This is going to sound like a sales pitch for the NFL given that it comes just hours after what was a pretty forgettable set of results in terms of close games – or the lack of them - on Sunday night. But this 2021 NFL season is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in living memory.
Several games were one-sided on Sunday as Cincinnati pulled away from Baltimore for a 41-17 victory, Tennessee stifled Kansas City in a 27-3 domination, Arizona easily handled Houston in a 31-5 win, New England bullied the Jets in a 54-13 annihilation and Tampa Bay recorded a 38-3 scoreline in their favour against Chicago.
But there is nothing one-sided about the state of the league right now. It really is becoming a case of any team being able to beat another side on any given weekend. In Week 6, Baltimore hammered and embarrassed the Los Angeles Chargers in a 34-6 beatdown. Seven days later, it is the Ravens on the receiving end of a big defeat at home to the upstart Bengals.
Let's start there in the AFC as we look at how crowded this race for the playoffs is going to be as we near the midway point of the season. There are six teams in the conference who have just two losses to their names. Cincinnati, Baltimore, Tennessee and Las Vegas are 5-2, while Buffalo and the Chargers are 4-2 coming off their bye weeks.
With respect to all of those teams, there is no truly dominant outfit right now. I do fancy Buffalo to pick up that particular mantle as we head into November and December, but it's a wide open conference as it stands.
The NFC is proving to be equally competitive. The Arizona Cardinals have the look of a dominant team and their 7-0 start to the season definitely makes them a force to be reckoned with, but their conference is also wide open.
In the NFC, there are five teams with no more than one loss to their names. Arizona are 7-0, the Bucs, Packers and Rams are all 6-1 and the Dallas Cowboys are 5-1 coming off their bye week.
That is an incredible upper class of the NFL and I honestly think we are looking at 11 genuine title contenders right there, without even glancing further down the standings to see if a team like the Indianapolis Colts – winners of three of their last four – can get hot at the right time.
In looking at those 11 top teams, they have one thing in common. If you asked them, they would all tell you that they have their answer and their 'guy' at quarterback. There are some special passers and playmakers among the NFL's leading teams. I would say the closest to an outlier would be Ryan Tannehill with the Titans, but the way that team plays with the run and then play-action passes, he is put in plenty of positions where he looks elite and he responds well in those spots.
So, while the NFL is wide open and unpredictable; one thing remains constant and true – you'd better find your long-term answer at quarterback if you want to truly succeed in this league.
Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase… The former LSU teammates put on an absolute clinic during Cincinnati's big win in Baltimore. Burrow threw for 416 yards and three touchdowns while Chase went for 201 yards and a score on eight receptions. A few things stood out for me. Chase looks like a rookie year version of Odell Beckham Jr., only he looks bigger and faster. What a spectacular entrance to the NFL. Two things on Burrow. Number one, he was under duress throughout this game and was pressured on 36 percent of his drops, according to NextGen Stats. He never blinked. Under pressure, Burrow hit on nine of 13 throws for 183 yards and a touchdown. It was also notable that the Bengals never took the ball out of his hands, even when nursing their second half lead. They kept throwing and they kept attacking. And why not with this pair wreaking havoc?
Derek Carr… You'll hear a lot of names mentioned before the words 'Derek' and 'Carr' get uttered in Most Valuable Player conversations. But that should not be the case. The Raiders have endured considerable turmoil in the first half of this season thanks to the racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments made by disgraced and departed head coach Jon Gruden. But they are in the thick of the AFC playoff race and lead the AFC West thanks, in large part, to the form of their quarterback. During Sunday's 33-22 win over Philadelphia, Carr completed 31 of 34 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers might suggest there was some dinking and dunking involved. Not on this day. According to NextGen Stats, Carr went seven of seven for 169 yards and a touchdown on passes that covered 10 yards or more through the air. The recipe for Raiders' success is now clear. They are 5-0 this season when Carr throws for 300 yards or more.
