Not too long ago, the 49ers were our clear-cut, no-questions-asked No. 1 overall team.
At the same time, the Bengals were searching for an identity.
Naturally, Cincinnati marched into Levi's Stadium on Sunday and delivered a haymaker of a win, one that might tilt the axis for both franchises. Are the Bengals back in Super Bowl contention? Are the 49ers falling out?!
We can't quite have the same conversation with Denver and Kansas City, but the Chiefs are facing some tough questions after getting stomped by a team they'd won 16 straight against.
I'm not jumping to conclusions with these teams, or the rest -- and we had another week with some curious results across the board. Plus some wins (we're looking at you, Jets) that shouldn't change anyone's Super Bowl travel plans just yet.
Let's see what we can make of the league hierarchy as we head into the midpoint of the season.
If Tyreek Hill is an MVP candidate in Miami, then A.J. Brown absolutely should be in that discussion, too. Brown has been on a six-week tear, logging 125-plus receiving yards in every game over that span, adding another two TDs in Sunday's heroic performance. The Eagles don't beat the Commanders without the greatness of Brown and Jalen Hurts, both of whom were in peak form. It was once again a rough day in the red zone (Philly went 3-for-5, but lost two fumbles inside the 5-yard line), which has been a lingering issue, and the defense really had few answers for Sam Howell. The Eagles won in spite of those factors. Of course, expecting to do the same in Week 9's massive showdown with the Cowboys would be foolish.
There were minimal signs of an emotional letdown for the Ravens after Week 7's trouncing of the Lions. Lamar Jackson did little, but they didn't need him to do much. They allowed Arizona to hang around too long, but in the end, this was a solid road win. They'll take it, with the next three games (and six of the final nine) in Baltimore. That's the good news. The bad? Most of the remaining opponents look fairly tough or better. And the AFC North has muscled up a bit since the Ravens last played a divisional game. Still, they're 6-2, tied atop the AFC and arguably playing as well as anyone in the conference. This week's opponent, the Seahawks, could be one big win away from making that claim on the NFC side. The Ravens' steep march to the playoffs begins in earnest.
If they can find a way to get the offensive line in some sort of functional shape, the Dolphins should be OK. The imminent returns of Terron Armstead and Connor Williams will be a boon, although Robert Hunt's situation tempers the optimism around that unit a bit. De'Von Achane will be eligible to come off IR after the Germany game, and that would be another big boost. The secondary also can get better from within, once Xavien Howard and Jevon Holland are in the lineup again. Jalen Ramsey's debut in Sunday's win over the Patriots was more than anyone could have hoped for. He had an interception, was active in run support and played nearly the whole game. It feels like Miami picked up a starter at the trade deadline.
The Chiefs have not known life as anything but a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the playoffs under Patrick Mahomes, but if they want to maintain their hopes of securing a top seed this year, they might be looking at a must-win game this Sunday in Frankfurt, where they'll to face the Dolphins, one of three other 6-2 AFC teams currently. The fact is, the Chiefs were beaten soundly by a team they'd defeated in 16 straight previous matchups, and Mahomes didn't mount anything close to a comeback after falling behind early Sunday. Stricken with the flu, he didn't play well, although a few huge drops and a suddenly shaky offensive line didn't help.
With a five-win October, Jacksonville exorcised the demons of its 1-2 start and now is 6-2 for the first time this millennium. The victory over the Steelers lacked style points, but the Jaguars' recent travel schedule, the number of starters they were missing and the Pittsburgh weather all were contributing factors. The Jags were lucky their three turnovers (two in the red zone, one just outside it) didn't hurt more, and it's a little concerning how dependent on Travis Etienne they've become. The Week 9 bye will provide some much-needed rest; then we'll find out if the Jaguars can stack up against the AFC contenders left on their schedule. Right now, they look like they belong.
The Cowboys have picked themselves off the mat since the 49ers debacle in Week 5. A gut-check road win in Week 6, the Week 7 bye and the three-phase destruction of the Rams -- a get-right game for the offense if ever there was one -- have been cleansing. On Sunday, Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb were as locked in as they've ever been. The early pass protection was frightening, and Tyron Smith returning would be huge, although that unit settled in eventually. Since losing to San Francisco, the Cowboys have answered several questions. But more loom in Week 9, which will feature the biggest game for the Cowboys in forever, a trip to Philly that rates five out of five stars on the Madden-Summerall 4:25 ET scale.
