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A look at the AFC East standings is a shock to the system.
It has been rare over the past two decades to need to scroll down to see the Patriots. But there it is: The Buffalo Bills in first place at 4-2, and then (sit down for this one) the Miami Dolphins in second place ahead of the Patriots. If you needed more proof that 2020 is weird.
This has been a rough season for the Patriots already, and it’s not even one-third done. They lost a lot of defensive talent in the offseason. The team and Tom Brady parted ways. New England was hit harder than anyone else by coronavirus-related opt-outs. Then, the Patriots had Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore go to the reserve/COVID-19 list. A Week 5 game against the Broncos was moved back to last Monday, and then moved to Week 6.
The Patriots want to be impervious to distractions. That isn’t impossible in this crazy year.
Even in a normal year, there would be questions about the 2-3 Patriots, who haven’t been under .500 past the fifth week of the season since 2002, when they were 3-4. There’s simply not a lot of high-end talent, particularly on offense. The 18-12 loss to the Broncos drove that point home.
Before Sunday, the Patriots had never lost a game under Bill Belichick when not giving up a touchdown, which is a remarkable streak and also speaks to the lack of offense for New England. No Patriots running back had more than 19 rushing yards against Denver. No pass catcher had more than 38 receiving yards aside from James White, who had eight catches for 65 yards. No matter how good a coaching staff is, at some point you need players.
In Week 1, the Patriots offense was a lot of Cam Newton, especially as a runner. On Sunday, his 76 rushing yards were the most reliable part of New England’s offense. A great dual-threat quarterback can be a foundation of a good offense, but it’s hard to ask Newton to carry the offense that way over a full season. Also, there has to be something other than that to lean on.
Of course, it’s an annual occurrence to question if the Patriots have lost it. It’s an October tradition like the leaves changing. Everyone questions the Patriots, then they figure it out and play fantastic football. Last season, those questions came after a win, an ugly 17-10 Week 11 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots needed a Julian Edelman pass to get their only second-half touchdown. Brady was uncharacteristically grumpy after the win, upset with the offense’s production.
The difference is the Patriots never really did turn it around after that. They went 3-4 counting a playoff loss, with some rough offensive performances. They’re 2-3 this season. It has been 12 games of below-average football for New England. That’s not an insignificant amount of games. In terms of the roster, they’re not as good as they were last season. Too much was lost in the offseason and there hasn’t been a lot of emerging talent step up so far.
If Belichick gets this team to another AFC East championship, he deserves NFL coach of the year (he probably should win it most years since he’s, you know, the best coach in the NFL). Despite a two-game losing streak, the Bills are pretty good. The Patriots defense is good, but not in contention to be the best in the NFL like it was last season. And it’s hard to figure out the blueprint for the offense to be much better. Newton can only do so much. As great as Newton has been through his career, he’s not Brady.
Maybe this is another season in which the Patriots flip the switch and make all the skepticism about them look silly. If this were any other team, we’d take one look at the roster and wonder how a turnaround is even possible.
Here are the power rankings after Week 6 of the NFL season:
32. New York Jets (0-6, Last Week: 32)
If that’s the effort the Jets are going to give, just stay in New York and forfeit the game. Don’t risk injury or coronavirus exposure.
31. Washington Football Team (1-5, LW: 30)
I won’t criticize the coach of a one-win football team taking his chances on a 2-point conversion to win a game. You’re more likely to gain 2 yards on that play than outplay anyone in overtime. “The only way to learn how to win is to play to win,” Ron Rivera said, via SI.com. “I told them in the locker room, I said, ‘Guys, I play to win.’ That’s part of my philosophy.”
30. New York Giants (1-5, LW: 31)
To finally get a win, the Giants needed to turn away a 2-point conversion at home against Washington, which is clearly one of the worst teams in football. They also barely won despite a defensive touchdown. I kept thinking the Giants are at least a little better than their record. They’re not.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5, LW: 29)
Since losing in the AFC championship game, the Jaguars are 12-26. They have two straight double-digit loss seasons and will have to finish 6-4 to avoid another one. We make a lot of jokes about Adam Gase and Matt Patricia, but why is Doug Marrone never mentioned in hot-seat conversations?
