With Week 6 of the 2017 season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
In the span of a few steamy days last summer, it was possible to imagine the yin and yang of the AFC East.
A few days later, several hundred miles south in New Jersey, the New York Jets endured what might have been their worst practice of training camp. They were a name-tag-needed collection of young players who struggled so completely to execute an offense that one longtime NFL personnel man in attendance advised a reporter to start researching the worst offenses in NFL history.
Little more than two months later, the season has not developed quite the way anybody anticipated. Cooks has been a solid contributor in New England, but he's not yet a game changer, as the Patriots' offense has sputtered in Julian Edelman's absence amid struggles to protect Brady. And Jets quarterback Josh McCown's completion percentage (71.4) is second in the league and five points better than his previous career high -- so good that this week, Bill Belichick praised the journeyman as a smart, tough quarterback for whom he has a lot of respect. This Sunday, the 3-2 Patriots and 3-2 Jets will meet with first place in the AFC East on the line. That's not a typo, and it's as startling a development in the early part of the season as there has been.
There is currently a three-way tie atop the division, with the Buffalo Bills and their rookie head coach, Sean McDermott, also included. But with the Bills on a bye this week, the Patriots and Jets have taken on unexpected significance. That is primarily because of the underachievement of the Patriots relative to the outsize expectations that constantly surround them -- 3-2, after all, is a comedown from preseason talk about 19-0 -- and considering the Patriots' history, quarterback and head coach, it may not last much longer. But for now, the AFC East is the most closely contested division in football.
Perhaps the most important development in the game -- and the division -- came Wednesday, when Brady said he would play Sunday, despite aggravating an AC joint sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder in a victory over the Bucs last Thursday. Brady did not practice Wednesday, but said he was not worried about his shoulder, and Jets coach Todd Bowles joked that the 40-year-old Brady would probably still be playing long after Bowles retired.
Possibly, but the beating Brady has taken this season, absorbing 16 sacks -- one more than he did in the 12 games he played last season -- and 32 hits is a source of concern for the Patriots, even if the Jets' top pass rushers, Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson, have no sacks. Against the Bucs, Brady was repeatedly hit, and after taking one shot in the first quarter, appeared to get up awkwardly. In his press conference that night, Brady sloughed off concerns about his health. But this week, he acknowledged that New England's overall offensive struggles, which have meant closer games and the Patriots passing more than they prefer, are part of the equation that has left him vulnerable.
"I think the key is, you've got to play the game on your terms," Brady said. "I think we haven't done a great job of that, and not playing great football early in the game doesn't really get you the lead, so you're trying to fight and claw back the whole way, throw the ball. You know, your run-pass ratio gets way out of balance, so you're throwing it all the time, which we've been doing, and it just gives them more opportunity."
Brady is on pace for one of the best seasons of his career. That's why, even though the Jets and Patriots have the same record, there are few outside of Gang Green's headquarters who don't expect this Sunday to mark the beginning of a divisional course correction. Among the 16 teams entering Week 6 with winning records in the NFL, the Jets rank at the bottom in point differential, yardage differential and sack differential -- results a lot closer to the preseason expectations than their record.
Still, the Jets' three-game winning streak, and the fact that the young roster has played hard despite the forecasted outcome, has allowed fans to share the same optimism that was present in the locker room all along.
"As a competitor -- from a players' standpoint -- you hate to have people talk about you negatively, especially when you've played bad, and there's only two things you can do with adversity," Bowles said this week. "You can come back and fight against it, or you can succumb to it. And the guys have been fighting hard, but that's not our sole purpose, to win because people picked us to fail -- they're trying to get to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl like everybody else, and that's our motivation going in. Now, is that extra motivation for them? Probably so, but nevertheless, our motivation is to try to win ballgames."
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Palmer hoping Peterson can lighten the load. When the Cardinals implemented their offseason strategy to limit 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer's throws during spring workouts, the goal was to make sure his arm would be as strong as possible when the calendar turned to November and December, in hopes of a late-season playoff push. They could not have foreseen the benefit this early in the season. He says he still feels fresh, despite, in his 15th NFL campaign, leading the league in pass attempts (227) and ranking second in passing yards (1,573) while playing behind an oft-injured offensive line and being sacked 19 times, tied for most in the NFL.
"Yeah, I feel great," Palmer told me Wednesday after practice. "Whether you throw 60 balls in a game or 40 balls in a game, it doesn't really affect your arm either way."
Palmer is hoping the arrival of running back Adrian Petersonvia a trade with the Saints will reduce his arm's workload -- not because he can't handle it physically, but because these Cardinals have been searching for offensive balance since running back David Johnson went down with a dislocated wrist in Week 1. Currently, no team has made fewer running attempts per game this season than Arizona (20).