After the blowout loss at Baltimore, I thought the Lions were poised to come out on Monday night and blow the roof off Ford Field. Instead, Detroit's drives repeatedly bogged down in Las Vegas territory, making the game a lot tighter than it should have been. Three Lions turnovers -- including a brutal, 75-yard pick-six -- also allowed the Raiders to hang around. Credit Aaron Glenn's defense for consistently harassing Jimmy Garoppolo; third-year DT Alim McNeill might be a Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, No. 12 overall pick Jahmyr Gibbs enjoyed a breakout game (189 yards and a touchdown on 31 touches), serving as Detroit's offensive engine with David Montgomery sidelined by injury. The Lions had to shuffle some pieces on the offensive line, but the results were great, as Gibbs and Craig Reynolds really carved up Las Vegas' run defense. Not the prettiest win, and you can bet Dan Campbell rues the sloppiness, but it was an important victory after the Lions' credentials were questioned a bit last week.
During San Francisco's first two losses, in Cleveland and Minnesota, it felt like the 49ers were a good team grinding through a rough patch. Sunday's home defeat to the Bengals made them look vulnerable for the first time this season. Between Brock Purdy's turnover spree and a defense that suddenly can't get off the field in big spots, San Francisco is dealing with multiple new issues. I don't know if the Niners can suddenly rediscover their clutch gene; either way, the Week 9 bye might be hitting at the right time. It's pretty rare to lose three straight regular-season games and go on to win a Super Bowl, but the Rams did it a couple years ago. Though the 49ers have crashed hard, their early-season dominance backs up a potential rebound scenario. For now, we're hanging onto them, just not as tightly as before.
After a closer-than-it-shoulda-been win over the Buccaneers, the proving-ground portion of the schedule kicks off, starting with Sunday Night Football in Cincinnati against the scorching-hot Bengals, who thumped the Bills in the playoffs this past January. It feels like a game that will come with a playoff-like atmosphere, as could some other big roadies down the stretch: at Philly in Week 12, at Kansas City in Week 14 and at Miami in Week 18. Josh Allen's big outing against the Bucs -- though it was accompanied by a few scary moments -- helped steady Buffalo's ship a bit, but there is plenty to clean up before this gauntlet. You'd like to see the Bills close the door better in fourth quarters. With the defense as shorthanded as it is, can they do it against even better teams?
The win over Cleveland was Seattle's fifth in six games, and the defense has played a big role of late. After allowing 88 points over their first three games of the season, the Seahawks have held opponents to 50 points in four games since, and now that unit is adding big Leonard Williams inside. The 'Hawks sit atop the NFC West and are clearly going for it. Still, they were lucky Browns QB PJ Walker committed several unforced errors in the second half on Sunday -- including an interception off Jamal Adams' helmet -- even if Seattle's pressure had something to do with it. The Browns controlled the ball for just under 37 minutes, racking up 385 yards and softening the run defense. I've said that this offense can endure cold streaks, but going seven straight third downs without a conversion is taking it too far. Geno Smith and the passing game must tighten up prior to some upcoming defensive battles on the road.
Don't look now, but Joe Burrow and the Bengals are hot, with the offense and defense quickly making huge strides following a 1-3 start. Sunday's victory over San Francisco marked the first time this season one could say Cincinnati resembled a team capable of winning the Super Bowl. Burrow connected on 19 straight passes at one point against the 49ers, and the Bengals' defense forced three turnovers, holding the Niners to 10 points over the final 48-plus minutes. Getting Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon back in a little groove helped, and Cincy could have scored more, had Irv Smith Jr. not fumbled near the goal line. The Bengals are back, just in time for a huge matchup at home vs. the Bills on Sunday Night Football.
PJ Walker has been a savior, helping keep the Browns' season afloat amid the weekly questions about Deshaun Watson's health. Though Walker was humming early on Sunday, his second-quarter INT deep in Seattle territory was a killer, as was his fourth-quarter pick with less than two minutes to go, which set up the game-winning score for the Seahawks. Walker's limitations have always been clear -- but now they're embossed in neon, with him logging six turnovers and a 49.5 completion percentage over nearly three full games. The Browns erased a 14-0 deficit at a hostile road venue in Seattle, taking the lead with less than three minutes left. But the defensive breakdowns early and late, plus Walker's inconsistency, kept them from winning a third straight in dramatic fashion.
