This edition of the New England Patriots is different than recent seasons. The defense could be better than the offense. Tom Brady is not playing his best, and the passing game is scratchy. Different does not mean inferior.
Great teams win while they are figuring things out. Time will tell if this Patriots team is great, but it's becoming reminiscent of their 2003 squad. That team was not dominant for most of the year. It overcame injuries and won a lot of games at the last minute that it shouldn't have won. That's what happened Sunday against New Orleans.
The Patriots are 5-1, yet they should be a lot better in December than they are right now. That's also true of the Seattle Seahawks (5-1) and San Francisco 49ers (4-2). Seattle is still trying to find its footing in the passing game. The team's huge array of pass rushers hasn't settled in their roles. And the Seahawks are winning.
San Francisco quietly has won three straight games by 67 combined points. The Niners finally uncorked some big passing plays against Arizona on Sunday. The 49ers face quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne before a Week 9 bye. The slow start will be forgotten by then.
Here's what else we learned Sunday:
1. Robert Griffin III's surgically repaired knee had noticeably more juice than the last time he took the field, allowing him to rush for more yards (77) than the previous four games combined. That did nothing for his arm, however. Griffin unleashed errant, wobbly passes throughout the game, missing too many throws while failing to complete 50 percent of his passes for just the second time in 21 career games. We see signs of progress each week, but the quarterback has yet to put it all together. This offense still has managed just one touchdown in the first half all season.
2. Despite the early-game loss of DeMarcus Ware to a quadriceps strain, the Cowboys' defense showed major improvement over the previous two weeks. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher added two sacks to his Pro Bowl-caliber start and George Selvie continues to exceed expectations as a fill-in defensive end. Middle linebacker Sean Lee and cornerback Brandon Carr also had excellent games.
3. The Cowboys couldn't run the ball once DeMarco Murray left with an MCL sprain. At one point in the fourth quarter, Dallas had just five yards on five carries since Murray exited in the first quarter. Joseph Randle and Phillip Tanner combined for just 19 yards on 12 carries, good for 1.58 yards per attempt. This is a problem area heading into next week's game against the Eagles with first place on the line.
1. T.J. Yates is not an upgrade on Matt Schaub. In his first 11 attempts Sunday, Yates underthrew DeAndre Hopkins on a potential touchdown, tossed a pick six in the red zone and threw another interception in the end zone. The Texans took too many penalties, turned the ball over, allowed two touchdowns to the Rams' defense and special teams and failed to show backbone on defense. None of that was on Schaub. As long as his ankle allows him to play, Schaub should be under center at the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7.
2. Rookie Zac Stacy is running away with the Rams' starting tailback job. The numbers don't jump off the box with 90 yards on 20 touches, but Stacy continues to do a fine job of moving the chains to sustain long-scoring drives. He has avoided the negative plays that plagued Daryl Richardson early in the season.
3. Sam Bradford appeared to be regressing in a major way three weeks ago. Since then, he's thrown six touchdowns without an interception in back-to-back victories. Sunday's trio of touchdown passes combined for 7 yards, but it's still a promising sign. On pace for a 35:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Bradford is off to the best statistical start of his career.
1. Although A.J. Green got his season back on track with 103 receiving yards and one touchdown, the difference in the Bengals' offense was the big-play ability provided by Gio Bernard and Marvin Jones. Those two players combined for 205 of Cincinnati's 483 total net yards, highlighted by a pair of touchdowns and splash plays of 23, 34 and 42 yards. If this offense can get more reliable contributions from the supporting cast behind Green, the Bengals should remain in control of the division.
2. Sporting a walking boot, quarterback Thad Lewis was sent for X-rays after injuring his right leg late in the game. The Bills will have to hope the injury isn't serious, as Lewis was far more competent Sunday than rookie Jeff Tuel was in relief of EJ Manuel last week. Lewis expects to be fine. If that's the case, Matt Flynn likely will be a backup if he's signed before Week 7's game at Miami.
3. Favoring his sprained ankle, C.J. Spiller did well to average 5.5 yards on 10 carries. He's not close to 100 percent, which explains Tashard Choice's larger-than-usual role in a run-heavy first half. The Bills were forced to abandon a successful ground attack in the second half once the deficit reached two touchdowns.
1. On the "Around The League Podcast," we've been gushing over an improved Justin Blackmon since the beginning of the preseason. Champ Bailey and the Broncos cornerbacks had no answer for Blackmon on slant routes, where he did the majority of his damage in racking up 14 catches for 190 yards on a whopping 20 targets. A bear to tackle after the catch, Blackmon has played like a young Anquan Boldin or Hakeem Nicks the past two weeks.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for a season-high 71 yards and cleared 3.0 yards per carry for just the second time this season. He appears to be slowly rounding into form -- emphasis on "slowly." The offensive line finally opened a hole big enough for Jones-Drew to hit the second level, but he struggled to get out of third gear on a 28-yard scamper. It's hard to imagine the contract-year veteran fetching more than a fourth-round pick in trade talks.
3. Denver now has won 17 consecutive regular-season games, tied with the 1934 Chicago Bears for the fourth-longest streak in history. Peyton Manning & Co. have scored the most points in NFL history through six games. With All-Pro linebacker Von Miller returning from suspension to join impressive second-year interior pass rusher Malik Jackson, the Broncos will put their magical season on the line in Indianapolis next week.
