We’re quickly approaching the midway point of the NFL season and the theme through 2022, without question, has been parity.
A shift in the NFC balance of power may be unfolding, as a pair of mainstay franchises are in a full freefall. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers both suffered stunning losses to heavy underdogs, the Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders, respectively.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, one team that represented the conference in last year’s title game, the Cincinnati Bengals, appears to have course corrected thanks to a schematic adjustment, while the other – the Kansas City Chiefs – look as potent as any squad in the league.
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Here are the winners and losers from Sunday’s Week 7 slate.
The Chiefs are a buzz saw
Kansas City traveled to face a Niners squad that entered Sunday as the NFL’s total defense (255.8 yards allowed per game) and second-ranked scoring defense (14.8 points allowed per game). All the Chiefs did was roll up nearly a first down on each offensive play, averaging 9.1 yards on its 58 snaps for an absurd 529 yards.
As long as the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes (25-of-34 passing for 423 yards with three touchdowns versus one interception) in sync with coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, they will continue to be one of the toughest outs in the entire NFL. That this is coming as Kansas City has had to adapt to turnover and incorporate JuJu Smith-Schuster (seven catches for 124 yards with one touchdown) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (three catches for 111 yards) shows just how finely tuned this offense is right now.
A vintage Seahawks draft
When they were at their best, ascending to a victory in Super Bowl 48 after the 2013 season, the Seahawks built their team through the NFL draft, uncovering stars in the later rounds. And as Seattle (4-3) has climbed to first place in the NFC West, it’s the team’s potentially transformational 2022 NFL draft class that is making a postseason push a real possibility.
Let’s start with running back Kenneth Walker III (second round, No. 41 overall), who has emerged since starter Rashaad Penny suffered a broken leg in Week 5. Walker has anchored the offense, whose line is bookended by rookie tackles Charles Cross (first round, No. 9) and Abe Lucas (third round, No. 72). Corner Tariq Woolen (fifth round, No. 153) is tied for the league lead with four interceptions while fellow corner Coby Bryant (fourth round, No. 109) has forced four fumbles, including three in the last four weeks.
The Bengals go back to the ‘gun
Credit Bengals coach Zac Taylor for adjusting on the fly. After Cincinnati (4-3) began the year sluggishly, it has won four of the last five – in large part – because quarterback Joe Burrow and the offense has returned to its explosive form from last year. And Taylor’s decision to run the scheme almost exclusively out of the shotgun has made all the difference.
Fifty-three of Cincinnati’s 66 offensive plays in Sunday’s victory against the Falcons were out of the shotgun, continuing the trend from recent weeks. That has allowed Burrow (34-of-42 passing for 481 yards with three touchdowns) to use the extra distance from the line of scrimmage to take a better view of the field before the snap and it has also made it more difficult for defenses to diagnose Cincinnati’s plays.
Cowboys better, but still work to do
In his return to the lineup from a fractured right thumb, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott managed the game and protected the ball; essentially he did exactly what he needed to do to top a weak Detroit team.
But as the Cowboys (5-2) look to keep pace in a suddenly competitive NFC East, a downfield passing game will be essential. Against Detroit, the longest Cowboy completion went for 24 yards, to receiver CeeDee Lamb in the first quarter. The key for Dallas may be to rely on Prescott’s mobility to force opposing defenses into conflict, given his ability to deliver passes accurately while on the move. It’s worth pointing out that the 24-yard completion to Lamb came on a designed rollout to his right, though Prescott (19-of-25 passing for 207 yards with one touchdown) had to throw it a bit sooner than scripted because of oncoming pressure.
Rock bottom for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers
This may be, given the expectations with which Tampa Bay entered the season, the very worst stretch we have ever seen from a team with Tom Brady. The Buccaneers have lost four of their last five, including two in a row in which they were favored by at least a touchdown.
In Tampa Bay’s last eight games, it has failed to score a first quarter touchdown; that’s the longest stretch in Brady’s career. Over their last 26 drives, a span that goes back to the third quarter of Week 5, the Buccaneers have scored just a single touchdown, have punted 14 times and have posted eight 3-and-outs. The last time one of Brady’s teams was 3-4 this late in the season was 2002, his second season as a starter. And, given the personal sacrifices Brady has had to make to remain on the field, it puts the cost of the team’s struggles in perspective.
Kenny Pickett’s decisions
Interceptions are typically a part of a young quarterback’s assimilation into the NFL, but Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett won’t develop into a reliable player until he solves this problem. Pickett (32-of-44 passing for 257 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions) has flashed mobility, an element that has been sorely missing from Pittsburgh’s passing game, but he has to ease his anxiety in the pocket and come to terms with checkdowns.
After an uneven first quarter, the Steelers defense slowed Miami enough to put the offense in a spot to capitalize. To be fair, Pittsburgh dropped four interceptions that would’ve made life easier for Pickett, but his seven interceptions this season have followed a similar pattern. Often, he will hang in the pocket and get antsy before forcing a throw into a tight window, or he’ll heave passes downfield in desperation.
The notion that the Packers are a receiver away
In a shocking loss to Washington, the leading Packer receiver, Allen Lazard, totaled just 55 yards. It is unquestionably the most significant hole on the roster. In fact, the top Packer target might be their starting running back in Aaron Jones.
While signing a veteran like Odell Beckham Jr. or trading for a receiver who might become available before the deadline would certainly inject more playmaking ability and consistency into the offense, it won’t be the salve that fixes the Packers. It won’t solve an offensive line that is in flux and struggles to open rushing lanes, or a secondary that yields too many big plays despite the presence of well-compensated players, or a middling pass rush that struggles to generate pressure. First things first, Green Bay must work on its mental lapses and drops, correct its disciplinary issues that lead to poorly timed penalties and improve third-down efficiency to keep drives alive.
Matt Ryan’s days as a viable starter
It took current-Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz 17 games last year in Indianapolis to throw 7 interceptions; it has taken Matt Ryan seven games to throw nine. Ryan’s 12 turnovers are most in the NFL. In Sunday’s loss against the Titans, Ryan was better in the second half, but his pair of second quarter interceptions, which came on consecutive drives, have become emblematic of the Colts (3-3-1) slow starts.
At this point in his career, Ryan (33-of-44 passing for 243 yards with one touchdown and the two picks) is simply far too careless with the football and is not able to mask the team’s weaknesses. For the second consecutive week, coach Frank Reich elevated Sam Ehlinger as the team’s backup and made veteran Nick Foles inactive. After the success they shared in Philadelphia, eventually winning Super Bowl 52 in February 2018, it might be time to see what Foles can do.