The Jets' social media team had a little fun at my expense Sunday, and there's absolutely something to be said for this squad's unwillingness to quit until the clock hits zero. It's a big reason why the Jets are above .500. But let's be real: They were more than lucky to win, in OT, against a Giants team with negative passing yards. The chances of that type of lightning striking again come down to slim and none. This isn't bitterness talking; it's reality. The Jets committed nine penalties, punted 11 times and were 2-for-15 on third down, with one of those conversion attempts ending when Zach Wilson lost a fumble in the first quarter. That just won't cut it with a fairly tough remaining schedule.
The offense had its most complete game in Sunday's win over the Colts, looking nothing like the stop-start unit we've seen much of the season. The Taysom Hill package was expanded a bit and was as effective as it's been in 2023. Rashid Shaheed cashed in on three deep balls. The Saints allowed one sack and one turnover, and they happened on the same play. Derek Carr was pretty darned dialed in, and the run game -- often going right up the gut -- was effective. Who are these guys? It was on the road, and the Colts aren't terrible defensively most weeks. Even as the offense took two steps forward, though, the Saints' run defense took (at least) one step backward in that unit's worst showing. But at 4-4, New Orleans is just as much a contender in the NFC South race as anyone else.
Two straight wins had Steelers fans believing again. Then came Sunday's defeat to the Jaguars, which was painful in multiple ways, with two of Pittsburgh's most indispensable players, S Minkah Fitzpatrick and QB Kenny Pickett, exiting with injuries. Fitzpatrick is arguably the Steelers' most important piece, both because of his skill and because of the drop-off behind him on the depth chart. The fact that his hamstring injury happened ahead of a short week makes it even less ideal. The next two games (home vs. the Titans and Packers) are winnable, but Tennessee enters the upcoming Thursday Night Football matchup with confidence after Will Levis' sparkling debut. While the sailing never figured to be smooth for these Steelers, navigating this stretch -- potentially with backups playing significant roles -- will be key before they face a tough road duo to close out November (at Cleveland, at Cincinnati).
This was a tough way for the Texans to come out of the bye, losing in the final minutes of a game they led for virtually the entire fourth quarter. The defense has done its job since the start of October, even if it couldn't get off the field in the final six-plus minutes on Sunday, with four late penalties doing them in. But the bigger issue is that the offense has leveled off following C.J. Stroud's hot start. The Texans' lack of a threatening rushing attack meant the Panthers could drop seven and eight, play zone and force Stroud to take checkdowns all game. This is where first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik can try to help his rookie quarterback out a little more with creative scheming, although the Texans clearly still have offensive-personnel limitations.
Desmond Ridder's exit to be evaluated for a concussion opened the door for Arthur Smith to make a permanent change to Taylor Heinicke, even if Smith said after Sunday's loss to the Titans that Ridder wasn't benched for performance. The 23 points Sunday were the most Atlanta has scored since Week 2, though; previously, Ridder's penchant for turnovers (he had another one Sunday before leaving) have limited the Falcons' scoring opportunities. Ridder led Atlanta to three first-half points, while Heinicke guided four scoring drives in the second, totaling 20 points and giving Atlanta a chance to win after being down multiple scores. On top of all that, the loss of DT Grady Jarrett to a torn ACL rips a hole in the defense at a spot where the Falcons are most thin. Back to the drawing board.
Justin Herbert and Brandon Staley suggested after defeating the Bears that this was exactly the kind of win the Chargers needed, and I absolutely agree -- from a confidence standpoint. Sometimes you need to open it up on the highway; Herbert and the passing game certainly did that Sunday night, even if the run game still lags behind. But let's keep the big picture in mind here. The Chargers are still swimming upstream at 3-4 (and 1-3 in the conference), and I am not convinced that taking down Chicago and a Division-II rookie QB making his second NFL start was the get-right event that immediately veers the season back on course. The Bolts face mostly tough defenses from here on out (if you believe the Broncos are fixed) and will need their own defense to tighten several screws.
The Vikings find themselves in a similar place to the Jets: nominally in contention, but facing some hard questions at quarterback. Kirk Cousins' devastating Achilles injury opens up the possibility that he's played his final game for the club, and it puts the Vikings into a fascinating short-term quandary, as they currently sit in the No. 7 playoff spot in the NFC. It doesn't feel like there's a Brett Favre-like answer just waiting for the phone to ring, even if everyone knows whom Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell once backed up as a Patriots player. More likely, it's Jaren Hall or Sean Mannion or Nick Mullens, or some combination of them. If this is it for Cousins in Minnesota, it's a cruel twist of fate. He'd been playing some really good football. Neither he nor Vikings fans deserved this.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported that the Vikings are trading for Cardinals QB Josh Dobbs.