28. Dallas Cowboys (2-4, LW: 22)
If anything, Jerry Jones is too patient with his coaches. And it’s hard to fire Mike McCarthy after he lost his quarterback. But let’s say the Cowboys lose double-digit games and don’t win a pathetic NFC East. Is it possible McCarthy is one and done? A team with Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup was stuck on 3 points at home against the Cardinals on Monday night, until a late garbage-time touchdown. That’s hard to explain, even after giving the Cowboys some slack for losing Dak Prescott.
27. Philadelphia Eagles (1-4-1, LW: 23)
Don’t let the final score fool you. The Eagles were entirely overmatched for three-and-a-half quarters. Maybe that last rally sparks something going forward, but probably not. This is just a bad football team. And yes, four of the bottom five teams in these power rankings come from the same division.
26. Minnesota Vikings (1-5, LW: 20)
Well, the Vikings are bad. But we might be watching something special with Justin Jefferson. Heading into Monday’s games, he was third in the NFL in receiving yards despite barely playing the first two weeks. Again, why was he playing behind Olabisi Johnson the first two weeks?
25. Atlanta Falcons (1-5, LW: 28)
We’re not going to do the whole “Falcons start the season miserably and then change who they are and finish 7-9” again, are we?
24. Houston Texans (1-5, LW: 24)
Will Fuller is having a nice season. He had a strange game with no catches after it seemed he hurt hamstring in Week 2, but 455 yards and four touchdowns in the other five games. Hopefully, he can stay healthy, which has been a recurring problem.
23. Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1, LW: 25)
Tee Higgins had six catches for 125 yards. He was the first pick of the second round and the Bengals should feel very grateful that many teams at the bottom of the first round — hello, Packers — passed on him. He and Joe Burrow are a nice 1-2 punch out of this draft.
22. Los Angeles Chargers (1-4, LW: 21)
The Chargers’ next five games are vs. Jaguars, at Broncos, vs. Raiders, at Dolphins, vs. Jets. It’s not crazy to think the Chargers could win four of five and get back in the playoff race. Their season outlook would be a lot more positive if they hadn’t let that Saints game get away.
21. Denver Broncos (2-3, LW: 27)
The Broncos are doing OK filling in for injuries. Tim Patrick has emerged as a nice option with Courtland Sutton on IR. Phillip Lindsay returned and played really well with Melvin Gordon out. The defense had a nice game despite its injuries. But they’re going to need Drew Lock to play better to keep winning games.
20. Detroit Lions (2-3, LW: 26)
Adrian Peterson on Sunday: 15 carries for 40 yards. D’Andre Swift on Sunday: 14 carries for 116 yards. The Lions signed Peterson just before the season, practically changed their offense to force the ball to a 35-year-old back who doesn’t contribute anything in the passing game and did so at the expense of a second-round rookie pick. That’s bad. What’s worse is we all know Matt Patricia and his crew will give Peterson more carries than Swift next week, too.
19. Miami Dolphins (3-3, LW: 18)
It was only a handful of plays but given what Tua Tagovailoa has been through, that was one great debut for him on Sunday.
18. New England Patriots (2-3, LW: 15)
Since a huge game at Seattle in Week 2, Julian Edelman has seven catches for 66 yards in three games. It’s not like anyone else for the Patriots is catching the ball. Edelman is 34 years old, and there’s no guarantee he’ll rebound to his normal form. That’s yet another concern for the Patriots offense.
17. Carolina Panthers (3-3, LW: 16)
There’s no word of when Christian McCaffrey can return from an ankle injury. Even though the Panthers have mostly played well without him, McCaffrey is one of the most talented players in the NFL. They will be better when he can return, and perhaps Sunday’s loss against the Bears would have turned out differently with their best player on the field.
16. San Francisco 49ers (3-3, LW: 19)
That was an impressive game by Kyle Shanahan. Realistically, the 49ers needed that win to keep their season alive. It will be interesting to watch the chess match between Shanahan and Bill Belichick in Week 7. One of the few coaches who Belichick had a hard time against was Shanahan’s father, Mike, who had a 5-3 record against Belichick when he was coaching the Broncos.
