The NFL can be truly crazy. Two squads with backup QBs knocked off the league’s last unbeaten teams. Another backup pushed Buffalo to the brink. Carolina, an 0-5 team, took a 14-0 lead over Miami (before promptly being crushed). This should be your annual reminder to beware when betting on the NFL. All 32 teams are professionals, and any of them can beat any other if things break their way. Let’s try to make sense of what happened this week in my week 6 takeaways for the 2023 NFL season!
TNF: Chiefs Easily Beat Broncos Despite Offensive Struggles
I don’t think anyone expected Denver to have a real shot here. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes was 11-0 against the Broncos going into this game, and after this week’s 19-8 win, he’s 12-0. Still, it’s hard to come away impressed by KC’s offense. For the second time this season, they were held under 20 points, and the big reason why was red zone execution. The first time, they stalled and came away with an FG. After an INT, they reached the 20 again, only for Mahomes to throw a reckless INT while being sacked. Next trip, they lined up for an FG on 4th and 2, but they faked it with a run by TE Noah Gray. It didn’t work.
Mahomes (30/40, 306 yards, TD) and especially TE Travis Kelce (9/124) loaded up on stats, but there was much more quantity than quality. Having two new tackles this season isn’t helping, but more than that, everything feels harder. Last season, the Chiefs had their way on offense. In 2023, the young receivers aren’t stepping up, and Mahomes is being forced to play hero ball. The result has been a few more turnovers and a lower scoring output. This game was about the defense; Steve Spagnuolo‘s unit didn’t allow Denver to score a single point until more than halfway through the 4th quarter.
There’s not much more to say about the Broncos. Having lost by 10 at home last week to the Jets and former Broncos HC (now Jets OC) Nathaniel Hackett, losing to KC is hardly surprising. To this point, the only win Denver has earned required a furious comeback against Chicago. That win actually hurts Denver in their race with the Bears for the #1 pick given that Chicago would “lose” a tiebreaker between these teams. The only difference this week is that the defense provided a respectable effort for once, whereas QB Russell Wilson (13/22, 95 yards, TD, 2 INTs) and the offense were abysmal. HC Sean Payton must regret leaving Fox for this.
Malik Willis, Tyson Bagent Not Ready for the Big Stage
Two QB injuries forced young backups into the spotlight, and neither did well. First, in London, Tennessee’s offensive line finally got Ryan Tannehill injured, which brought Malik Willis into the game. I’ve commented on Willis before, but the hope was that he would look better with another offseason and more experience under his belt. That didn’t exactly work out for HC Mike Vrabel. Though Willis’ line (4/5, 74 yards) looks good, it doesn’t tell the story. Willis looked lost in the pocket, holding the ball forever. He took 4 bad sacks, including while the team was in hurry-up mode. The Titans might not have lost 24-16 to Baltimore with more competence at QB.
Chicago’s Tyson Bagent (6/10, 58 yards) had struggles that were more understandable. A UDFA from Division II Shepherd, Bagent surprisingly won the job in camp (less surprising when you consider that Nathan Peterman was his primary competition, but I digress). He came in against the Vikings when Justin Fields left in the second half. Fields was diagnosed with a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand. Bagent looked like the more natural passer, but his first series ended with him fumbling; Minnesota returned it for a TD. His day ended when he threw an INT on a woefully underthrown ball. With nearly 2 minutes left, the ball should never have been thrown.
It remains to be seen what potential these two QBs have. Willis is looking more and more like a bust. We knew he was a project, but he should at least know the basics like when to get rid of the ball. Bagent has never faced this type of competition before, so he’s much more of an unknown. At 6’3″ and 215 lbs, he has prototypical size. He also set records in Division II and looked good in the preseason. I doubt Chicago considers him a viable replacement for Fields, but we won’t know until he gets more opportunities. Given the state of Chicago’s season and what we’ve seen from Fields, I say give him a shot.
K Jake Moody, Browns’ Defense Ruin 49ers’ Perfect Season
One of only two 5-0 teams remaining, San Francisco looked to have a great matchup. The Browns came in with the #2 scoring defense, but they no longer have Nick Chubb, and PJ Walker was slated to start at QB. When the Niners marched 84 yards in 5 plays for an opening-drive TD, it looked like this game would be a blowout. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Cleveland’s defense was exceptional. DE Myles Garrett had some rare success rushing against LT Trent Williams. CB Martin Emerson picked off Brock Purdy, which nobody else had done this season.
