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There were some significant blowouts in Week 7 of the NFL slate, but as we approach the midway point of the season, some storylines are starting to solidify.
The most interesting development may be that the AFC is completely open and no clear leaders have broken away from the pack. That could make for a wild second half of the year, but the biggest surprise of 2021 has to be the Cincinnati Bengals, who hold the No. 1 seed in the conference. In the NFC, there are a group of five teams entrenched at the top.
One of those teams is the Buccaneers, whose quarterback, as he has been doing for more than two decades now, is continuing to make history. Tom Brady became the only player in NFL history to throw 600 passing touchdowns and — at 44 years old — is still playing at an elite level.
32 THINGS WE LEARNED IN WEEK 7: NFC powers stay on course
Here are the winners and losers from Week 7 in the NFL.
Parity in the AFC
It's early on, but the AFC is wide open. Now that we're nearly halfway through the season, the parity in the conference has made it fascinating to watch these teams battle it out. Part of this has to do with the struggles the Chiefs have had (more on that later), but six of the seven teams currently in the AFC playoff picture have two losses and either four or five victories. The other one is the Browns, who are 4-3 after they won Thursday night. Compared that to the NFC, which has five teams (the Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Rams) with one loss or fewer.
One team to watch is the red-hot Titans, who have defeated the AFC championship game participants from last season — the Bills and Chiefs — in consecutive weeks. Just to show how wide open things are, consider the Ravens, who destroyed the current No. 6 seeded Chargers last week in a 34-6 rout and then sputtered this week, 41-17, to the Bengals. The Chargers, by the way, have also beat the Browns and the Raiders this season. And with the Colts winning three of their last four, don't sleep on them, either.
The No. 1 seeded Bengals
Speaking of the Bengals, this young team made a statement in its 41-17 demolition of the Ravens that moved Cincinnati into a first-place tie with Baltimore in the AFC North. That means that, through only seven weeks of the season, the Bengals have already surpassed their win total from last season. It's a new era in Cincinnati.
The Bengals generated a 48.9% team pressure rate, the units highest in the last two seasons.
Three Bengals pass rushers recorded 7 or more pressures, becoming the 9th team in the NGS era to have three players finish with 7+ pressures in a game.#CINvsBAL | #RuleTheJungle pic.twitter.com/Blb6uhzCgT
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 24, 2021
Rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase is on record-breaking pace with second-year passer Joe Burrow throwing him the ball. But this team is doing it on both sides; Cincinnati is the only defense in the NFL to not have allowed any of its opponents to score more than 25 points in any game. Are the Bengals the best team in the conference? It's far too early to tell and the answer seems to change every week. But it's clear that Cincinnati is very much in that conversation.
One of the surprise players this season has been Las Vegas Raiders passer Derek Carr, who shined in a 33-22 victory against the Eagles. Carr has adapted well this season to the different game plans Vegas has used, depending on their opponent. The downfield passing game has revitalized his career. But on Sunday, Carr flung quick-release throws to get the ball moving.
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 25, 2021
The result was Carr's most accurate game of his career. He completed 31-of-34 passes for 323 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His completion rate was 91.18%, or second-most in NFL history in a game in which the quarterback attempted at least 30 passes, behind only Drew Brees' 96.67% in 2019. Carr ranks second in the league in passing yards (1,946) and has the Raiders (5-2) tied for the best record in the AFC.
It might be time to question the standing of the head coach of the 49ers. With their ugly, 30-18 loss in a downpour against the Colts, the San Francisco 49ers (2-4) are in a downward spiral and have lost four in a row and trending toward another difficult season. Shanahan fell to 31-39 in the loss and San Francisco has had only one winning season with him at the helm, in four full seasons. It's worth pointing out that the Niners did go 13-3 and were runners-up in the Super Bowl in 2019, Shanahan's lone winning season.
Jimmy Garoppolo First Half Passing Chart 🎯
All 56 of Garoppolo's first half passing yards have targeting receivers running crossing routes.
🔸 4/6, 56 yards targeting crossers
🔸 1/6, 0 yards targeting all other routes#INDvsSF | #FTTB pic.twitter.com/xK6XLhmAP8
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 25, 2021
One of the big concerns of Shanahan's tenure is his team's recent ineptitude in home games. The 49ers are now 1-10 in home games dating back to the start of last season, though the last three of the 2020 season were played in Glendale, Ariz., due to local COVID-19 mandates. That includes a streak of seven consecutive home losses. Offensive play-calling, one of Shanahan's supposed strengths, has been inconsistent. When San Francisco used motion and misdirection, and kept Indianapolis' defense off balance, it was able to drive down the field. But often, Shanahan's play calls were far too predictable. Players like receiver Brandon Aiyuk have not developed and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo appears to be a lame duck. It's perhaps too early to put Shanahan firmly on the hot seat, but that time may be nearing.