The Tennessee Titans… Mike Vrabel's men have won three straight games to move into the mix to be the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. The Titans are now 5-2 and have beaten both combatants in last year's AFC Championship Game in Buffalo and Kansas City – and they have recorded those huge wins back-to-back in the space of six days. There was no let-down after the dramatic Monday Night Football victory over the Bills. The Titans took their opening drive and marched all over the Chiefs to score on Derrick Henry's touchdown pass to Mycole Pruitt. With Tannehill virtually perfect in the first half, Tennessee sprinted to a 27-0 halftime lead and it was over. There is always the mild threat of a comeback whenever Patrick Mahomes is on the other sideline, but this was never a contest and the Titans impressed by taking over on defense and closing out what proved to be a routine win.
The Kansas City Chiefs… At some point, a pattern of play no longer becomes a fluke and as the great New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells famously said over and over again… "You are what your record says you are." There can be no excuses for the Chiefs, who fell to 3-4 with that loss to the Titans. Kansas City turned the ball over another three times on Sunday, making an NFL-high 17 in seven games this season. Andy Reid admitted after the game that he was worried by his team's showing and he should be. They only committed 16 turnovers in all of 2020. Patrick Mahomes is trying too hard at quarterback and must sure more patience as defenses take away his big plays. Mahomes now has nine interceptions on the season after throwing five in 2019 and six in 2020. He has a pick in each of his last six games and any kind of Chiefs' fightback cannot begin until the turnovers are tidied up.
Sam Darnold… A prove-it year for the Carolina Panthers' quarterback is threatening to rip apart at the seams. There is no long-term commitment to Darnold nor a feeling of 'he's our guy' in Charlotte. So, the quarterback who flamed out with the New York Jets is on very shaky ground after getting benched for P.J. Walker during Sunday's dismal 25-3 loss to the Giants in the Big Apple. Carolina have now lost four in a row after a 3-0 start and Darnold's critical mistakes are hurting both sides of the ball as he presents what was a stiff defense at the start of the year with short fields to protect. We can't even blame the offensive line or complain about pressure on Darnold in Sunday's game. When not under pressure against the Giants, Darnold threw for just 92 yards and an interception. He now has four touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the four-game slide. I think he's got a fight on his hands to stay in the line-up in 2021 and to save his job for 2022. I ultimately believe Carolina don't see Darnold as 'the guy' and they move on.
The Philadelphia Eagles… Don't let the 11-point margin of defeat fool you. The Eagles were nowhere near the Las Vegas Raiders for much of Sunday's game and were getting blown out 30-7 late in the third. There is not much juice to these Eagles at the moment and they have lost five of their last six. They are fast becoming non-descript and irrelevant in today's NFL and that does not reflect well on first-year head coach Nick Sirianni. One thing you can rest assured of… if the Eagles are playing poorly, their fans are going to let them know about it. This team will be thankful for an upcoming Week 8 road trip to Detroit, rather than having to head home to hear the Boo Birds in Philly.
The Fast Five…
- The Los Angeles Rams' 28-19 victory over the winless Detroit Lions was a reminder of three things. 1… There are no givens in the NFL and every game has the potential to turn into an unnecessary nail-biter. 2… Winless teams are dangerous teams. We saw that with the Lions successfully recovering an onside kick and converting two fake punts. 3… The Rams were right to go Matthew Stafford over Jared Goff. Stafford went 10 of 11 for 142 yards and three touchdowns against the blitz, while Goff completed just six of 13 for 62 yards and two interceptions when under pressure.
- Tua Tagovailoa had another annoying week leading into Sunday's loss to Atlanta as rumours of Miami trading for troubled quarterback Deshaun Watson reared their ugly head again. Tua threw four touchdown passes in a 30-28 defeat, but he is by no means out of the woods. He tossed up two terrible interceptions that hurt his team. As long as he plays so inconsistently, Miami are going to eye up alternatives at quarterback, whether we find them unsavoury or not.
