NFL Week 7 Takeaways: What We Learned This Week
By Connor Brosnan.
The AFC North Shootout
I don't even know where to begin with the back and forth chaos we saw in the battle of Ohio between Baker Mayfield's Cleveland Browns and Joe Burrow's Cincinnati Bengals. A battle of two Heisman Trophy winning number one overall picks delivered one of the most entertaining, for good and bad, games of the 2020 season so far.
In the early stages it looked like we may be heading towards a second week running where the Browns end up benching Baker Mayfield and we start to ask questions about his long-term future as their franchise QB, as he started 0-5 and couldn't muster up anything with the Cleveland offense. All of a sudden however, a switch flicked, and we saw all the talent and decision-making that made John Dorsey take the gamble of drafting him first overall in the 2018 draft.
Following that awful start, he went 22-23, with the only one preventing that from being perfect being a spike to stop the clock on the final drive. It was a ruthless passing display adding up to 297 yards and 5 touchdowns which culminated with the stunning game winner to Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds remaining.
This ended up being the sort of performance Cleveland have seen a few times over the last few years, but the issue with Baker Mayfield has been his tendency to not follow up on performances like this and a few weeks down the line we start asking those same questions about his future, but for this week at least we saw the very best of Mayfield.
On the other side, we saw once again why Joe Burrow was so highly rated entering this year’s draft as he played his part in this shootout by consistently giving his Cincinnati side chances to come away with a huge divisional win. He once again however was let down by a shoddy defensive performance which couldn't so much as force an incompletion for three quarters, let alone make a stop.
His 440 total yards and 4 touchdowns were the highest of his NFL career so far, with his only blemish on a very impressive performance being his three fumbles. Fortunately only one was lost, and admittedly it must be a nightmare to come up against a pass-rush as good as Cleveland's while standing behind an offensive line as bad as Cincinnati's, but it's still an issue he'll have to work on.
They didn't hinder his performance though, as for everytime Baker Mayfield struck to give the Browns the advantage, Burrow would march his Bengals side right back up the field to score again. A true shootout which saw an NFL record for most lead changes and most go-ahead touchdowns in the 4th quarter of a game and in the end it was only the clock that prevented the Bengals from presumably going up and retaking the lead if they had time.
In fact, they weren't far off doing that anyway with the 11 seconds they had left following the Browns winning touchdown, with Burrow's hail-mary being tipped into the endzone but fortunately for Cleveland there was no waiting Bengal to claim it.
A classic contest which ends up being a huge win for Cleveland who are in serious contention for a playoff place now, and from an entertainment standpoint hopefully we get to see plenty more matchups between these two quarterbacks over the years if their first two meetings are anything to go by.
A Gritty Washington W
Sometimes playing football doesn't have to be pretty to be successful. The Washington Football Team proved that this week. In truth, nothing about the NFC East is pretty this season, but games like this are the sort of wins that could sneak Washington into the playoffs.
This was the definition of efficient football; knowing what you're good at and making sure you do enough to win. It helps that the Dallas Cowboys are just a dumpster fire this season (I told myself I won't talk too much about the Cowboys again this week), but the way this Washington defense played this week didn't even give Dallas' usual star playmakers a chance to have any impact on the game, with CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup's zero receptions, along with just 45 yards for Ezekiel Elliott showing the struggles the Cowboys had.
After the reports that emerged last week it's tough to tell at this point if the Cowboys are deliberately trying to get Mike McCarthy fired, and with the way they played on Sunday you can't say for sure that they're not, but that's a story for another day.
Sunday belonged to the Football Team, who gave Andy Dalton, regarded as one of the steadier backups in the league, an absolute nightmare. He was sacked three times, picked off once and fumbled in his own endzone resulting in a safety. Dalton's game then took a much more serious turn when he was taken out of the game with a scary looking head injury after a shocker of a hit from Jon Bostic who was rightly ejected from the game, which was the only blip on a near perfect day for Washington. Dalton's replacement, 7th round rookie Ben DiNucci stood no hope in his limited time out there either and was sacked three times himself.
Washington's strength on paper was always going to be their defense, with a few star players combined with a talented defensive staff in coordinator Jack Del Rio and head coach Ron Rivera. If they're going to have success this season, this is the formula for it. Pressure the quarterback with that solid defensive line and hope that their offense can do enough to get them across the line. This week, that's exactly how it panned out.
Kyle Allen didn't have to do too much, but his 194 yards and 2 touchdowns, combined with good performances from their best offensive players this season in Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin, was good enough to move Washington to 2-5 on the year.