Chiefs as an unstoppable offense
It's time to wonder whether Kansas City, rather astoundingly, might be in danger of eventually missing the playoffs. After the Chiefs (3-4) got rocked, 27-3, in a loss against the Titans, it's now clear that this team doesn't have issues only on defense; the offense is broken, too.
The Chiefs trail 27-0 at halftime, marking the largest deficit of Patrick Mahomes’ career, including the playoffs.
Mahomes has now thrown 9 interceptions this season, including at least 1 in 6 straight games, the longest streak of his career. pic.twitter.com/C9n5usJlRd
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 24, 2021
It starts with the line. Facing mostly three- and four-man pressures, the Chiefs nonetheless couldn't slow down Tennessee's pass rush. That led to a couple of Patrick Mahomes turnovers, one interception and one fumble. Mahomes has thrown an interception in each of his last six games. In fact, the Chiefs are now dead last in the NFL with 14 giveaways. Consider this: we're only in Week 7 and the Chiefs had 16 all of last season. In 2019, the year they won the Super Bowl, they had 15. And we saw the dangers of putting Mahomes behind that line. Late in the fourth quarter, he was knocked out of the game when he was inadvertently kneed in the helmet after he tried to buy some time in the pocket. Coach Andy Reid said after the game that Mahomes cleared concussion protocol, but Kansas City cannot continue to put its franchise passer — and one of the best players in the NFL — in harm's way. Until the Chiefs solve slow starts, ball security problems and poor pass blocking, this offense will be a shell of the version we had seen since Mahomes took over.
The Panthers as a contender
The NFC is already crowded and there's no room for mediocrity. Carolina, after a dismal, 25-3 loss against a previously one-win Giants team, is on its way to slipping out of the NFC playoff picture. The Panthers (3-4) started the season with three consecutive victories in which they allowed 30 combined points. In their subsequent four-game losing streak, that number has swelled to 116.
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 24, 2021
Quarterback Sam Darnold was benched in the loss. In Carolina's victories, Darnold threw one interception. In the losses, he has thrown seven, including one in each of the last four games. One convenient excuse available to Darnold is that Carolina's offensive line is awful and is second-to-last in the NFL with 24 sacks allowed this season. But even when Darnold has had a clean pocket, he has forced throws. After the game, reports emerged about Darnold's future with the team already in doubt. And though all of Carolina's losses have come with star running back Christian McCaffrey sidelined with a hamstring injury, and even though they traded for cornerback Stephon Gilmore in a win-now move, this team might still be several pieces away.
WFT offense in goal-to-go
The Washington Football Team could've won this game. Instead, their offense fell flat any time it got within striking distance against the Packers in a 24-10 loss. Green Bay came into Week 7 ranked dead last in the NFL as the only team to not have a single defensive stop in the red zone; all 14 times an opposing offense crossed the 20-yard line, those teams left with a touchdown.
Washington (2-5) did not get a touchdown in any of its four trips in the red zone and in fact failed to do so twice when it got inside the five. Making matters worse, quarterback Taylor Heinicke appeared to not know about a recent rule change that treats head-first dives by quarterbacks the same as slides. So when Heinicke looked to have crossed the plane when he dove for an apparent score in the third quarter, officials instead ruled he had given himself up. They marked him short. Heinicke even did the Lambeau Leap to celebrate. On the following play, he tried a quarterback sneak, fumbled and then recovered it, but was stopped short. On the following drive, Washington had three chances inside the five and turned it over on downs again. In a stacked NFC and with the Cowboys looking like they will coast through the division, this is looking like yet another lost season for Washington.
There were a few revenge factors in the Rams-Lions game, a 28-19 L.A. victory, but no one lost more than Detroit passer Jared Goff. The No. 1 overall selection the Rams made in the 2016 NFL draft, Goff got a valiant effort from his coaches and teammates after the Lions converted three special teams fakes. And while this is admittedly unfair because football is such a team sport and because the Lions' roster just simply isn't on par with that of the Rams, Goff has been maligned throughout his career and his performance against his former team did nothing to dispel those criticisms.
— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021
Mainly, turnovers continue to be an issue for Goff. With the Lions down six points with just over five to play in the game, Goff took a snap on a second-and-10 from the Rams' 12-yard line. Rather than check down, Goff forced a pass into double coverage. And, yes, Rams corner Jalen Ramsey made a stellar play to pluck the pass out of the air, but the throw was just too much of a risk to take at that point. For all intents and purposes, the Rams roster Goff left is fairly close to the one Matthew Stafford, his replacement, is now leading. And at 6-1 and looking like a strong contender in the NFC, it's pretty clear who won that trade.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 7 winners, losers: Tom Brady is still elite. AFC is wide open