Remember back in March, when we were all baking focaccia and strumming “Smoke on the Water” riffs?
Well, Week 6 in the NFL was kind of like that, a time in which we all learned some stuff that may or may not amount to anything. We found out that the Packers are fallible, that the 49ers aren’t quitting, and that time off was great for Tennessee but maybe not so helpful for the Patriots.
The real question is what lessons will stick. Did the Buccaneers solve Green Bay or will Aaron Rodgers be on even more of a warpath? Is this just another memorable year for Cleveland or are the Steelers just that well-equipped to stop them? Will I ever find that guitar I bought?
AFC West champions: Kansas City Chiefs
- Preseason strength of schedule: Tied for 14th easiest
- Chiefs predicted record: 15-1
- Original Pick: Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City took its new hot rod out of the garage in a rainy bout with Buffalo on Monday, revving Clyde Edwards-Helaire up for 169 total yards on 30 touches.
It seems like Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy only need him every few games, but when they’ve called on the first round runner, he’s shown up. Six games in, Edwards-Helaire has gained 682 yards from the line of scrimmage, is rushing at 4.7 yards per carry, and has 346 rushing yards after contact, second-best in the NFL.
God only knows how the Chiefs plan to use the newly signed Le’Veon Bell, but what’s one more weapon, am I right?
AFC North champions: Baltimore Ravens
- Preseason strength of schedule: Easiest in NFL
- Ravens predicted record: 12-4
- Original Pick: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens nearly coughed up a 24-6 lead against Philadelphia on Sunday, which would have certainly raised some eyebrows. But Baltimore held on and won a game that shouldn’t have been close, 30-28. Penalties were the most-glaring issue. Despite being one of the more disciplined teams in the league heading into Sunday, Baltimore was flagged 12 times for 132 yards.
Things aren’t totally clicking in Baltimore, and yet the team still has an NFL-best plus-75 point differential. They’ll now have a bye week to get right, just in time for an extra juicy divisional showdown with Pittsburgh.
AFC South champions: Tennessee Titans
- Preseason Strength of Schedule: 13th easiest
- Titans predicted record: 10-6
- Original Pick: Indianapolis Colts
Wait. Could Ryan Tannehill win the MVP? He’s currently the fifth-ranked quarterback by Pro Football Focus, and with numbers like he’s been putting up, you can understand why. Through five games, Tannehill has thrown 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Better yet, he’s thrown seven touchdowns and zero picks when under pressure this season.
He outgunned Josh Allen in Week 5. On Sunday, Tannehill torched Houston for 364 yards and four touchdowns. If this is just who he is now, then yes, he will be in the MVP conversation.
By the way, Derrick Henry rushed for 212 yards. The Titans are ridiculous.
AFC East champions: Buffalo Bills
- Preseason strength of schedule: Tied for 16th easiest
- Bills predicted record: 11-5
- Original Pick: Buffalo Bills
If the Bills had to take a test, they would answer “C. Josh Allen” all down the Scantron. So far, that answer would be getting them, what, an A-? You can’t really fault the strategy.
But what we’ve seen in the last two games, losses to the Titans and Chiefs, is that Allen can’t be the only answer. Because he isn’t going to have it every night, as we saw against Kansas City. He also doesn’t play defense.
Take the Chiefs’ game, for example. Kansas City adapted to a windy, rainy day by leaning on Edwards-Helaire. They ate up the clock and dominated the Bills defense for 466 yards on nine exhaustive drives. Allen struggled to connect in the bad weather and couldn’t cover up for a run game that ranks last in the NFL by DVOA.
What the Bills do well, they do very well. But they need to find some more answers.
Related: Ranking NFL defenses
AFC wild card predictions: New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Preseason strength of schedule: Hardest in NFL, 4th easiest, 2nd easiest
- Record Prediction: 10-6, 10-6, 9-7
- Original Picks: New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
We’re about to see just how far Bill Belichick can take a team. Cam Newton is a terrific player everyone is rooting for, but he can’t infuse the Patriots offense with talent. You only have to look as far as Sunday, when New England struggled to score 12 points against the Broncos. Expect Belichick and Josh McDaniels to get the ship turned around. Also expect some ugly games.
I’m not at all dissuaded by Cleveland’s loss to Pittsburgh. It was a total beatdown, let’s be clear, but the Steelers have arguably the fiercest front seven in the NFL. The Browns’ offensive line should be able to dictate the game again when they’re not opposite the likes of T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward.
Baker Mayfield will need to improve dramatically — he sported a miserable 5.5 QBR on Sunday — but his success hinges on the o-line, just like Cleveland’s running backs. In a clean pocket, Mayfield has thrown for nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. When he’s pressured, he’s thrown zero touchdowns and four picks.
Pittsburgh might be as good as the Ravens at this point. They’re 5-0, in large part because of the pass rush mentioned above. The Athletic’s Robert Mays wrote a really nice story about the Steelers’ defensive front, which I highly recommend checking out. It’s filled with nuggets like this:
“When I went to watch Watt train in Wisconsin before the 2017 draft, he participated in a drill that required him to launch his body into the air with a pair of green elastic bands. He eventually propelled himself more than 51 inches off the ground, getting so high that he actually let out a yelp of fear as he looked down.”