1. We like Ron Rivera when he's coaching for his job. The Panthers went for it on fourth down multiple times in a key touchdown drive. Carolina kept throwing even with a big lead in the second half. Mike Shula was very creative calling plays. On days like this, the Panthers look like a playoff team.
2. Carolina's offense is wildly up and down, but their defense dominates up front every week. Matt Cassel didn't have time to throw. The Panthers stuffed Adrian Peterson to short gains when the game was in question. Both teams entered the game with only one win, but the Panthers still have a chance to matter this year.
3. It's safe to expect Josh Freeman to start the next game for the Vikings. Matt Cassel didn't look that terrible in this game -- seriously -- but Minnesota needs to see how Freeman looks in its offense.
1. The Packers won, but suffered two big losses. Wide receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb each went down in the first half with a knee injury. Neither returned to the game. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Jones believes he's OK. Cobb returned to the sideline late in the game on crutches. Rodgers spreads the ball around, but missing two of his top targets showed. Jarrett Boykin caught just one of his six targets and had several drops. Rodgers clearly didn't trust him down the stretch.
2. The Ravens' offensive line struggled. Joe Flacco was constantly under pressure (A.J. Hawk had three sacks) and few holes were opened in the running game. The turnover on downs on a goal-line series in the second quarter, which including three failed runs from inside the 2-yard line, exemplified the struggles.
3. Eddie Lacy was the Packers' most consistent offensive player. He carried twice for 47 yards on the first drive of the game. He finished with 23 carries for 120 yards (Packers fans will tell you it still wasn't enough carries).
2. It's a bad sign for the Buccaneers that they lost at home to Philadelphia on the same day they got a very nice performance from rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. Tampa moved the ball, and Glennon made a number of difficult throws on third-and-long. He went through his progressions. His interception came when his receiver stopped on a route.
3. When Riley Cooper is getting open deep and making plays after the catch, you know it's Philadelphia's day.
1. Where has this Steelers team been all season? Pittsburgh was clearly the best team at the Meadowlands on Sunday afternoon, winning the physical battle in a genuinely impressive performance. Ben Roethlisberger played clean football and exploited the underneath pockets of Rex Ryan's defense. If the Steelers take care of business at home against the Baltimore Ravens next week, things suddenly won't look so hopeless in the Steel City.
2. The GenoCoaster rolls on. After looking like one of the league's most promising rookies in Monday night's win over the Atlanta Falcons, Smith regressed with an ugly showing at home. He overshot a wide-open Stephen Hill on what should have been a long TD in the second quarter, then threw two killer interceptions near the Steelers' goal line in the second half. A definitive step back.
3. The Steelers entered Sunday ranked 10th in total defense, but the unit's inability to make game-changing plays played a role in the team's 0-4 start. That changed against the Jets, as Ryan Clark and Lawrence Timmons both picked off Geno Smith passes in the red zone. Clark could've had another interception, but a Smith pass clanged off his hands. The Steelers' pass rush also forced Smith's hand on several throws. A promising day for the unit.
1. Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson played through the pain of a nagging knee injury, but his presence served more as a decoy, occupying Browns cornerback Joe Haden and opening up opportunities for Detroit's other targets. Quarterback Matthew Stafford sprayed the ball to seven pass-catchers and found little-used Joseph Fauria for three touchdowns. The undrafted tight end entered with just four catches on the season, but took advantage of the single coverage.
2. Brandon Weeden is holding Cleveland's offense hostage. The Browns' 30-year-old quarterback is creaky in the pocket, slow to pull the trigger and drags down the play of his young weapons. In a post-Brian Hoyer world, Josh Gordon talked about having to adjust to Weeden's high-octane passes. Translation: He lacks touch, which leads to drops and balls ricocheting off hands. Every drive is an adventure with Mr. Weeden.
1. On a day that saw Arrowhead Stadium become the loudest venue on planet Earth, the Chiefs certainly gave their rowdy fan base something to cheer about. Pass rusher Tamba Hali piled up 3.5 sacks of Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor on a day that saw Kansas City notch a whopping 10 sacks.
2. It was an ugly afternoon for offensive linemen. Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert exited the game with a left knee injury after bouncing back from a banged-up left shoulder. Raiders center Andre Gurode (knee) and offensive tackle Tony Pashos (groin) also couldn't finish -- one reason Pryor was running for his life.
1. The Titans' defense keeps them competitive week after week, but this game shouldn't have been so close. There was a 10-point swing on the final play of the first half when the Titans blocked a field-goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown. They need plays like that to stay in games while Ryan Fitzpatrick is at quarterback.
3. Seattle is the best team in the NFC because they win even when they aren't operating at peak efficiency. The Seahawks dominated this game and could have won by a lot more. But they are 5-1 while they figure things out.
1. Vernon Davis was an absolute beast. He ended with 180 yards on eight catches -- seven catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. He became the first tight end in franchise history with a 60-plus-yard touchdown catch in back-to-back games.
2. Colin Kaepernick's performance was uneven again this week, but he leaned on Davis and made plays when needed. His stats were respectable (16-of-29 passing for 252 yards) but his two turnovers were avoidable mistakes. He still stares down receivers too much.
3. Larry Fitzgerald's hamstring looked just fine and dandy on a 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first half. His third-quarter fumble that killed a potential Cardinals go-ahead drive, on the other hand, looked no bueno.