Jared Goff can take a punch. For 3½ quarters, Goff seemed to legitimize the ill-conceived concerns that he may not have what it takes to lead the Detroit Lions on a deep playoff run. At home against the lowly Chicago Bears, Goff threw three interceptions and had limited time to redeem himself, sidelined by the Bears’ ball-control offense. (By the way, Lions: What the heck was that tackling?) Goff’s shakiness and Detroit’s defensive softness led to a 12-point deficit with 4:15 remaining.
The circumstances surfaced Goff’s best, perhaps defining, attribute. He was dismissed as a bust after his rookie season. He was cast aside by the franchise he quarterbacked to the Super Bowl. He was benched during a rebuilding season for an awful Lions team. At every juncture, Goff kept getting up and getting better. He is still the player who faced a 13-0 deficit in the deafening Superdome in January 2019 and led the Rams to the NFC championship. Goff’s ability to perform in tough situations shouldn’t be seen as a question as Detroit steams toward the playoffs. It’s an asset.
Late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Goff led the Lions on two touchdown drives, the final one nudging them ahead with 29 seconds left in what became a 31-26 victory when Aidan Hutchinson stripped the ball from Justin Fields for a safety. On those final two drives, Goff completed 10 of 12 passes for 114 yards and a 32-yard touchdown to Jameson Williams. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson wisely recognized he didn’t need to abandon the run, which helped gain first downs and drain the clock for Chicago’s response.
With that victory pulled out of the fire, Detroit is 8-2. The Lions will almost certainly host a playoff game at Ford Field, where they are 4-1 this season. When they get there, they’ll have a quarterback they can trust, no matter the conditions.
The Broncos have dug out of their hole. No team had an uglier start than Denver. The Broncos allowed 10 offensive touchdowns to the Miami Dolphins in a 70-20 loss that dropped them to 0-3. It barely got better — Denver yielded 28 points to the Bears in a victory, then gave up 31 to the New York Jets in another loss. Denver’s defense began to stabilize, but it still lost in Kansas City to drop to 1-5.
One month later, guess who has the longest winning streak in the NFL. The Broncos have won four straight after Sunday night’s thrilling 21-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, a streak that includes victories over AFC heavyweights Kansas City and Buffalo. Russell Wilson has been efficient, and Courtland Sutton has been one of the best big-play wideouts in the NFL.
The Broncos’ defense, though, is the driving force behind their turnaround. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph may be having the most impressive season of any assistant. With roughly the same personnel that allowed 36.2 points per game through five weeks, the Broncos have yielded 19, 17, nine, 22 and 20 points in their past five games (an average of 17.4). By letting Randy Gregory and Frank Clark go, the Broncos have relied on young, fast pass rushers. Joseph kept his players together and found a way to turn their performance around.
The 5-5 Broncos can realistically begin vying for a wild card. Their schedule doesn’t get much easier with the Browns, Texans, Chargers and Lions upcoming in their next four. But they’ve already accomplished more this season than anybody could’ve guessed a month ago.
The Bengals’ bad luck was especially cruel. The special promise of Cincinnati’s season hinged on cohesion and continuity rarely permitted by NFL team-building strictures. From a team that had gone to the Super Bowl two years ago and nearly gone back last season, the Bengals returned an MVP candidate quarterback, the league’s best trio of wideouts, an excellent defensive line and an entire coaching staff, including two coordinators who interviewed for head coaching positions. If there was a year designed for Cincinnati to win the Super Bowl, it was this one.
Joe Burrow’s season-ending wrist injury would sting no matter when it happened, but for it to happen now is especially cruel. Burrow is in Cincinnati for the long haul, and his presence will open other championship windows. But this one might be closing — or at least narrowing.
Burrow’s cap hit jumps to more than 10 percent of Cincinnati’s salary cap for the first time in 2024. Ja’Marr Chase is due a massive extension that could make retaining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, both free agents this offseason, prohibitive. The Bengals have possible long-term replacements in rookies Andrei Iosivas and Charlie Jones, but they will be lucky if they approach 90 percent of Higgins’s and Boyd’s ability years down the line, let alone soon.
Jake Browning may be an effective backup quarterback. Even if he leads the Bengals to an impressive finish, a wild card is improbable. Cincinnati is 1-5 in conference games, and the Super Bowl is an impossibility without Burrow. Burrow’s genius still gives the Bengals a bright future, but this iteration won’t have a better crack at a Super Bowl, if it has one at all.
“We embrace everybody, embrace loving each other,” Boyd said this year during training camp. “It’s more to it than football. Once you feel that person actually genuinely cares about you outside of trying to make plays, the force of us playing once we do get out there is on whole other level. It’s ‘I will never let you down.’ It’s the tight-unit family. The rebuilding phase is the saddest moment. That [stuff] is sad. It sucks.”
The Bengals may have to experience it without the benefit of the ultimate payoff, at least in this part of Burrow’s career.
The Bills stabilized their season with help from the Jets. If anybody knows that beating Zach Wilson cannot be taken for granted, it’s Buffalo. The Bills lost to him on the opening Monday night of the season, one of the many bumps that led Buffalo to a 5-5 record and the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.