NFC West champion: Seattle Seahawks
- Preseason strength of schedule: Tied for 16th easiest
- Seahawks predicted record: 11-5
- Original Pick: Seattle Seahawks
The undefeated Seahawks didn’t play on Sunday, but with the Packers going down like they did over the weekend, Seattle somehow feels even more formidable. And Pete Carroll has apparently been loving what he’s seen out of his players since the bye, telling reporters that his team might’ve just had the most productive bye week of any Seahawks squad since he arrived in 2010.
Seattle is top 10 in both passing and rushing DVOA and Jamal Adams hasn’t been ruled out to return this week against the Cardinals.
Related: Top 100 NFL players of 2020
NFC North champion: Green Bay Packers
- Preseason strength of schedule: 15th hardest
- Packers predicted record: 11-5
- Original Pick: Green Bay Packers
It’s a stat that has been floating around since Tampa Bay’s Jamel Dean intercepted Rodgers and returned it for a score. Only Rodgers’ third pick-six of his career, the 16-year vet has averaged one pick-six for every 2,071 throws.
It’s a mind-blowing number, especially considering the man across the sideline, Tom Brady, has already thrown three this season. For some additional context, Nathan Peterman tossed up three in his short stint under center, Drew Brees is the active leader with 27, and none other than Brett Favre has the record for the most in a career with 31.
Absurd stats aside, Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles sent the house all game and revealed a soft spot in a previously undefeated Packers team in the process. Rodgers was just 6-for-17 with two interceptions when facing a Tampa Bay blitz.
Green Bay isn’t in any danger of missing the playoffs, but smart defensive coordinators are already crunching the All-22 to figure out how they can disrupt Rodgers, too.
NFC South champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Preseason strength of schedule: Tied for 16th easiest
- Buccaneers predicted record: 10-6
- Original Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers were not playing around this week.
Defensive scheming aside, the lack of penalties — lack, as in zero flags — was just as important. Coming into the game, Tampa Bay was tied with the Cardinals for the most penalties in the league, so a spotless outing like this was desperately needed.
Time will tell if they can stay disciplined, but it feels like the Bucs have turned an important corner.
NFC East champion: Dallas Cowboys
- Preseason strength of schedule: 3rd easiest
- Cowboys predicted record: 8-8
- Original Pick: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are currently down six offensive linemen. And a Dak Prescott. In any other year, in any other division, Dallas would not stand a chance. But this is the 2020 NFC East.
It’s anyone’s race to win, but the Eagles are now expected to be without Zach Ertz for a month and Miles Sanders for at least a week. Washington and New York, both 1-5, have two of the worst offenses in the league and it’s hard to see either of them improving.
I actually think Roger Goodell should step in and just give this division’s playoff spot to the NFC West. I mean, really, look at this:
NFC East point differentials: -34 -45 -51 -54
NFC West point differentials: +54 +38 +34 +18
NFC Wild Card predictions: Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears
- Preseason Strength of Schedule: 10th hardest, 8th hardest, 13th hardest
- Record Prediction: 10-6, 9-7, 9-7
- Original Picks: New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals
The 49ers did an amazing job of game planning against the Rams, and Aaron Donald specifically. The two-time Defensive Player of Year saw double team after double team on Sunday and managed just two pressures as a result. These sort of in-division losses happen, but LA’s remaining schedule is a gauntlet, so every week is vital.
Arizona capitalized on the Cowboys’ ineptitude on Sunday, scoring on all four Dallas turnovers. Despite their 4-2 record, we haven’t seen Arizona do a lot of that this season; usually, the Cardinals are the team committing sloppy errors. Kenyan Drake ran for 164 yards and two touchdowns and looked like the guy Arizona traded for last season. Christian Kirk made a couple of huge plays. There were plenty of encouraging signs to go around for the Cardinals, just in time for their biggest test yet: a Sunday afternoon matchup with Russell Wilson and Seattle.
The Bears make the list for the first time here, because at some point, wins need to be taken seriously. Chicago is an improbable 5-1, but that’s five wins they won’t need to worry about down the stretch. Regular Season Nick Foles hasn’t inspired since he’s been the starter, but the formula here isn’t a secret. A little game management, a little Khalil Mack chaos, some key plays from the rest of a stout defense.
The Saints, who didn’t play on Sunday, still have a great shot to get in over the Bears, but it doesn’t totally feel right there, does it? Drew Brees is showing his age, the Saints secondary keeps committing an egregious number of pass interference penalties, and there’s the whole suspension situation with Michael Thomas.
So who will win the Super Bowl?
The Chiefs have been compared to the Golden State Warriors since the emergence of Patrick Mahomes. But it’s become an even more compelling comp as Kansas City has continued to add pieces.
The ability to quickly pivot their game plan against the Bills this week, that’s Warriors stuff.
“Oh, you’re going to take that away? No problem, we’ve got something for that.” Seeing Edwards-Helaire take over was like watching Steve Kerr turn to Andre Iguodala in a key playoff moment. Every catch from an uncovered Demarcus Robinson felt like Sean Livingston pulling up uncontested from midrange.
I’ll stop short of calling the incoming Bell the Chief’s version of signing Kevin Durant, but he’s yet another piece that could help them as they work to repeat as Super Bowl champs. I’m definitely not betting against them.