If anything, Walker nearly sabotaged the defensive effort. He completed 18/34 passes for 192 yards, throwing 2 INTs and misfiring on several other throws. RBs Jerome Ford (17/84) and Kareem Hunt (71 scrimmage yards, TD) carried the day and mustered 19 points. The defense just proved too good to be denied. Purdy (12/27, 125 yards, TD, and the aforementioned INT) had easily the worst day of his young career. He was never comfortable in the pocket, feeling the Browns’ pressure and throwing off-target passes. Injuries also played a role, with RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Deebo Samuel both exiting with injuries.
We can also fault HC Kyle Shanahan‘s play calling in the 4th quarter. Clinging to a 17-16 lead with 3:21 remaining, he called 3 straight pass plays, going 3 and out with 25 seconds burnt but no Browns timeouts. That gave Cleveland plenty of time to kick a go-ahead FG. With one more chance, SF got to Cleveland’s 26 with 45 seconds left. Shanahan got conservative and set up a midrange FG (41 yards), which Jake Moody missed to lose 19-17. SF could’ve gotten the ball closer for a rookie K who has been shaky at best. Moody, who also missed a kick earlier in the game, is this team’s weakest link. Can we give Robbie Gould a call?
Think of How Good the Jets Would be with Aaron Rodgers
Seeing Aaron Rodgers somehow throwing before the Jets’ game against the Eagles, I couldn’t help but wonder. Where would this team be right now with their franchise savior? I think they’d be among the league’s very best given that they’re now 3-3 with Zach Wilson. They got to 3-3 by knocking off the (previously) 5-0 Eagles, the last undefeated team remaining for the second straight year. As was the case last year, the Jets are going wherever the defense takes them. Once again, that defense is exceptional, and they deserve almost all of the credit for this win.
I can’t say that Wilson deserves credit for a 19/33, 186-yard day with no TDs and 5 sacks taken, but he didn’t commit a turnover. His opponent, MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts, didn’t protect the ball whatsoever. He threw 3 INTs, and though one wasn’t his fault at all, it was still a sloppy performance. No turnover stung more than the last one, when Philly faced 3rd and 9 late in the 4th. A first down would have iced the game, but Hurts threw right to Tony Adams, who returned the ball to the PHI 8. RB Breece Hall (12/39/1) ran in for the go-ahead score 1 play later. The Eagles got one more chance, but they gained just 2 yards.
The NY defense is among the NFL’s best, and they proved it here. LB Quincy Williams was a menace, with 12 tackles (1 for loss), an INT, and a fumble recovery. DB Bryce Hall earned an INT for the second consecutive week. Mind you, the Jets did all this WITHOUT CBs Sauce Gardner and DJ Reed. Even big DT Quinnen Williams got a pick. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention special teams, too. K Greg Zuerlein made all 4 of his FGs, which was critical on a day when NYJ couldn’t reach the end zone until under 2 minutes remained. As a result of this team win, the Jets got their first win over Philadelphia in franchise history.
It Might be Time for the Falcons to Give Taylor Heinicke a Shot
Atlanta has a pretty good roster. With a 3-3 record, you might think it’s middling, but it has actually improved quite a lot. The defense in particular has been much better than it was a year ago. They have weapons like Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts, and Drake London. The offensive line is strong as well, and we know HC Arthur Smith can call a game. So why are they losing despite holding every opponent to 24 points or less? The blame unfortunately lies with the hardest position to fix: QB. Desmond Ridder, who had not lost at home until this Sunday, is holding the Falcons back. In no game was that more apparent than this week’s matchup against the Commanders.
Atlanta outgained Washington in yards by a margin of 402-193. Their QB simply couldn’t get the job done. He threw 3 INTs, including an awful one in the end zone, and couldn’t punch the ball in for a TD when his team needed it. Oddly enough, Atlanta’s other option played for this week’s opponent last year. Taylor Heinicke, a career backup who isn’t great but inspires his teammates with “moxie”, has not been worse than Ridder in their respective careers. If you know Ridder isn’t the answer, and you’ve got a competitive roster, why not try to salvage the season with Heinicke? Smith risks losing his locker room if Ridder keeps ruining winnable games.