Making out the contenders through 5 weeks is a bit challenging. Stalwarts like the Niners, Eagles, and Chiefs remain strong. Miami and Jacksonville have both bounced back, while Buffalo and Baltimore struggled. The NFL loves parity, and they seem to be doing a great job achieving it. Just two undefeated teams (SF/PHI) remain, while only 1 (CAR) is still winless. And Dallas still can’t get past San Francisco. Anyway, here are my week 5 takeaways for the 2023 NFL season!
TNF: Commanders Dig Too Big a Hole; Bears Earn First Win
Chicago’s 14-game losing streak is finally over. Two convergent trends appeared yet again: the Bears took a big first-half lead before struggling later, while Washington fell behind before making a second-half charge. On the night Dick Butkus died (RIP legendary LB), Chicago couldn’t fall completely apart. Starting with that first half, the Bears came out firing. Specifically, WR DJ Moore (5/137/2 in the first half) was targeted early and often. He’d finish with 230 yards and 3 TDs. Moore was by far the best player on the field, racking up major YAC and bailing out his QB.
That QB has actually played better the last couple of weeks. Justin Fields (15/29, 282 yards, 4 TDs, 57 rushing yards) was still inaccurate, but he threw 4 passing scores for the second consecutive game. This time, the crippling turnovers stayed behind. Defensively, Chicago obliterated Washington’s run game. DT Andrew Billings basically did that single-handedly, holding Brian Robinson to just 10 yards on 6 carries. The Commanders abandoned the run fairly early as Chicago blitz them for a 17-0 start and a 27-3 halftime lead. As usual though, Washington awoke in the 3rd quarter.
WAS QB Sam Howell really deserved a better fate. He threw one bad INT, but otherwise he went 37/51 for 388 yards and 2 TDs. His scrambles were also effective, and he led the team with 19 yards on 4 carries. His teammate’s miscues hurt though. TE Logan Thomas lost a fumble on a promising drive. Rookie CB Emmanuel Forbes was too aggressive and got burned by Moore repeatedly before being sent to the bench. K Joey Slye missed a 46-yard FG that would have cut the deficit to a 1-score game. Most perplexingly, Washington’s D-line with 4 first-round picks continued to underperform.
All of those factors led to a 40-20 loss, Washington’s third in a row since a 2-0 start. Since those two wins required comebacks against mediocre or worse teams (DEN and ARI), how good really are these Commanders? Howell is showing growth and some real promise under center, but the offensive line and back 7 of the defense are horrid. They could cost HC Ron Rivera his job. Chicago got a win at last, but they’re still in the #1 pick race. After all, they’ve got their own pick AND Carolina’s pick. That likely high pick and Moore are combining to make the Bryce Young trade stellar for the Bears.
Revisiting the Bengals
The Bengals offense finally showed us signs of life against Arizona. Having not scored an offensive touchdown in the first half of any game this season, Cincy marching down the field for 6 on their opening drive was highly encouraging. The reason this offense has been so poor is not a mystery: QB Joe Burrow. More specifically, the elite QB’s injured calf is to blame. You can see how it has affected him on tape. Normally a great mover in the pocket, Burrow had been a statue through the first four games. He was not a threat to scramble, and he couldn’t evade rushers or put much behind his throws.
Fast forward to this week, and the difference was obvious. Burrow could lean into throws, enhancing both their velocity and their accuracy. He took off for a 10-yard run for the first time in a while, and that was a great sign. Airing the ball out 46 times, Burrow completed 36 passes for 317 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT. The Bengals, who had not scored more than 24 points in a game this season, suddenly put up 34. Burrow’s return to (near-optimal) form had a great effect on WR Ja’Marr Chase. No longer constrained within the offense, Chase caught a team-record 15 passes for 192 yards and 3 scores.
Even the defense seemed energized, forcing 3 Joshua Dobbs turnovers. Keep in mind that Dobbs had not thrown an INT this year but tossed 2 in this 34-20 loss. I must caution you: the Bengals beat the Cardinals, not a team like San Francisco. I hesitate to take too much away from a game against a team with a low talent level. However, the way Burrow moved and performed on a physical level was undeniable. With the Ravens losing, Cincinnati (2-3) is now a game out of a tie for first in the AFC North. Suddenly, if Burrow can maintain his recovery, the Bengals could be very much alive in this playoff chase.