After a 3-1 start, Tampa has lost three straight, and now -- in the thick of a tough portion of the schedule -- we'll see if this team is built to last. The Buccaneers are on the road for five of their next seven games. Their 2-1 record away from home (including Thursday's competitive loss to the Bills) suggests they can hang with most teams. Can the offense produce more scoring chances? In three games since the early bye, they have three TDs, five field goals, five drives that ended with turnovers (two on downs) and 15 punts. If Baker Mayfield can play a little more consistently and the offensive line can avoid crippling penalties, maybe the Bucs can convert a few more of those possessions into points. They're going to need to.
Things have soured, and now, after QB Matthew Stafford's thumb injury, a potentially winnable Week 9 matchup against the struggling Packers looks dicey. Even though it worked, It's hard to justify Sean McVay calling a two-point throw to Stafford in Sunday's loss to Dallas after his QB had already twice been hit on his (surgically repaired) right thumb. We saw the drop-off when Brett Rypien came in, as he couldn't get much going. L.A. is on bye after the Green Bay trip, and if you're a Rams fan, you're praying for a healthy Stafford and Kyren Williams when they host surging Seattle in Week 11. With the team at 3-5, the season is perilously tilting in the wrong direction.
It was pretty obvious during the pre-draft process that Will Levis had physical skills. The concerns about his game -- which I suspect contributed to his fall out of Round 1 -- seemed to mostly center on his suspect pocket presence and decision-making. So it was one thing for him to flash his physical abilities in his first NFL start -- and we don't want to gloss over his three deep touchdown passes, each prettier than the last. But it was another thing for him to deliver a poised, mature and turnover-free performance, one that could make Levis the unquestioned starter at least until Ryan Tannehill returns. Three straight road games could dampen the optimism coming out of Sunday's win over Atlanta, but for now, the Titans remain in the race at 3-4, with an intriguing wild card in Levis suddenly emerging.
UPDATE: Head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters Tuesday that Will Levis is expected to start Thursday against the Steelers.
It's fun to see the potential of this offense, with Jonathan Taylor looking better each game and Zack Moss not slowing down. The seeds are mostly there for something really interesting down the road. Gardner Minshew was slinging it on Sunday until the wheels came off, and four different receivers had impact performances against the Saints. But everything was rendered null and void by the defense's inability to force more than one set of back-to-back stops, not counting the halftime kneeldown. Those consecutive stops came as the Colts were regaining momentum, but Minshew was picked, and then the D allowed two straight TDs. When Indy's front doesn't dominate, the shorthanded secondary struggles. It's a tough development for a defense that has done some decent things this season.
Talk of playoffs might be premature, but this team has completely changed its stripes since giving up 70 points to Miami in Week 3, and a sub-.500 season is no longer close to a sure thing. Offensively, things remain somewhat unvarnished, but a month of incremental improvements bore fruit: Denver's first win over the Chiefs since the Peyton Manning days. That's a testament to a defense moving in the right direction (how about guys like Ja'Quan McMillian, Zach Allen and Baron Browning?) and a run game that has become Denver's engine. The Broncos hit the Week 9 bye knowing four of their next six games are on the road, but there's at least a sense of steadiness that simply wasn't there a few weeks back.
Last week, I preached patience with Jordan Love. This week, I am a little antsier. The turnovers just have to stop. I promise if you go back and watch Love's first three games over again, you'll see a different quarterback than the one we've seen in the four losses since. His accuracy, touch and ball placement have been the biggest culprits. Rasheed Walker was benched Sunday (before re-entering the game) for giving up some pressures, but I don't think pass protection has been Green Bay's biggest issue this season. The defense hasn't been, either, though on Sunday, the unit wasn't great at slowing down Kirk Cousins before his injury. This is just a team adrift right now, badly in need of hope in one form or another.
The lack of a consistent passing game just killed the Raiders on Monday night, especially when they couldn't stop Lions RB Jahmyr Gibbs on defense. Jimmy Garoppolo returned from injury, but never got in a groove, telegraphing a first-quarter pick and looking skittish throughout. A big part of that was because of the consistent Detroit pressure, though costly drops from Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow didn't help. Even when Garoppolo wasn't under fire, he never looked comfortable, taking six sacks and overthrowing an open Adams twice on deep shots in the second half. Tough as Jimmy is, it just wasn't his night.