A good day on the field for the Ron Rivera's side, but away from the field I'd like to give a quick mention to Riverboat Ron, who had his final treatment for his cancer scare the day after this game. As a Carolina Panthers fan myself, Rivera is my favourite coach in the NFL and will always have a special place in all Panthers fans hearts, and I'm sure that clip of him ringing the bell on Monday would've been one of the highlights of every NFL fan’s week.
Can Cam still go?
Speaking of people with a special place in Panthers fan’s hearts, it pains me to have to write something about the struggles of Carolina's greatest quarterback. It may have been a bit early to jump the gun and claim it was another stroke of genius from Bill Belichick by picking up the former MVP after losing Tom Brady, because after Cam Newton's impressive performance in week 2 against Seattle, things have pretty much spiralled out of control.
This has been particularly evident in the last two games where the New England Patriots have suffered back to back defeats against a poor Denver side and their heaviest ever home loss in the Belichick era to the 49ers.
It's not as though the offensive line, as it was in Carolina, can take a huge part of the blame as Newton was only hit twice. The problems this week stemmed almost entirely from Cam struggling to find his targets and generally just not looking comfortable under center. This is Cam's 10th year in the NFL and his 98 yards passing this week was a career low, and when combined with his three interceptions it was possibly his worst performance during that span too.
Obviously some part of the Patriots’ struggles over the past month have come from a depleted and weakened roster which has made New England the easiest they've been to beat in over 20 years, but the reason the Patriots brought Cam in was because they still felt they had enough about them to be competitive in the AFC East. We are now at the stage where it seems he won't be able to help keep them at that level, and by benching him this week for Jarrett Stidham, it's the first sign that the Patriots seem to be seeing that themselves now too.
Before the season got underway there was a lot of talk that Belichick and the Patriots would be happy to essentially tank this season away and try again next year. After all, they lost the greatest QB of all time along with probably more of their roster than any other NFL side to opt-outs this year. But once the inevitable Cam Newton pick-up became apparent, it seemed there was a chance New England could still be a threat this year because if any coach was going to bring Cam back to his glory days it would be Belichick.
It hasn't turned out that way, at least not through week 7 anyway, and it's definitely time to start accepting that we will never see Cam back to those MVP glory days and his days as a franchise QB seem to be sadly, numbered.
Atlanta “Atlanta'd” it up again
Death. Taxes. Atlanta finding a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
How on earth do Atlanta keep doing it? After getting their first win of the season last week, and with a favourable matchup against the middling Detroit Lions this week, it appeared that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance for the Falcons to rescue some pride from what has been a disaster of a season so far.
It was far from a classic matchup, but it was also far from devoid of drama. For the most part, Atlanta seemed in control of this one with impressive performances from Matt Ryan who, as is typical, put up big numbers and Todd Gurley, who until the 'incident' we will come to in a minute, added 84 total yards and two touchdowns as he looks to try to get back to his former best self.
Stafford and his Lions hung in there like they generally do but despite good performances from the quarterback and his receivers, they were never able to build themselves a solid lead as they couldn't convert all their yards into points. So, when the Falcons were marching down the field in the closing minutes with a two point deficit it looked like Detroit were going to pay the price for missed opportunities and be punished with a game winning field goal.
But of course, this is Atlanta we're talking about and even the most simple things like that are made complicated. In scenes mirroring the Penn State v Indiana game just 24 hours earlier, all Atlanta had to do was get the ball down as close to the endzone as they could to give Younghoe Koo the easiest chip shot field goal possible and walk away with a win.
Todd Gurley however, who we have seen do this play correctly in the past, had other ideas by being a bit over eager and rushing straight for the endzone, only for the penny to drop right as he was about to cross the line when he realised nobody was trying to tackle him. At that stage it was too late and he had crossed for the score and we got the bizarre scenes of him laying in frustration at the fact he had scored a touchdown while the Lions defenders appealed with the referees to signal for the score.
It was at this stage that despite Atlanta taking a six-point lead, we knew what was to come. Matthew Stafford has a habit of game-winning drives and with just one minute on the clock, marched his side up the field and connected with T.J Hockensen for the game-tying touchdown. Just to add to the drama even the game-winning PAT that followed wasn't straight forward as a penalty forced Matt Prater to have to kick it from deep field-goal range, but he still managed to drill it through the sticks and condemn Atlanta to their 6th defeat on the season, and possibly the toughest to take.
And then there was one
The biggest matchup this week on paper pitted two 5-0 teams together in Nashville, as the Pittsburgh Steelers visited the Tennessee Titans. I don't think many would have had these as the final unbeaten sides in the NFL before the season began, but it's hard to argue that any other teams have been as consistent and strong on both sides as the ball.
