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Neil Reynolds' Wraps Week 10

It was by no means a classic. In fact, it was the lowest-scoring International Series game ever. But the Indianapolis Colts' 10-6 victory over the New England Patriots in Frankfurt was an intriguing affair which has raised some serious questions that may get answered in the coming weeks.

In improving to 5-5, the Colts are very much alive in the AFC playoff race with winnable contests coming up against the likes of Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Las Vegas. And yet it feels like the 2-8 Patriots are the bigger story coming out of this game, even though they are done for this season and will not be battling for a playoff berth in the second half of the year. And possibly not for a few seasons to come.

I went into that game in Frankfurt pondering the immediate future of head coach Bill Belichick and I disappeared into the chilly German night wondering if it was, in fact, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones who had run out of time in New England.

The Patriots are off to their worst start since 2000 – Belichick's first season in New England and the year before a certain Tom Brady properly introduced himself to the NFL. Ahead of Sunday's game, there was much talk of discord behind the scenes in Foxboro and arguably the greatest coach in NFL history finds himself on an ever-warming seat.

Who knows? Belichick could be gone by the time you read this column. But I think he can still coach circles around a great many in the NFL. Early in Sunday's game, Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew had some success moving to his right and extending plays. Belichick took that away and forced Minshew to the left where he had a lot more trouble.

And in the first half, the Colts recorded five sacks. Belichick fixed that by running the ball roughly 80 percent of the time after the break and Indianapolis didn't record another quarterback takedown.

Of course, Belichick was inclined to throw because of the poor form of Jones, who continues to plod through a miserable season. The great Bill Parcells used to say that three things happen when you pass the football and two of them are bad. That was Jones on Sunday.

There are mitigating circumstances, to a degree. His line was poor and he has no difference-makers at wide receiver, but there can be no excusing the interception he threw in the end zone when Mike Gesicki was wide open behind Julian Blackmon.

Belichick had seen enough. When the Colts punted the ball away with two minutes left on the clock, New England needed a touchdown and turned to Bailey Zappe, who promptly threw an interception to end the game.

Those final moments were telling. The great quarterbacks come alive with games on the line and when asked to deliver a victory in the brightest of spotlights. Belichick didn't want Jones anywhere near that kind of action.

My gut tells me Belichick sticks around for the remainder of what is proving to be a difficult campaign and will then be gone after the regular season ends – as I predicted back in the summer – but I think Jones is done right now. Get ready for Zappe, Patriots fans.

Who's Hot?

C.J. Stroud… How much fun is the Houston Texans rookie quarterback right now? On Sunday, he went toe to toe with Joe Burrow, of the Bengals, and won a duel of fantastic young passers. Burrow had some strong moments, throwing for 347 yards and two touchdowns, tying the game late after Cincinnati trailed by 10 in the fourth. But C.J. Stroud was better. He threw for 356 yards, one incredible touchdown pass to Tank Dell and scored on an eight-yard run. Most importantly, for the second week in a row, Stroud had to deliver the goods in a high-pressure situation, driving the Texans 55 yards in 93 seconds to set up Matt Ammendola's 38-yard field goal as time expired. Houston have been totally awoken by Stroud and have now won five games – their most in a season since 2019. But they're aiming much higher than that in 2023 and the playoff talk is getting a little louder with each passing week. That's all down to the growing legend of C.J. Stroud.

The San Francisco 49ers… Week 10 was supposed to be a tricky test for a San Francisco team that had lost three in a row. Heading east to face a Jaguars squad that had won five straight proved to be a walk in the park with the Niners running out 34-3 winners. It was a humbling contest for the Jags, who were reminded they still have some way to go before they can consider themselves elite. The scoreline is a bit of a nightmare but Jags fans should know when on this kind of form, San Francisco can compete to win it all. It was a complete performance. Brock Purdy played a clean game while throwing for 296 yards, three touchdowns and no picks; San Francisco rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown; and the defense was beastly in recording five sacks of Trevor Lawrence, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. I never really felt they went away, but it's safe to say the Niners are back. They are going to be a force in the second half of this season.

The Detroit Lions' offense… The Lions are no fluke and what they are doing on a weekly basis proves they are one of the best teams in the NFL. They are driven by an offense that is also one of the best in the game and has played a major role in this team being 7-2. The Jared Goff-led attack was certainly on top form in Sunday's 41-38 win over the Los Angeles Chargers in a game that was settled by Riley Patterson's 41-yard field goal as time ran out. His kick was one of five walk-off field goals to decide games on Sunday… Houston, Detroit, Cleveland, Arizona and Seattle all won with a boot at the death. But let's focus on the Lions here. The play-calling from offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was outstanding once again and Goff was the big beneficiary as he threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns. But these Lions were balanced, running the football 31 times for 200 yards and three scores. When you look at the power teams in the NFC, we immediately focus on Philadelphia, San Francisco and then Dallas get a lot of mentions. It's time to start considering a Super Bowl in which the Lions are representing the NFC. What a fun story that would be.

Who's Not?