UPDATE: On Tuesday night, the Raiders fired head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler.
After Sunday's loss knocked the Commanders back to 3-5, all eyes turned to what they might do at the trade deadline. Losing five of six games after the 2-0 start has put them here, thanks to this team's often maddening inconsistency. Do we give Washington credit for battling the Eagles to the bitter end in two games this season? Some, yes, but how can we justify the losses to the Bears and Giants? Those performances looked nothing like the two games against Philly or the road wins at Denver and Atlanta. Sam Howell showed why any talk of benching him was silly, and it was nice to see the improved pass protection and play calling after weeks of poor performance in those areas. But this team made its own bed, which is why it might be open for business now.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Commanders are trading DE Montez Sweat to the Bears in exchange for a second-round pick.
It'll be interesting if the Patriots turn into sellers at the deadline, even with injuries killing their depth almost everywhere. Some might suggest they should hold off, with winnable games against the Commanders and Colts up next, but that seems shortsighted. I'd be willing to listen to offers for Josh Uche or Kyle Dugger, the latter of whom had a huge game in Sunday's loss to Miami. It's not that they're not good players, but they're two of the few Patriots assets that could net something in return, and it's not likely both will receive big extensions from New England in 2024. One would assume there's another stripdown coming, although it's hard to imagine what the offseason plan will be. The optimism sparked by the Bills win was short-lived, and reality has set back in.
One thing you can't do is blame Tyson Bagent for Sunday's loss. You could see his wheels spinning a bit out there as the Chargers' pass rush bore down on him, but the kid held up well. He's not the problem. There is more than one of those, but let's start with the pass rush on the Bears' side. I've mentioned it once or twice, but this group just isn't getting it done. Justin Herbert had been under fire in recent games, but on Sunday, he was sitting back in a rocking chair throwing darts. Only one Bear (T.J. Edwards) even got a mitt on Herbert, who threw 40 passes. There were other things, too. But if I am general manager Ryan Poles, I am scheming every way I can to add two impact rushers next offseason.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Bears are making a move to immediately upgrade their pass rush, sending a second-round pick to the Commanders in exchange for DE Montez Sweat.
A day after Tyrod Taylor left the Giants' OT loss to the Jets with a ribs injury, Daniel Jones was cleared to return. That's the one silver lining here, because the Giants have three straight road games coming up, and otherwise, Tommy DeVito might have been set to start at least the first of them. The Giants can hang their hats on a defense that has been vastly improved over the past three games, led Sunday by Kayvon Thibodeaux in a massive performance. He's helped energize the pass rush, but that's a group whose effectiveness will suddenly be questioned in light of the Leonard Williams trade. It's not shocking the Giants have become sellers, but that's a tough loss for a defense that was showing it could keep the team in games.
The Panthers won a game, and they had to feel good about Bryce Young having arguably his best NFL outing against the Texans and C.J. Stroud, who had been the better rookie quarterback prior to Sunday. Young has shown some incremental growth and improved confidence in recent contests, even if sacks remain an issue. It wasn't obvious to the naked eye what fruit the play-calling change from Frank Reich to Thomas Brown bore, but Young did seem to be in better rhythm. All of a sudden, you look at the schedule, and there are some winnable games. Obviously, no team is likely to dig out of an 0-6 hole to make a playoff run, but the Panthers would surely be thrilled if Young could match Cam Newton's mark of six rookie victories.
All eyes should turn toward Kyler Murray's potential return, whenever it comes. This is not Joshua Dobbs slander, I promise. After an icy three quarters against the Ravens, Dobbs did cook a little late and gave the Cardinals a shot. He has more than earned respect for how he's played. But Dobbs is also not awash in talent and has leveled off. Switching to rookie Clayton Tune as Murray's short-term replacement makes sense. But more than anything, the Cardinals have to get their future decision on Murray correct. Every game Murray plays gives the team a better view of the situation. Plus, he's more dynamic than Dobbs, and the marriage of Murray and Drew Petzing might be better than we imagined. The first-year play-caller has done a really nice job with the tough hand he's been dealt so far.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported that the Cardinals are trading QB Josh Dobbs to the Vikings.