The New England Patriots have lost one game. The loss came with a rookie quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, whose thumb was so injured he had surgery for it five days later. Brissett went on injured reserve.
The Patriots aren’t going to lose many more.
You may have heard, but Tom Brady returned from suspension on Sunday. The Patriots, who were 3-1 without Brady, upgraded from a rookie quarterback playing with a busted right thumb to arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. In reality, the Patriots’ season started on Sunday at the Cleveland Browns. And the Patriots looked exactly like you’d thought they would look with Brady back.
Brady threw for 406 yards. Tight end Rob Gronkowski looked like he’s finally ready to do normal Gronk things, after dealing with a hamstring injury. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich also returned from suspension. For most other teams, the return of a player as good as Ninkovich would have been a big deal. He got overshadowed on Sunday.
Yes, it was just the Browns, but Cleveland was competitive in its previous three games. The Browns weren’t competitive Sunday. The Patriots outgained them, 501-262. The Patriots led 30-7 after three quarters before letting up.
The Patriots were 3-1 without Brady, looked dominant with Brady, and are clearly the best team in football right now.
That doesn’t mean New England will run the table. The schedule isn’t easy, including a game Sunday against a desperate Bengals team. Here’s the remaining schedule:
Sunday, vs. Cincinnati
Oct. 23, at Pittsburgh
Oct. 30, at Buffalo
Nov. 13, vs. Seattle
Nov. 20, at San Francisco
Nov. 27, at N.Y. Jets
Dec. 4, vs. Los Angeles
Dec. 12, vs. Baltimore
Dec. 18, at Denver
Dec. 24, vs. Jets
Jan. 1, at Miami
The Patriots could win at Pittsburgh, they could beat Seattle or win at Denver or sweep the tricky AFC East games, but it’s hard to believe they’ll win them all. There are some tough remaining games.
But the Patriots will be very hard to beat, and they’re going to win most of those games. A team like Pittsburgh or Denver will have to be about perfect the rest of the way and beat the Patriots head-to-head to get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Don’t plan on a change at No. 1 in the power rankings for a while:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-5, Last week: 32)
Part of me wants to see the Browns go through like 12 quarterbacks this season in order to see how creative they’ll get. Charlie Whitehurst was the fifth quarterback to play significant snaps this season when you include Terrelle Pryor, and we’re only through five games.
31. Miami Dolphins (1-4, LW: 29)
It looks hopeless in Miami. Adam Gase says Ryan Tannehill will be his quarterback all season, but I can’t imagine he could stomach 11 more performances like what Tannehill has shown so far.
30. Chicago Bears (1-4, LW: 31)
John Fox started talking about media members eating junk food in the press box. “I think when you’re out there playing quarterback it looks a little different than when you’re up in a press box having hot dogs,” Fox said. He referenced hot dogs in the press box again later. Sounds like the kind of thing a coach does when he has 11 weeks remaining and has to wonder how hot his seat might get.
29. San Francisco 49ers (1-4, LW: 30)
The 49ers apparently want to restructure Colin Kaepernick’s contract before playing him, so they wouldn’t be on the hook for any injury guarantees in his contract. That makes the team look cheap and petty. But it’s the same team that had more than $60 million in salary cap room heading into free agency and signed practically nobody of note, so I guess we already knew.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3, LW: 27)
Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, suffered a season-ending knee injury. He’ll be a free agent next offseason. Maybe he comes back on a discount deal as a guard (a position he isn’t really suited for), but this is going to go down as a ruinous pick for the Jaguars.
27. San Diego Chargers (1-4, LW: 26)
If Mike McCoy loses on Thursday night at home to a team being coached by Broncos special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis (Gary Kubiak won’t coach this week), and falls to 1-5 in the process, Chargers ownership will have a difficult decision to make on Friday. Remember, the Chargers have a stadium vote coming up. They desperately needed positive on-field results this season. The opposite has happened.
26. New Orleans Saints (1-3, LW: 25)
Brandin Cooks has been surprisingly quiet since a big Week 1. He has just 44 yards his past two games. The Saints need him to bounce back if they have any shot at getting back in the playoff race.
