Here came the Browns on Sunday, rolling into Pittsburgh looking nothing at all like the Browns we’re used to. They carried a 4-1 record and a four-game win streak into Heinz Field, eager for a chance to prove their legitimacy at the home of a 4-0 division rival.
And they got smoked.
Caring absolutely nothing about Cleveland feel-good stories, COVID-19 scheduling disruptions or Myles Garrett revenge narratives, the Steelers crushed the Browns 38-7 on Sunday. They sacked Baker Mayfield four times and intercepted him twice. They had three rushing touchdowns and more than 34 minutes’ time of possession. They held one of the best running teams in the league to 75 yards on 22 carries.
The Steelers are now 5-0, a half-game clear of Baltimore for first place in a very strong-looking AFC North. And they are where we have decided to begin our Week 6 overreactions column.
The Steelers are the NFL’s best team
In a year in which it feels like no team outside of Chicago and Tampa Bay are playing defense, the Steelers are allowing just 18.8 points per game while scoring 31.2. This is a group that managed to go 8-8 last season with Ben Roethlisberger hurt and a pair of replacement quarterbacks who seemed to do more harm than good.
With Roethlisberger back, the Steelers rolled into this season with the highest of hopes and expectations, and it is fair to say that so far they’ve looked as good as anyone. The Ravens and Chiefs each have losses. The Titans — I still don’t know how they didn’t lose Sunday, but more on that in a bit. The Seahawks are unbeaten but struggle on defense. The Packers had a claim before Sunday, but after what happened to them in Tampa, they’re no longer as spotless as the Steelers. Some team has to be the best.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Because it’s almost certainly still the Chiefs, their weird loss to the Raiders notwithstanding. And because as impressive as Pittsburgh has been, we can absolutely pin the “Yeah, but who have they played?” tag on it. The Cleveland win is a good one, given the way the Browns have played so far, but the other four teams the Steelers have beaten have a combined record of 5-17-1.
I’ll say this, though: We’re going to get a chance to find out. The Steelers’ next two games are in Tennessee and Baltimore, and they have a trip to Buffalo still left on the schedule. The Devin Bush injury could be a tough one for their great defense to overcome, but they are going to have chances to prove this isn’t an overreaction. Check back in a couple of weeks.
The Patriots will miss the playoffs
The Patriots on Sunday looked like a team that hadn’t spent a lot of time together over the past couple of weeks, which is what they were. Outside of Tennessee, no team has endured more coronavirus-related schedule disruption than New England, and its offense looked awful in Sunday’s 18-12 loss to the Broncos.
Cam Newton endured a Mayfield-esque four sacks and two interceptions. The team ran for just 117 yards on 25 carries. They managed to score the game’s only touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Denver’s six field goals. As a result, the Patriots are 2-3. This is the first time they’ve been under .500 this late in the season since 2002, which was also the last season they failed to win at least 10 games.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. I might go down with this ship, but I’m not going to believe a Bill Belichick team is going to miss the playoffs until I see it happen. Five of the Patriots’ remaining 11 games are against teams that have losing records, including two against the Jets.
This new offense, built around the run with the quarterback as one of the most dangerous running threats, can still work the way it did earlier in the season. The Patriots haven’t had a lot of practice time together these last couple of weeks, which is part of what led Belichick to say postgame, “Hopefully we’ll be able to practice this week. We certainly need it.”
The AFC field looks brutal, but it’s still too soon to write off this team.
Ryan Tannehill should be in the MVP discussion
How did Tennessee win Sunday? Down 36-29 to the Texans with 1:50 left in the game, the Titans went 76 yards in nine plays for the tying score, won the overtime coin toss and went 82 yards in six plays for the winner. Tennessee’s offense rolled up an astounding 601 yards — in large part because Derrick Henry rushed for 212 — but Tannehill’s 364 passing yards and four touchdowns on 30-for-41 passing can’t be overlooked.
The Titans appear to have complete confidence in themselves with Tannehill under center.
Ryan Tannehill finds Adam Humphries down the sideline for a 22-yard touchdown.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Henry was on the team before Tannehill was, but the midseason switch last season from Marcus Mariota to Tannehill has changed everything in Tennessee. The Titans are 14-4 with Tannehill as their starting quarterback. He entered Sunday fourth in the league in Total QBR (83.6), behind only MVP candidates Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. His team is 5-0.
It’s possible there is a faction of the football-watching world that still believes this to be a fluke, but that faction isn’t watching as closely as it should be. Tannehill is a legit candidate for MVP, especially as long as his team keeps winning.
The Bears’ defense can carry them to the playoffs
Chicago won again Sunday, ending Carolina’s three-game winning streak with a 23-16 road victory that put the Bears ahead of the Packers, who have played one fewer game, in the NFC North.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. “Would you rather lose pretty or win ugly?” mercurial quarterback Nick Foles asked after the game, his own answer obvious by the question. The Bears won a game in which their own quarterback was a less-than-breathtaking 23-for-39 passing for 198 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception (plus a one-yard rushing touchdown). Carolina had more yards, more first downs and more time of possession than Chicago. But the Panthers turned it over three times, as opposed to the Bears’ one, and therein lay the difference.
It was just two years ago that a monster Bears defense carried the team to the postseason with a 12-4 record. And while this unit might not exactly measure up to that one, it’s doing enough in a no-defense league to stand out.
The early contenders for the seven-team NFC playoff field include Green Bay, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Los Angeles, maybe Arizona, maybe Carolina and whichever team limps out of the NFC East. The Bears have a better record than any of those teams besides Seattle. Winning ugly can keep them in this.
The Packers aren’t as good as their record
Green Bay came out of the bye week humming along, up 10-0 on the Bucs in Tampa in the second quarter. To say things fell apart after that would be like saying things got a little too warm in Pompeii after the volcano went off.
Aaron Rodgers threw his first interception of the season, and Jamel Dean returned it for a touchdown. Literally two throws later, Rodgers threw his second interception, and Mike Edwards returned it to the 2-yard line. So Tampa Bay’s first two touchdowns of the game required two offensive yards.
The Bucs were off to the races after that, scoring 28 points in the second quarter and 38 unanswered the rest of the way. When Tim Boyle and Blaine Gabbert are finishing the game at quarterback, you know a game has gone off the rails.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Before Sunday, the last time Rodgers threw two interceptions in a game was Dec. 17, 2017, when he threw three against Carolina. Prior to that, the last time he threw two interceptions in a game was Nov. 13, 2016. Rodgers throwing two interceptions in a game is something that has happened four times in the last five calendar years. It’s no wonder his team had no idea how to react. Some of these guys were still in college the last time Rodgers threw two picks in a game.
What are we getting at here? Basically, I don’t see this game as some kind of damning reflection on the Packers as much as a great win for Tampa Bay built off a momentum-shifting event that happens less frequently than Christmas. The Packers are 18-5 over the last two years (counting postseason). Chalk this one up, move on and see the Bucs again in January. I still like the Packers to hold off the Bears in the NFC North.