The AFC East is in play. For most of the season, it appeared the Buffalo Bills would ride a magic carpet through their schedule, cruising above the league until they met the Kansas City Chiefs for an epic rematch deep in January. The Bills should still be considered the favorite, but on Sunday their path became far more stressful.
The host New York Jets pulled one of the upsets of the season by knocking off the mighty Bills, 20-17. One week after they fell flat against New England, the Jets improved to 6-3 by knocking off Buffalo in a way that did not feel fluky.
The Jets thrive based on a ferocious front seven and the brilliance of rookie cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. On Sunday, they sacked Josh Allen five times and hit him on passing plays eight times. The Bills rushed for 134 yards — but 86 of those, and both of Buffalo’s rushing touchdowns, came from Allen. Gardner had a pivotal interception — one of two Allen threw — and glued himself to Gabe Davis on Allen’s final desperation pass.
The 6-2 Bills are 0-2 in the AFC East with losses to the Miami Dolphins and Jets, who both have six wins, too. The Jets rushed for 174 yards one week after the Bills allowed the Green Bay Packers to stay in the game with a punishing rushing attack. Von Miller has supercharged Buffalo’s pass rush, but their run defense has sprung a leak. The sky isn’t falling in Buffalo — just the SkyCam. But the Bills have work to do.
Tom Brady isn’t done yet. Was that the start of something or a last hurrah? It may have been the end of a game between profoundly flawed teams, but the chance to watch Brady carve up a defense with no timeouts, barely any time and more than half a football field in front of him was undeniably cool.
At 45, mired in a lost season and leading a feeble offense, Brady moved the Buccaneers 60 yards in 35 seconds and tossed a one-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to rookie tight end Cade Otton with nine ticks to spare. The Buccaneers beat the Los Angeles Rams, 16-13, in a hideous game that had a beautiful ending for the home team.
What does it mean? The Bucs are in first place in the NFC South, but they have much to prove if they want to be considered a contender. They cannot run the ball, and the dreadful Rams dominated them for most of the game. The Buccaneers are still a flawed team, and that’s putting it kindly.
If nothing else, the last-minute drive provided solace for Brady in a miserable season, on the field and away from it. Who knows how many more times Brady will stare down impossible odds and beat them, how many more times he’ll impose order when the 21 other players on the field see only chaos? In the middle of a rotten season, Brady offered a reminder of the durability of greatness.
The Dolphins are going for it, and that’s the right idea. No team attacked the trade deadline more aggressively than the Dolphins, who shipped a first-round pick and running back Chase Edmonds to Denver for star pass rusher Bradley Chubb, then immediately signed him to a five-year, $110 million contract extension. They also added running back Jeff Wilson Jr. from San Francisco for a fifth-round pick.
On the surface, it could be considered wasting resources in an AFC that includes Allen and Patrick Mahomes leading strong, experienced teams. But that’s reality for every team in the AFC for the foreseeable future. The Dolphins could pretend the Bills and Chiefs don’t exist — or they could do everything they can to compete with them.
As the Cincinnati Bengals showed last year, the Bills and Chiefs are not invincible, and a high-variance offense can turn the miraculous into reality in January. The combination of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill gives the Dolphins a chance to win every game, regardless of the opponent. Their combined 238 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches in Miami’s 35-32 victory over the Bears in Chicago on Sunday provided another reminder.
The Dolphins are wise to recognize their current window for what it is: This year and next might be as good as it gets for Miami. Tua Tagovailoa is healthy and on a cheap rookie contract. Hill is 28, and receivers tend to age faster than you expect once they hit 30. Opposing defenses are still adjusting to Coach Mike McDaniel’s offense, not yet the other way around.
Adding Chubb may not elevate Miami to the level of Kansas City and Buffalo. But the Dolphins have to try, and there’s no better time than right now.
The Bears have their quarterback. Not every big, athletic signal-caller who starts out shaky turns into Allen. But almost no quarterbacks have the physical tools for a ceiling like Allen’s — and Justin Fields is one of them. Little by little, Fields is shrinking the distance between his ability and his potential.
There’s no telling what Fields will become. This season, he has done enough for the Bears to place their faith in him going forward. He has improved at knowing when to leave the pocket and use his elite running ability. On Sunday, Fields rushed for 178 yards, the second most in NFL history for a quarterback and behind only Colin Kaepernick’s 181 in a playoff game in January 2013. His running ability alone is enough to make him a viable starter.
Fields’s ultimate success will hinge on how he fares as a passer — and he is making subtle progress. As a rookie and early this season, Fields rifled every pass at full velocity, no matter the length or the defensive alignment. He used touch when required Sunday, floating passes that allowed receivers to run after the catch and feathering balls between levels of defenders. He’s still not an accurate passer, but he is playing and throwing with more poise each week, even without a talented receiving corps. The Bears’ QB history is bleak, but their future is starting to look a lot brighter.