15. Cleveland Browns (4-2, LW: 9)
I’m not going to do a 180 on the Browns. I think Sunday was more about the Steelers’ dominance than Cleveland being exposed. Still, the Browns have been absolutely destroyed by the Steelers and Ravens this season, and that’s not the most promising development.
14. New Orleans Saints (3-2, LW: 14)
The Saints should have Michael Thomas back this week, and presumably the fight that led to a one-game suspension is behind everyone. Very few non-quarterbacks in the NFL have a bigger impact on their team than Thomas.
13. Arizona Cardinals (4-2, LW: 17)
We saw why Budda Baker is the highest-paid safety in NFL history. He was phenomenal on Monday night against the Cowboys. His versatility is the biggest asset the Cardinals defense has, especially with Chandler Jones out with an injury.
12. Chicago Bears (5-1, LW: 11)
The Bears are just that team whose record won’t match how good they are. They were outgained by the Panthers. Carolina had more yards per play, more first downs, mostly more of everything except points. The Bears defense is good, but probably not good enough to continually overcome a bad offense. I can’t justify putting them higher than this, despite their record.
11. Indianapolis Colts (4-2, LW: 13)
It’s a bit of an odd stat, but Philip Rivers became the oldest quarterback since Earl Morrall in 1974 to lead his team to a regular-season win after it trailed by 21 points or more (via NFL Research). Rivers got a lot of grief for a poor game at Cleveland, and he deserves a lot of credit for how well he played to save what would have been a bad loss to Cincinnati.
10. Los Angeles Rams (4-2, LW: 8)
It at least needs to be said: The Rams are 4-0 against the NFC East, which is trending as the worst division in modern NFL history, and 0-2 against everyone else. I don’t think the Rams are a bad team. I do wonder why in two of the past three weeks their offense has struggled so much, and how good they’ll be now that there are no more NFC East games on the schedule.
9. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2, LW: 10)
One thing the Raiders need to figure out is a pass rush. They have only eight sacks all season and just one player (Maxx Crosby) has recorded more than one. It’s hard to consistently win with no pressure on the opposing quarterback.
8. Buffalo Bills (4-2, LW: 7)
I’ve been high on the Bills, and I’m not bailing on them now. But that was ugly. The Chiefs were miles ahead of Buffalo in a big spot for the Bills. The offense flailed around in the rain, and the defense continued a very unimpressive start to the season. They’ll get it fixed. I think.
7. Green Bay Packers (4-1, LW: 3)
The Packers hadn’t really played a tough defense before Tampa Bay and their defense was shaky at best. Sunday’s loss doesn’t erase the first four games, but the way the Buccaneers dominated was troubling. Now, the Packers have to prove their offense can cook against a top-flight defense, and that their defense can stop anyone.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2, LW: 12)
The Bucs’ offense gets the attention, and it is good. But the defense, which had allowed the fewest yards in the league after Sunday’s games, is the strength of this team. Holding the Packers to 201 yards, 10 points and getting a pick six off Aaron Rodgers should bring some attention to that unit.
5. Tennessee Titans (5-0, LW: 6)
I just can’t get over Derrick Henry breaking away from the defense in the open field. He’s 247 pounds and he just ran away from Houston’s secondary, reaching an unbelievable 21.6 miles per hour on his run. What an athlete.
4. Seattle Seahawks (5-0, LW: 4)
Everyone in the NFC West has at least two losses other than the Seahawks. While I still think their defense is going to start costing them, they have a cushion if that does ever happen.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0, LW: 5)
I liked the Steelers on paper but thought some of their first four wins were closer than they should have been. I was waiting for them to hit that level that really stamped them as a top-tier team. Well, Sunday was it. If the Steelers play like that, they can beat anyone. They are on a short list of legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
2. Baltimore Ravens (5-1, LW: 2)
Had Sunday’s game ended with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, we’d be much more impressed with the Ravens. I’m not sure how they let the Eagles almost steal a game they mostly dominated. It’s probably best to shrug, chalk up another win and move on.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (5-1, LW: 1)
The Chiefs, who have the best quarterback in the NFL, bludgeoned the Bills on the ground. And they’re adding Le’Veon Bell to the offense. There’s a reason this team didn’t move out of the No. 1 spot after one loss.
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