The Chargers' defense… We might as well stick with that Lions-Chargers shootout because the Los Angeles defense – not for the first time this season – undid yet another outstanding display from the cannon-armed Justin Herbert. He was brilliant, by the way, and did not deserve to lose this game. Herbert threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns, including one absolute hummer to Jalen Guyton that split the tiniest of gaps between two defenders and should never have been completed. After tying the game on a 38-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Allen with 3:34 remaining, Herbert never saw the ball again. That's on the Chargers' defense and head coach Brandon Staley, who has a speciality on that side of the football. LA conceded 533 total yards at an average of 8.3 yards per play. This is nothing new. In all of their losses since 2020, the Chargers have averaged 21.9 points per game – the highest in the NFL. How frustrating must that be for Herbert and his offensive teammates?

The New York Jets' offense… The games in which the Jets play really tough on defense and fail to make an impression on offense keep piling up. On Sunday Night Football, New York's defense recorded three sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. They held the Las Vegas Raiders to just one offensive touchdown, 16 total points and still lost 16-12. All the Zach Wilson-led Jets could muster was four Greg Zeurlein field goals. It's hard to win that way in today's NFL and while we all believe this team will be much-improved and competitive once more when Aaron Rodgers returns, that could very well be in 2024. By that time, Wilson may not even be on this roster. There is a body of work put on film now and you have to wonder if he can ever be the season-after-season leader of this club when Rodgers finally heads into retirement.

The Carolina Panthers… These are depressing and testing times for the Carolina Panthers, who fell to a 1-8 record following Thursday's 16-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. Every week seems to bring a new C.J. Stroud highlight in Houston, coupled with another defeat and another shaky showing from Bryce Young for the Panthers. He is not alone in being to blame. Carolina cannot protect their young passer and the entire offense cannot get out of second gear. To make matters worse, the Panthers are on course to secure the first overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft – a selection they have already handed to the Bears in order to grab the aforementioned Young. There's not a lot to look forward to in Charlotte right now.

The Fast Five

  • Dayo Odeyingbo had himself a day for the Indianapolis Colts in their defense-inspired win over New England in Frankfurt. Heading into the game, Odeyingbo had eight and a half career sacks and just three on the season. He doubled that output in the first half alone, dropping Mac Jones three times. He didn't really get a chance to add to his tally in the second half as Bill Belichick rarely dialled up passing plays. In what was a forgettable game for most neutrals, Odeyingbo will never forget his afternoon in Germany.
  • Josh Dobbs and the Minnesota Vikings are turning into one of the most intriguing stories at this middle section of the NFL's calendar. Dobbs threw for 268 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's 27-19 win over the New Orleans Saints, giving the Vikings their fifth win in a row to put a shaky 0-3 start firmly behind them. T.J. Hockenson was the leading weapon in Week 10, catching 11 balls for 134 yards and a score. Jordan Addison is exciting as a rookie receiver and Justin Jefferson should return from his hamstring injury soon. The Vikings could be a dangerous outfit down the stretch.
  • The AFC North got very interesting indeed on Sunday as the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens 33-31 on Dustin Hopkins' game-winning field goal from 40 yards out as time expired. The Browns trailed by 15 in the third quarter and by two touchdowns in the fourth, but they got the job done in a very Baltimore-like manner. Cleveland rushed for 178 yards and a touchdown, sacked Lamar Jackson three times and picked him off twice, including a 34-yard interception return touchdown from Greg Newsome midway through the final period. The Ravens top this fiercely-competitive division for now at 7-3, but the Browns are refusing to go away at 6-3.
  • Another unlikely team in the mix in that division is the 6-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, who keep finding ways to win football games. Once again, the Steelers were outgained in terms of total yards as Green Bay racked up 399 to Pittsburgh's 324. But the scoreboard, not the stats sheet, is what matters to Mike Tomlin and his team held on late to get the job done with a 23-19 victory. Kenny Pickett threw for an unimpressive 126 yards, but the ground attack certainly woke up in a big way as the Steelers rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns on 36 attempts. Keep an eye on the emergence of Jaylen Warren (15 carries for 101 yards and one touchdown on Sunday). All six of Pittsburgh's wins this season have been by one score and have been far from convincing. But they have the highest floor of any team in the league and yet another winning campaign for Tomlin beckons. He has never suffered a losing season since taking charge of the Steelers in 2007.
  • He was not perfect in his first game in close to a year, but Kyler Murray produced enough moments of electricity to lead the Arizona Cardinals to a 25-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons. It was just the second victory of the year for a Cardinals team that many had suggested would be giving up on the 2023 season. But – through his play on Sunday - Murray effectively said to Arizona's management: "You're not taking some young, hot shot quarterback with the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. I'm going to win some games and make sure we're picking ninth!" In just one game, the Cardinals became way more watchable. That's what you call star power.

Final Thought

That's a wrap for the five regular season games being played in Europe this year and while Sunday's fifth and final contest was not a classic, we can feel fortunate that it was another game that went down to the wire with the Patriots, in particular, cheered on by a partisan crowd. Those would be a couple of my big takeaways from the games this year. They were close – four of the five were decided by one score – and they felt both authentic in terms of getting behind the teams but also in still having a very British and very German feel to proceedings. There were some true homefield advantages in terms of atmospheres this year – the Jaguars at Wembley, the Bills at Tottenham, Kansas City and New England in Frankfurt. These games have left the novelty factor about 5,000 miles in the rearview mirror. These contests are the real deal, players seem to love them and more are coming. Stay tuned for next month when we should find out if Brazil or Spain will be the league's new market for a regular season game in 2024. These are exciting and historic times. I cannot wait to see where the NFL's international journey will take us next.