The Titans are tough as hell. The Chiefs improved to 6-2, but Mike Vrabel’s team made them earn every sliver of their 20-17 overtime victory Sunday night. With rookie quarterback Malik Willis making his second career start, Tennessee scored 17 straight points and carried a 17-9 lead deep into the fourth quarter. Derrick Henry controlled the game in the first half, and even after the Chiefs adjusted and clamped down in the second, the Titans never let Patrick Mahomes get comfortable, even as he gutted out a game-tying touchdown drive.
The Titans operate without flash; most fans probably couldn’t name a Tennessee skill player beyond Henry. They are 5-3 and should cruise to the AFC South title, and they will be a difficult out in January. Their defensive line attacks in waves. David Long has been one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Vrabel always has them prepared.
Mahomes threw 68 passes and was sublime down the stretch. Afterward, he said he knew the Chiefs might see Tennessee again in the playoffs.
The Colts might be nearing a crossroads. Indianapolis has already changed quarterbacks twice since its collapse at the end of the last season, reportedly amid the influence of owner Jim Irsay. The question now is what else could change.
The Colts mustered just 121 yards in a 26-3 loss at New England, a blowout that suggested second-year passer Sam Ehlinger will provide no more potency than deposed veteran Matt Ryan. The Colts are 3-5-1 and have one of the worst offenses in the league and no clarity at quarterback — a troubling sign for Frank Reich, an offensive coach with a supposed specialty in handling quarterbacks.
General Manager Chris Ballard’s front office is well regarded, and it knows how to identify talent. But the Colts are what happens when a franchise builds without regard for positional value. The Colts’ best players are a guard (Quenton Nelson), an inside linebacker (Shaquille Leonard) and a running back (Jonathan Taylor) — all great players. But their presence means the Colts have devoted less salary cap space and fewer high draft picks to quarterback, wide receiver, tackle and cornerback.
The Colts are stale and lack talent at the positions that matter most. If they cannot turn it around, that combination could throw the job status of Reich and Ballard into question.
The Packers are broken. Green Bay’s fifth consecutive loss was its most embarrassing yet, a 15-9 defeat in Detroit in which it failed to crack double-digit points against the worst defense in the NFL. The Packers fell to 3-6 and are 4½ games behind the 7-1 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions, and the Packers’ final desperation drive died when he misfired into the end zone.
Rodgers’s spiral and the Packers’ offensive ineptitude stood out, but there are other cracks in the foundation. In the first half, cornerback Jaire Alexander committed a blatant late hit, got flagged 15 yards and taunted the Detroit crowd as it booed him. The Lions finished the drive with a touchdown but missed the extra point — only for Alexander to be called for running into the kicker, which prompted the Lions to go for two and convert.
The Packers lost high-end talent when they traded Davante Adams, so struggles were expected. What’s surprising is how the habits that allowed the Packers to win 13 games for three straight seasons have eroded. Matt LaFleur has work to do to get the Packers back on track.
Kenneth Walker III is running away with offensive rookie of the year honors. Geno Smith threw a pick-six early in the third quarter, turning Seattle’s three-point lead into a 14-10 deficit at Arizona. The play could have flipped the game or even turned the Seahawks’ season. Instead, in a 31-21 victory, it provided a showcase of Seattle’s mettle.
Smith immediately led the Seahawks on a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Having retaken the lead, Seattle leaned on Walker, who has emerged as one of the best weapons in the NFL. Walker had 109 yards on 26 carries, and he battered the Cardinals in the fourth quarter. He runs with an uncommon combination of patience and power reminiscent of fellow Michigan State alum Le’Veon Bell. In his past five games, with Rashaad Penny injured, Walker has averaged 102.4 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
The Seahawks have eliminated all questions about their legitimacy and staying power. Despite the hiccup Sunday, Smith is playing as well and as steady as any quarterback in the league. Pete Carroll has provided a reminder of his defensive acumen. The Seahawks’ ability to close out games by riding Walker will make them dangerous as the weather turns cold.
The Bengals bounced back. On Halloween, Cincinnati submitted one of the worst performances of the season in a blowout loss at the Cleveland Browns. This week, the Bengals recorded 21 first downs in the first half and allowed only one, yielding 32 total yards to the Carolina Panthers. Joe Mixon scored five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) in a stabilizing 42-21 victory, a promising sign for a team that has lost perhaps its best defensive player, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, for the season with an injury.
Baker Mayfield resurfaced in the second half, replacing the ineffective P.J. Walker. It remains to be seen whether interim coach Steve Wilks will turn back to Walker, who had provided a spark before a dismal outing Sunday. If Mayfield plays 70 percent of Carolina’s snaps, the fifth-round pick the Panthers sent Cleveland will turn into a fourth-rounder.