Each week between now and the Super Bowl, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
Here's this week's briefing:
A five-pack of teams screams 'TAKE US SERIOUSLY!' at the quarter mark
NFL Network draft sage Daniel Jeremiah observed Sunday that clubs have treated the month of September as nothing short of an extended tune-up before diving into the meat of the fray:
A generous swath of clubs feel half-baked, but five NFL cities burn bright on our radar after Sunday performances that altered perceptions and pointed to spicy campaigns ahead:
In Cleveland, where the Browns -- a media punching bag a week ago -- marched into Baltimore to spin four quarters of unexpected chaos. Sunday's 40-25 stomping served as the balm for a laundry list of burning concerns: Instead of the pent-up offense from Cleveland's first three tilts, Baker Mayfield and friends pulled inspiration from the creative and powerful attack we saw down the stretch in 2018. Taking advantage of a Ravens defense light on pass rushers, Browns blockers kept Mayfield cozy (one sack and seven dropbacks under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus) and blasted holes for Nick Chubb, the second-year back who strode through enemy territory as a raging deity. Chubb broke free for 165 yards on the day, snapping Baltimore's spirit with an 88-yard gallop to paydirt -- his third score of the game -- to put the Browns up 30-18 with nine-plus minutes on the clock. Cleveland blistered the Ravens with 530 yards at a robust 8.7 yards per play on a day when star wideout Odell Beckham accounted for just 20 of those yards through the air. The victory had plenty to do with Cleveland's under-fire coaching staff, as head man Freddie Kitchens took a long look in the mirror and successfully adjusted the offense after three depressing performances on that side of the ball. On defense, coordinator Steve Wilks authored a pristine game plan that frustrated multi-threat signal-caller Lamar Jackson (his 247 passing yards were a season low, and his two picks were his first of 2019) despite the absence of starting corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams. Sitting atop the AFC North for the first time in half a decade, Cleveland finally resembled the high-octane team breathlessly sold to America all offseason.
In Detroit, where Sunday's stumble doesn't feel like the past billion losses suffered by this oft-forgotten outfit. A mercilessly bland voyage into the heart of Snoozefest City: This is how I've felt about the milquetoast Lions all century. Who knew a 34-30 loss to Kansas City would mark the moment my heart skipped a beat? As I type, waves of fresh energy surround our Honolulu blue-clad boys from Flyover Land. Detroit made life tough on Patrick Mahomes, even if his box score still reads like a Mitchell Trubisky fever dream. The MVP candidate spent portions of Sunday out of sync with his targets, while Kansas City's starry skill-position types accounted for three lost fumbles. Detroit's inability to flip all but one of those turnovers into points were the difference, along with self-imposed gaffes in the form of a Matthew Stafford red-zone fumble and a lost ball at the goal line by Kerryon Johnson that turned into a 100-yard scoring return by Chiefs defender Bashaud Breeland. At 2-1-1, though, Detroit has my attention. Long viewed as a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream, the Lions under coach Matt Patricia are etching an identity as a rugged club with just enough pieces to hit October as a frisky berserker. Brass tacks: This team is fun to watch.
In Carolina, where a Panthers bunch left for dead sits at 2-2 after an edgy road win over the Texans. Young quarterback Kyle Allen took his lumps with three lost fumbles, but Sunday reminded us the Panthers no longer revolve around the quarterback. Backfield wonder Christian McCaffrey touched the ball a whopping 37 times for 179 yards and provided Carolina's only touchdown of the day. The MVP-level talent put the attack on his shoulders, prompting rookie left tackle Greg Little to say after the game: "He's our angel, that's what I call him. He's a workhorse. I'm glad he's on my side." Carolina's defense did the rest, holding ball-catching god DeAndre Hopkins to 41 yards while peppering Texans passer Deshaun Watson with six sacks. A fortnight removed from pressing questions being raised about the future of coach Ron Rivera, here's the real query: Will we ever learn? Riverboat Ron has proven himself to be one of the game's more resilient leaders, guiding the Panthers out of ugly corners and doom-laden black holes time and again. Seen initially as the harbinger of disaster, Cam Newton's absence while dealing with a Lisfranc injury during this two-game win streak serves instead as a reminder of how many other valuable pieces reside inside Carolina's locker room.
In Tampa Bay, where the Bucs return home after dropping a West Coast 50-Burger on the suddenly vexing Rams. I wavered on touting Tampa, but this Bucs squad ventured into new territory with a 55-40 explosion over the Rams in Los Angeles. My concern with the club is your concern, too: Jameis Winston, who let the Rams back in with a ghastly pick-six to cover man Marcus Peters. Pile up yardage and points one Sunday; kill the team with hyper-ugly turnovers the next. Bruce Arians was hired to clean up a quarterback who accounted for 17 of Tampa's league-high 35 giveaways last season under then-coach Dirk Koetter. Winston's five picks through four games, second-most in the NFL, raise healthy amounts of fresh suspicion, but Arians has milked 86 points from the Bucs over the past two weeks. Along with Winston's high-profile error on Sunday came 385 passing yards at 9.4 yards per fling, plus four scoring tosses. Wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who have 754 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches between them, are playing a brand of football that leaves defenders considering new career paths. Free-agent pass-rushing pickup Shaquil Barrett is on pace for roughly 129 sacks. There's lots to like here, with an acid-test showdown up next against a New Orleans defensive front hellbent on scattering antsy ball-carriers to the wind.
In Jacksonville, where the quarterback of the hour is much more than just a dreamy mustache. When Nick Foles and his $50 million in guaranteed loot vanished from reality minutes into the regular season with a broken left clavicle, it felt like Jacksonville's season was a cruel trick spun by the often-annoying-unless-you-live-in-Foxborough Football Gods. Instead, the gridiron puppet-masters handed fans a gift forged from the beyond: SWEET, SWEET GARDNER MINSHEW THE SECOND. While watching the rookie passer calmly direct Jacksonville to a game-winning field goal in Denver, something nagged at me: As much as I enjoy Minshew's delicious mustache, flowing locks and chilled-out-man-of-the-people vibe, it's almost as if the lovable persona shoves his actual play into the background. Week after week, he delivers clean football bolstered by a slew of aggressive-minded downfield lobs that bring life to the offense. Minshew absorbed punishment Sunday in the form of five sacks, but the wire-to-wire pressure put his pocket presence on display as the newbie often danced away from would-be destroyers to get the ball out on time. He was given a much-needed boost from previously AWOL runner Leonard Fournette, who ripped through Vic Fangio's crew for a career-high 225 ground yards, much of it coming during a clock-chewing third-quarter domination of Denver's winded defense. Back-to-back wins have Jacksonville sitting in a four-way tie for first in a weird AFC South. With Minshew at the motherboard, anything -- and everything -- feels possible.