- Indianapolis are not out of the AFC playoff picture after Sunday's 30-18 win in a soggy and wind-ravaged San Francisco. Carson Wentz has now posted a quarterback rating over 100 for the fourth game in a row after not having a single game with such a mark in 2020. And Jonathan Taylor is a stud running back who ranks third in the league with 792 yards from scrimmage.
- Arizona are one of the big stories of the 2021 season and we so often look at the star-studded attack. But the defense is also playing very well and that was the case yet again during Sunday's smashing of the Texans. The Cardinals have the look of a complete team and their 7-0 start is no fluke.
- It's hard to figure the New England Patriots out but we have to say they are still alive in the AFC playoff race at 3-4 if we're unwilling to write off the likes of Kansas City and Indy, who have the same record. Mac Jones is coming along nicely. He threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns in putting a 50-burger on the hapless Jets. But his and New England's only wins this season have come against Zach Wilson (twice) and Davis Mills. I need to see more.
Fact of the Week
With one game remaining in Week 6, the average margin of victory has been 14.7 points, even taking into account several close contests across the league. That was the highest margin of victory in a single week since Week 15 of 2019.
Finish That Sentence
Six of the 11 games played on Sunday were decided by 20+ points (most on a single day since Week 14 of 2015) and the average margin of victory was exactly 20 points. It was the third-largest margin of victory on any single Sunday since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From MMG (@MAMGoodlet) To get the '600' ball back, Tom Brady would have given… the fan in question another game ball (we saw that happen) but a whole lot more that we may never know about. If I was that fan, I would be asking for the following… season tickets for the remainder of this year and next, a night out with Bruce Arians and a day of jet-skiing with TB12 in the waterways outside his back garden. If I fail to negotiate well and come up with anything less than that, I'm sprinting out of that stadium at halftime and getting straight on Ebay with that football.
From Stephen (@sevans1308) By the trade deadline, Deshaun Watson will be a member of… the Miami Dolphins. I'm not condoning it and I don't want it. If Miami want to package up some first-round picks and move on from Tua, I'm fine with that. But would it not be a lot less hassle to go and tempt Russell Wilson away from the Seattle Seahawks? I think Miami's owner, Stephen Ross, wants this Watson deal to happen. He wants his Dan Marino, the franchise quarterback missing for so long in Miami. And, importantly, Watson wants to play for the Dolphins and he has a no-trade clause in his contract with Houston, which means he gets to choose where they move him. It doesn't sit well with me, but I think this deal is going to happen.
From Neil P (@generichash) The team currently under .500 that I still expect to make the playoffs is… the Chiefs. They are very poor on defense and their offense is way too careless with the ball, but they have Patrick Mahomes and that makes me unwilling to completely give up on them. I think the Colts are going to make a little run here as well. Over in the NFC, I am not a big believer in the 3-4 Seahawks but they can prove me wrong on Monday Night Football if they like!
From Kel Warlow (@cubby1976) Kyle Shanahan needs to… get Trey Lance healthy and get him into the line-up so he can learn on the job. Lance isn't ready right now, but he represents the future of the franchise given the fact that San Francisco gave up three first-round choices for the young, athletic but raw passer. The 49ers know what they have in Jimmy Garoppolo and it's not much. It certainly doesn't represent their future. And with their record now at 2-4, it's probably time to get Lance out there and to build an offense around him with a view to competing once again in 2022. To me, there is no sense in persisting with Jimmy G in what is shaping up to be a lost season. I have faith that Shanahan can be a good and effective NFL head coach, so he should not be fired. He just needs to accept a backward step now for the good of the team in 2022, 2023 and beyond.
Great quarterbacks can make this game look easy. But we know it's not when we see how some of the young quarterbacks struggle. But Aaron Rodgers, of the Packers, and Tampa Bay's Tom Brady barely got out of second gear during their wins on Sunday. Neither will really grab the headlines yet Rodgers threw for 274 yards, three touchdowns and no picks while Brady picked up 211 yards through the air while throwing four touchdown strikes with no interceptions. Their class shines through even on days when they never have to reach into their reserves.