25. Tennessee Titans (2-3, LW: 28)
Marcus Mariota ran more on Sunday than he had in all but one NFL game. Last season Mariota had nine carries and 112 yards against the Jaguars in Week 12. On Sunday, Mariota had seven carries, 60 yards and a touchdown in a win. That was only his second NFL game with more than five carries. He has just 54 rushing attempts in 17 career games. It’s a tough balance (one the Panthers will have to figure out with Cam Newton). The Titans don’t want Mariota running much. But he’s a phenomenal athlete and, like Newton, when he’s a regular threat to run the offense is a lot tougher to defend. But running more exposes him to injury and probably will shorten what could be a great career. It’s a tough equation to figure out.
24. New York Jets (1-4, LW: 19)
This is one of the more talented 1-4 teams you can find through the years. What’s even worse is you can’t blame Ryan Fitzpatrick’s interceptions for the latest loss. They lost 31-13 with Fitzpatrick not throwing an interception. Now what?
23. Indianapolis Colts (2-3, LW: 23)
For all the issues the Colts have had, if they win at Houston on Sunday night they’ll be tied for first place. They don’t look anything like a playoff team, but it’s not like the AFC South is making them pay.
22. Carolina Panthers (1-4, LW: 11)
I can sit here, look at the roster and see most of the pieces that made the Panthers such a great team last season, but at some point 1-4 is undeniable. It’s not impossible for the Panthers to go on another run and make the playoffs, but they need to win for about a month straight before they’re even a factor again. Crazy.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3, LW: 24)
Roberto Aguayo was the No. 1 feel-good redemption story on Monday night, but Jameis Winston had one too. He was in a prolonged slump before that final game-winning drive. But he came up huge to help the Bucs get a big win.
20. Detroit Lions (2-3, LW: 22)
OK, so who had Marvin Jones leading the NFL in receiving yards after five weeks? He leads A.J. Green by 1 yard and Julio Jones by 2 yards. Nobody seemed overly excited about that signing, but Jones has been tremendous.
19. Los Angeles Rams (3-2, LW: 17)
We all know Todd Gurley is immensely talented. His yards per carry this season, game-by-game: 2.8, 2.7, 3.2, 1.7, 3.1. It doesn’t do any good to have a great tailback if you can’t block for him and you don’t have a passing game that threatens anyone.
18. New York Giants (2-3, LW: 15)
OK, that was a tough two-game stretch. But here are the next six: vs. Baltimore, at Los Angeles, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Chicago, at Cleveland. There are some tricky games in there, but if the Giants want to be a contender in the NFC East, they better win most of them.
17. Baltimore Ravens (3-2, LW: 16)
Firing a head coach gets more headlines, but firing a coordinator during a season might be more disruptive (assuming the head coach doesn’t call the offense or defense). You can’t really install a new system while you’re preparing for games each week. So you know the Ravens had to be fed up when they let offensive coordinator Marc Trestman go on Monday.
16. Houston Texans (3-2, LW: 13)
There’s a lot that goes into play-calling, and it’s not always as easy as just “throw the ball to Receiver X.” But the Texans have to get DeAndre Hopkins more involved. Hopkins had 12 targets per game last season, and 95.1 yards per game catching balls from four different quarterbacks. This year it’s just 8.4 targets per game and 56.6 yards per catch. Brock Osweiler would look better if more of his passes were going to one of the best receivers in football.
15. Washington Redskins (3-2, LW: 21)
Sunday will be a very interesting game, with the Eagles coming to Landover, Md. A win would be Washington’s fourth straight, and the NFC East would be wide open again.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (2-3, LW: 10)
Are they bad? I’m stubborn with teams who have had sustained success, so I don’t want to believe that this is the year it falls apart for the Bengals. But they were absolutely dominated in Dallas. The Cowboys look like a good team, but are the Bengals good anymore? They’ve looked vulnerable in each of their losses. It doesn’t help that their next game is Tom Brady’s first home game after his suspension.
