Lock (out with a shoulder injury since Week 2), running back Phillip Lindsay (out with a toe injury since Week 1) and dynamic rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (making his first appearance) on the field. Despite Lock's two late interceptions, he had time to make five to six dazzling throws, because left tackle Garett Bolles has Made The Leap in Year 4. (Drops didn't help Lock's box score Sunday.) When tight end Noah Fant (ankle), running back Melvin Gordon (illness) and wideout K.J. Hamler (hamstring) return, this offense will have as much speed as any team outside of Kansas City, even with Courtland Sutton lost for the year to injured reserve.
The Broncos will need to beat those Chiefs in Week 7 to avoid falling to 2-4, but even that record wouldn't diminish my optimism. Denver is well-coached enough on defense and explosive enough on offense to be a lot better in December than it is now.
2) The Lions aren't dead. Sunday's 34-16 win over the Jaguars was a sign the Lions could beat bad teams, and there are a lot of bad teams on their upcoming schedule, with Atlanta (Week 7), Minnesota (Week 9) and Washington (Week 10) all coming up on the docket by mid-November. The ghastly way in which the Lions have coughed up leads makes it feel like they've lost more than three games this season, but I promise it says 2-3 in the official standings, with the 1-5 Falcons up next. The bright side: Detroit has been good enough to lead by double digits at one point in every game except its Week 3 win over the Cardinals.
And while convincingly defeating a hapless Jacksonville outfit will not instantly turn the Lions' season around, it's worth thinking about the potential fallout of the opposite result. If Detroit had lost with a listless defensive effort, coach Matt Patricia would possibly have been fired amid chatter that he'd "lost the locker room." The reality on the field Sunday showed something different, with incredible energy and something close to domination from the Lions' defense from the first snap. Patricia's zone scrambled Gardner Minshew's brain, with the Jaguars held to 3 points until late in the third quarter and 4.5 yards per play for the entire game.
The Lions will not stay relevant unless Matthew Stafford plays better, but the offense had more juice Sunday with Kenny Golladay's legs finally all the way back after he missed time with a hamstring injury and second-round pick D'Andre Swift making a pair of big plays at running back. More of that, please!
3) The 49ers avoided a premature burial with their win over the Rams. One week after one of the lowest moments of the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco, he reminded everyone why he's one of the NFL's great coaches.
The Niners ran an incredibly efficient offense on a night where Jimmy Garoppolo's average depth of target on completions was behind the line of scrimmage. Of Jimmy G.'s 268 passing yards in the 24-16 victory over the Rams, 229 were after the catch, an extreme version of the 49ers at their best. The running game was diverse and creative, like it was for much of the 2019 season. This was made possible by health, with receiver Deebo Samuel back to being Full Deebo after missing the first three weeks with a foot injury. It's too difficult for most open-field tacklers to bring down Samuel, tight end George Kittle and running back Raheem Mostert. The offensive line gave up virtually no pressure, in part because Garoppolo rarely held on to the ball for long.
It was not a coincidence that the 49ers' offense proved sluggish in the second half after Mostert left with an ankle injury. But the defense, led by cornerback Jason Verrett, held up remarkably well. In a world without Alex Smith, Verrett would be my pick for Comeback Player of the Year. And in a world without Aaron Donald, 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner would be a strong early choice for Defensive Player of the Year.
The offense is now mostly healthy. And despite all the injuries on defense, general manager John Lynch's defense still has stars in Warner and now Verrett. I'm not sure that's going to be enough in a brutal NFC West, but Sunday night's win was a major step toward survival.
Doomed -- doomed, I say
1) The Vikings' season ended Sunday when Kirk Cousins threw his third first-half interception against the Falcons. Cousins' transformation into the 2020 version of Jameis Winston is now complete. No one comes close to throwing the ball as deep as Cousins on a per-throw basis. No one signifies whether he's going to be great or terrible more transparently with his first few throws of the game. No one else is on pace for 29 TDs and 27 interceptions, nearly matching Winston's numbers from a year ago.
It wouldn't be a shock if the Vikings scrape out a 7-9 type of season like the 2019 Bucs did, but their playoff hopes are all but extinguished after they fell to 1-5 on Sunday. There's reason to believe Minnesota's defense will improve, but not enough to be above average. There's reason to believe the Vikings' offense will often be dangerous, with their shot plays complemented by running back Dalvin Cook (who missed Week 6 with a groin injury), but Cousins is too inconsistent to avoid costing his team a few more games along the way.
Cousins, coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman all received extensions in the offseason, with Cousins set to be under contract through 2022. While adding a young quarterback to the mix in 2021 would make sense, this is the Vikings' core group, for better or worse. They should be given one more season to turn the ship around.
2) No team that features Deshaun Watson should ever be so depressing before Halloween. I don't blame interim coach Romeo Crennel for going for a two-point conversion while up 7 with under two minutes remaining against the Titans. I'm all about taking an opportunity to end the game with the ball in your best player's hands, which Crennel did with Watson. The Texans' defense had a chance to wrap things up after that in regulation and overtime, and they couldn't. If anything, Houston's terrible defense before and after Crennel's decision only validates the move he made. If a team can't get a stop, it needs to win with offense.
The sound logic doesn't minimize the pain of the result, with the Texans' failure to convert leaving them vulnerable to eventual defeat. At 1-5 and carrying a loss to the 5-0 Titans, Houston is all but done in the AFC South. Securing a come-from-behind victory the week after Bill O'Brien was fired could have made the Texans believe they were capable of the improbable, a fine starting point for many of the human race's greatest achievements, like winning a playoff game with Brock Osweiler at quarterback.
There's just no getting around how mediocre this defense is on a weekly basis, and nothing -- not the availability of a seventh playoff spot, or all the Crennel dance moves in the world -- can change that. This felt like the Texans' last, best chance to be relevant beyond discussing who will still be in town when the next coach arrives.