"I love throwing the ball, but I also like getting a defense to suck up against some play-action," he said. "Getting in second-and-6 and third-and-manageable. It's a doubled-edged sword. A lot of quarterbacks want to go out and throw the ball every play, but when defenses start to pick up on that, it makes it more difficult. I'm at the stage right now, we're at the part in the season, where if we can [get] to more 60-40, it probably would be better for all of us."
And, most especially, Palmer.
* * * * *
DENVER BRONCOS: Avoiding the injury bug. We witnessed last Sunday how devastating injuries can be, specifically with the Texans (who lost J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season) and the Giants (who lost Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris for the season). There is no way to completely prevent injuries in the NFL, but how you manage your players has become more and more important.
"I think having a plan for the entire year helps to keep players healthy," Joseph said. "It's [30-year-old running back] Jamaal Charles not working on Wednesday, [31-year-old cornerback Aqib] Talib not working on Wednesday and [32-year-old nose tackle] Domata [Peko] not working on Wednesday. It's having recovery day on Friday. Long term, you have to plan early for that. You can't at Week 10 say, 'OK, let's back Talib off.' Because he won't make it, and Jamaal Charles won't make it. I think having a plan and sticking with it through the good times and through adversity is important when you have a plan to keep guys healthy."
Joseph's ability to handle the pulse of his team is noteworthy because he is a first-year head coach. He told me he is applying what he learned under Gary Kubiak while he was on Kubiak's staff in Houston. Talib once told me that he believes, because of the way Kubiak handled him throughout his time in Denver, that Kubiak added three to four years to his career.
Joseph also pointed out to me that he references a season he spent working for Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati.
"Marvin [Lewis], in my second year, became really good at it -- we had our best year that year with Marvin," Joseph told me. "The first year, we were really beat up. The second year, he pulled the pads off on Friday and had a recovery Friday. We won [eight] games in a row and [had] a healthy football team."
* * * * *
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Major test looming? The Kansas City Chiefs are about to face their biggest challenge in a season that hasn't seen them lose yet. The biggest key to their 5-0 start has been a vastly improved offense -- Kansas City leads the league with an average of 32.8 points per game, up from 24.3 in 2016. But that unit has been plagued by injuries lately. The Chiefs already are playing without three projected starters on the offensive line and one starting wide receiver who is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles (Chris Conley). Throw in the fact that Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce missed practice this week while in the concussion protocol, and those are tough circumstances for a team about to face the same Pittsburgh Steelers who beat them twice last season.
* * * * *
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Seahawks taking note of an organization on the upswing. Seattle defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 16-10, on Sunday, but Seahawks players said this is a different Rams club than the one that's been a punchline for years. Several said that Rams second-year QB Jared Goff played poised and didn't rush through his progressions like he did when the teams met late in 2016.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman added that the overall offensive schemes and game plan were vastly different than what they'd seen with previous Rams teams. Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable added that the Rams' defensive front -- Aaron Donald, Connor Barwin, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn -- might be the most physical and dominant in the NFL.
* * * * *
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Offense itching to get back on course. Oakland's supposed-to-be powerful offense is ranked 30th overall in yards per game. The running game hasn't gotten going with Marshawn Lynch. The tight ends haven't flourished in the passing game, and the offensive line hasn't been as dominant as it was in 2016.
Players told me that the issues have been tiny, technical things: offensive linemen not turning a defender to spring the running back that made the proper read, receivers dropping passes, quarterbacks not finding open targets.
"Everyone on our team is frustrated with something," quarterback Derek Carr said. "That part of it, we have to get rid of. We've got to go out and cut it loose."
Most importantly, Carr looks like he'll be back to help do that Sunday against the Chargers after missing last week's loss to Baltimorewith a transverse process fracture in his back. He is practicing as if he will start, and wide receiver Amari Cooper -- who is off to a slow start, with 13 catches for 118 yards -- said Carr has looked like his normal self. Carr said he's not physically restricted, and that he simply is dealing with pain management. He said he has no fear of further aggravating the injury by playing. If it happens? That's football, he said.
Offensive guard Gabe Jackson said players feel primed to remedy things Sunday -- and not because the Chargers are 1-4. The offensive line is tired of hearing about its shortcomings, as are other players, he said. Establishing the running game -- and in a physical manner -- is something players are focused on, he said. Jackson added that the Raiders hope to get into more of an offensive tempo. He didn't get into specifics.
"We need to be efficient," Carr said. "Each man has to do his job. When the big plays are there, we need to make them, but each man has to do his job."