Typically then, we got a game that went right down to the wire and gave us so much to admire offensively and defensively. For the most part it was Pittsburgh who controlled this game and near enough suffocated the Titans for the first half and a bit. The Titans produced only one scoring drive that gave them anything to shout about as the Steelers put up 24 points on their own first four drives and the usually mighty Titans defense couldn't get close to making a stop.
Diontae Johnson and Juju Smith-Schuster impressed with over 80 yards each and two touchdowns for the former, while James Conner added over 100 total yards himself as Ben Roethlisberger played efficient football. Big Ben was protected well (0 sacks allowed) and got the ball out quickly so as not to allow the Titans a chance to get close to him. It looked frustrating for Tennessee with Mike Tomlin's side doing a job on them.
After an early field goal to put the Steelers 27-7 up in the 3rd quarter, things changed on all fronts for Tennessee. Offensively they put up 17 points as Ryan Tannehill settled down at quarterback, firing off for 220 yards on the day and they eventually managed to get Derrick Henry going for 75 yards and a score. The standout player of the day though was AJ Brown who went for 153 yards and a touchdown, a performance only bettered by his big game at Oakland last season.
While the Titans offense was getting it done, their defense stepped up big time too. After an interception to end the 2nd quarter, they added two more scores in the second half as well as forcing the Steelers to punt twice, something they didn't manage to do in the first half. That aforementioned early second half field goal was the only score Pittsburgh managed in the half and in the end, it was the all-important one.
After Tennessee had clawed it back to 27-24, Amani Hooker picked off Big Ben with Pittsburgh in the redzone looking to close the game out which gave the Titans an unlikely chance to go up the other end and tie – or even win – the game themselves with a little over two minutes remaining.
Tannehill delivered enough as he marched them up the field from inside their own 10 yard line and with the drive coming to an end midway through the Pittsburgh half, he had set them up with a chance to kick the game-tying field goal, but from 45 yards Stephen Gostkowski missed wide-right and the Steelers sneaked away with a huge win.
It was a gutting end for the Titans who showed a lot of fight and quality to battle back after being pretty much blown away by the Steelers early on, but it would still be hard not to think of them as contenders for another solid playoff run this year as this is a franchise with very few weaknesses.
As for the Steelers, at 6-0 they remain the only unbeaten side in the NFL and look good value for that record. It was a nervy end for them, but it's hard to argue that they didn't do enough to win that game anyway in the first half and I'm sure Tomlin will make sure they iron out those deficiencies they had in the second ahead of their toughest test of the season next week against AFC North rivals the Baltimore Ravens. We will get to see if they can pass another big test against another contender this year. For now though, the Steelers remain perfect.
Herbert off the mark
I don't think there have been many players through the first 7 weeks that have been as impressive as Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Yet, until Sunday it was hard to really take notice too much as despite his stellar performances his Chargers side had yet to get a win with him on the field.
After Tyrod Taylor led them to victory against the Bengals in week 1, the Chargers have lost four straight, but that run came to an end this week as Herbert led them to a mighty 39-29 victory over the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Through his first three games he put up over 300 total yards in each and six total touchdowns, while last week’s defeat to the New Orleans Saints was one of the rookie performances of the year as he threw for four touchdowns yet still somehow found himself on the losing side.
So, it will have been such a relief this week for Herbert and the Chargers organisation for him to finally get off the mark and once again he did it in lights-out fashion. Sacked only once and without throwing a single pick, he went for a career high 347 yards combined with three touchdowns. The 39 points he led the Chargers to is the most any side has put up against the Jaguars this year.
Herbert already seems to have formed a nice connection with star receiver Keenan Allen, who caught 10 passes for 125 yards, and Herbert's threat didn't just come with his arm either as he showed off his wheels with a 31 yard run as part of 66 yards he added on the ground.
Herbert was highly thought of in the NFL Draft, but nobody really expected too much from him this soon. It was still expected Taylor would be the starter for most of the season and if Herbert came in it would be a slow learning curve for him. He ended up getting his start in those bizarre lung-puncturing circumstances, but he has hit the ground running so well that the Chargers, despite their initial statement to the contrary, haven't been able, or had any reason, to take him out of the side to reinstate Taylor.
The Chargers have plenty of issues, including a few defensive frailties and lack of a consistent run game, which have stopped them from getting more wins than they could have this year, but the one thing they have no issues with anymore is the quarterback position. The Chargers have found their franchise QB.