Jaguars Throttle Bills, Would Love to Play Every Game in London
Whenever the Jaguars go to London, a lot of their issues get fixed. Their game across the pond last year was the catalyst for the team’s hot streak, and we might be seeing a similar effect now. After crushing the Falcons at Wembley Stadium a week ago, Buffalo got similar treatment at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Things started ominously when Jacksonville took an 11-0 lead and Bills LB Matt Milano got hurt. His year is reportedly over due to a knee injury and a broken leg. That is as problematic for Buffalo as CB Tre’Davious White’s torn Achilles last week.
Buffalo only managed to score once in the first 3 quarters (a TD before the half). Not everything was pretty for Jacksonville though. QB Trevor Lawrence (25/37, 315 yards, TD) was excellent through the air, especially on third downs, but he fumbled twice, losing two in or near the red zone. Those definitely took points off the board both times, making the final 25-20 margin much closer than it could’ve been. The defense picked up the slack, befuddling the Bills for most of the game. It didn’t help that the Bills players appeared jetlagged, another sign of Jacksonville’s London advantage.
As usual, Buffalo struggled to run the ball, whereas JAX’s Travis Etienne (26/136/2) had little trouble. Credit the Bills for fighting back after losing a key member of their defense, but ultimately the Jaguars got out of their own way enough to seal the game. The clincher was when Lawrence hit WR Calvin Ridley (7/122) on a 32-yard 3rd-down bomb to run another minute of clock. That showed trust and guts, and it paid off immensely. I’m not going to penalize Buffalo too much in my mind here. I don’t think they were ready to play overseas, and they could easily get right back on track at home against NYG next week.
Moss + Minshew > Taylor + Richardson?
The Colts just don’t seem willing to learn. Rookie QB Anthony Richardson already missed time with a concussion, and his running got him hurt again. In the second quarter, Richardson ran for 4 yards but was slow to get up. He would not return, and the early diagnosis is a grade 3 AC joint sprain, which would keep him out 4-6 weeks. His first half was going well, too, as he was 9/12 for 98 yards in his cleanest game so far as a passer. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Richardson will FINALLY be able to sit and learn, which is what I have advocated for repeatedly.
In the meantime, his duties fall to backup Gardner Minshew. Like we saw when he started against Baltimore, Minshew is currently a better QB than Richardson in terms of accuracy, processing, and reading defenses. Once again, he was efficient, going 11/14 for 155 yards in the 23-16 win. The offense is in good hands, especially if Minshew keeps getting help from his RBs. Fresh off of signing his new contract, Jonathan Taylor made his season debut (he was out with an ankle injury). I didn’t expect him to make a big impact (6/18) in his first game back, nor did I expect Zack Moss to look so good.
I did not grade Taylor’s signing highly, and this is another reason why. You can get a quality running back for cheap in free agency or on days 2 and 3 in the draft. Moss, who arrived in the Nyheim Hines trade, has carried the ground game. He was at his finest this week, perhaps spurred on by the return of Taylor. Taking 23 carries for 165 yards and 2 TDs (plus 2 catches for 30 yards), Moss showed burst and power in spades. He seems to be a great fit for this scheme and deserves a share of the touches going forward. Right now, the Colts look better with their backups in the backfield. They need that to change.
Belichick Replaces Jones with Zappe for Second Straight Week
In shades of 2022, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has once again invited a QB controversy of his own making. Last week in a 38-3 drubbing by the Cowboys, he benched Mac Jones but explained that he just didn’t see a point in leaving the QB out there any longer. Doing that once can be viewed as an anomaly. How should we feel now that he’s done it two weeks in a row? In the midst of what would become a 34-0 shutout at the hands of the Saints, Belichick again pulled Jones in favor of Bailey Zappe. The crowd loved the move, having clamored for it for several drives.
The timing was also interesting. Belichick made the move the drive after Jones threw his second INT of the day. Jones had 3 turnovers, including a lost fumble. He wasn’t seeing the field well all game, and the player noted for his accuracy was just 12/22 for 110 yards. In fairness to Jones, he had no help. The Patriots ran for just 45 yards on 18 carries, the offensive line is porous, and the weaponry out wide is lackluster (I’m putting that kindly). To that point, Zappe had no success either. Two of his drives ended in 3-and-outs; the other two saw the Pats go 4-and-out.
Belichick insists that Jones is still his unquestioned QB1. Is that more of a reflection of Jones or Zappe? We can say for sure that Zappe isn’t the answer simply based on his skillset. His arm strength and physical talent aren’t starter-level traits, and Belichick surely knows this. Without an available upgrade, he’s going to try and prop up Jones so he doesn’t lose confidence. The fact is that Jones now has a legitimate OC (Bill O’Brien), which he did not possess last season, so that isn’t an excuse. In year 3, it’s becoming clear that Jones isn’t a franchise QB, and NE will have to trudge through a lost season before resetting next draft.