13. Arizona Cardinals (2-3, LW: 18)
The Cardinals have insisted here and there that Drew Stanton could be their next starter when Carson Palmer retires. Assuming you watched last Thursday night’s game, you know that Arizona better start figuring out Plan B for Palmer’s retirement.
12. Buffalo Bills (3-2, LW: 20)
LeSean McCoy still has it. He looked great in gaining 150 yards on 18 carries against the Rams. The Bills aren’t going to light it up in the passing game, so they need many more games like that from McCoy.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2, LW: 14)
Jamaal Charles is still a mystery at this point. We have no idea how explosive Charles will be after the bye, or what his role will be. Nothing against Spencer Ware, who has played well, but hopefully Charles can regain his old form. There aren’t many players in the NFL who are more exciting.
10. Oakland Raiders (4-1, LW: 12)
The Raiders have won by 1, 7, 1 and 3 points. They’re wins and it’s great to build that base early in the season. But you’re also not going to go to the playoffs just off of wins in one-possession games. The start is awesome, but the Raiders will have to play better to keep up a playoff march.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1, LW: 5)
As I mentioned yesterday in Winners and Losers, the Eagles have a really tough schedule coming up. We’ll get to see how rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and rookie coach Doug Pederson handle some adversity.
8. Dallas Cowboys (4-1, LW: 9)
I asked the question on Sunday and I’ll give my answer here: If I could choose only one between Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, I’d pick Prescott. Nothing against Elliott, who is on his way to a historic rookie season. But you don’t give back a quarterback like Prescott, who looks like he could be a high-level starter for the next decade.
7. Green Bay Packers (3-1, LW: 7)
The Packers are allowing 42.8 rushing yards per game, on 2 yards per rush. The Cowboys and their stellar rushing offense come to town this week. That’s a fantastic matchup of strengths.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1, LW: 6)
What in the world happened in Philadelphia? That Week 3 result makes no sense when you compare it to the rest of the Steelers’ games.
5. Denver Broncos (4-1, LW: 2)
Paxton Lynch let a nice opportunity slip past on Sunday. Lynch looked like a rookie, and there’s no shame in that. But he had a chance to plant a seed in the coaches’ minds for whenever Trevor Siemian struggles this season. Now the coaches will remember Lynch looking like he wasn’t ready yet against Atlanta, and probably will give Siemian a longer leash.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-1, LW: 8)
That was one heck of a victory at Denver. We have to look at the Falcons in a different way now. One aspect that was very positive was a breakout game from pass rusher Vic Beasley. In Beasley’s first 20 NFL games, the eighth overall pick of the 2015 draft had five sacks. He had 3.5 sacks in his 21st game. The Falcons desperately need him to keep that up.
3. Minnesota Vikings (5-0, LW: 4)
What impressed me most about Sam Bradford on Sunday was that he was without Stefon Diggs, and first-round pick Laquon Treadwell can’t get on the field (12 offensive snaps in three games, inactive for two others). And he still made plays, to guys like Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson. We’ve never seen Bradford play anywhere near this well before.
2. Seattle Seahawks (3-1, LW: 3)
The Vikings are a very good team, and I assume most power rankings will have them No. 1 or 2 because they’re undefeated. And that’s fine. But if the Vikings and Seahawks played tomorrow on a neutral field, I’d pick the Seahawks. We haven’t seen close to the best of them yet on offense, because of injuries. But we started to see it in their last game, against the Jets.
1. New England Patriots (4-1, LW: 1)
Trading for Martellus Bennett a prototypical Patriots move. The Bears had tired of him, so they unloaded him and a sixth-round pick for the Patriots’ fourth-round pick. Everyone immediately knew the Patriots were going to use Bennett in creative ways and he’d form an unstoppable duo with Rob Gronkowski. And what do you know, in Brady’s first game back (and Gronkowski’s first game in which he looked healthy), Bennett was open all game and scored three times. And they got him for very little cost. And we wonder why the rest of the NFL has been chasing the Patriots for so long?
The Cowboys and Raiders are back! Plus: Week 5 recap
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