In Joe Brady’s first game calling plays, the Bills destroyed the Jets, 32-6. But the Jets were accomplices in their own demise. Wilson’s time as an NFL starter should have been over long before now. Coach Robert Saleh has been steadfast in supporting him, but even he must realize Wilson is sinking New York’s season. Wilson completed 7 of 15 passes for 81 yards, a touchdown and an interception while taking five sacks.
Still, the Bills needed a victory after back-to-back ugly losses. Josh Allen’s performance — 275 yards and three touchdown passes — against the Jets’ excellent defense cannot be dismissed. He made a throw few of his peers can dream of, finding Khalil Shakir on a skinny post by throwing a bullet into a window the size of three footballs. Shakir snagged it and went 81 yards for a touchdown that sealed the win in the third quarter.
The Seahawks are on shaky ground. Seattle’s season changed Sunday in two ways, both of them ominous, in a 17-16 loss at the Los Angeles Rams. The Seahawks’ quarterback got hurt, and they blew a game that may put their playoff hopes in danger.
The Seahawks led the Rams 16-7 late in the third quarter. Geno Smith fired a pass with pressure in his face and banged his hand, wrist and forearm on a pack of helmets. He entered the medical tent, and Drew Lock trotted in to take his place. Smith watched with his right arm mummified in bandages as the Rams stormed back with 10 straight points, taking a one-point lead with 1:31 left.
Smith reentered with a bulky, black brace on his throwing elbow. He threw a wobbly, wide pass to wide-open DK Metcalf, but he also hit throws that moved the Seahawks into field goal position. Jason Myers’s shank from 55 yards — plus Pete Carroll’s decision to run the ball with no timeouts after Metcalf’s catch moved them across midfield, eliminating another chance or two to gain yardage — negated Smith’s heroics.
Though Smith returned, his status grew uncertain at the wrong time. The effects of the injury could cost the Seahawks a chance to steal the NFC West; the San Francisco 49ers are coming to Lumen Field on Thursday. If Smith’s injury lingers for more than one game, the Seahawks’ playoff hopes could be endangered; they face the Cowboys, the 49ers again and the Eagles in the three following weeks. At 6-4, Seattle needs a big win or two in the next month to maintain wild-card position.
Sunday’s pivotal loss came against an annoying opponent: Carroll is now 5-10 against Sean McVay, including 0-2 this season.
The C.J. Stroud MVP chatter is getting louder. By halftime of the Houston Texans’ 21-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Stroud may have converted even the most staunch supporters of Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts. Stroud had thrown for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the style that has made his rookie season so impressive.
Stroud is not just managing the game and keeping the chains moving. He is throwing deep with more aggression and efficiency than any other quarterback in the NFL. His 40-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Tank Dell (eight catches, 149 yards) was a work of art, a flick of the wrist while on the move with a rusher in his face that somehow traveled about 50 yards in the air.
On the first possession of the second half, Stroud absorbed an enormous hit from a blitzing defensive back on a sack and left the field for one play. When he returned for third and 17, he tiptoed to his right to buy time, took another big hit as he threw and hit Dell with a laser beam for a first down. Despite that play, the hit may have affected Stroud; he threw two interceptions in the second half, keeping Arizona in the game, and finished with 336 yards. There’s a sign Stroud has joined the elite: a 300-yard passing day came with mild disappointment.
The Texans have won three straight and sit at 6-4, comfortably inside the AFC playoff picture. They’re only getting better: Second-year defensive back Derek Stingley Jr., the third draft pick in 2022, returned from an injury and notched his first interception of the season. If Burrow’s season-ending injury removes the Bengals from the AFC playoff picture, it would be an upset if the Texans don’t make it.
The Browns don’t need Deshaun Watson. Although Watson played the best half of his Browns tenure in Cleveland’s comeback win over Baltimore last week, he was not remotely responsible for the Browns’ success in the first half of the season. He didn’t play often, and when he did, he was ineffective. Now that he is out of the season with a broken bone in his shoulder, the Browns can still win.
In the long view, Watson being inessential is a disquieting notion for the Browns. They owe him $46 million guaranteed each of the next three years, with a $64 million cap hit each season. In the context of this season, it means they can still compete in the AFC and their defense could scare the daylights out of an AFC powerhouse in the postseason.
The Browns’ 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was a fitting preview of how they will have to play with rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback (or Joe Flacco, the 38-year-old they reportedly signed to the practice squad and plan to add to the active roster). They took an early lead behind Jerome Ford’s running. Myles Garrett and Cleveland’s historically good defense took over the game, and the Steelers had no points, 64 total yards and 15 net passing yards at halftime. Cleveland hung tough even after Jaylen Warren’s 74-yard touchdown run, and Thompson-Robinson made just enough plays on a game-winning field goal drive.
The Chargers are letting Justin Herbert down. Los Angeles’s 23-30 loss to the mediocre Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field dropped them to 4-6, equidistant from the AFC’s final wild-card spot and the worst record in the conference. With the Bills and Bengals in various forms of disarray, the Chargers blew a winnable game that could’ve vaulted them into the thick of the playoff race. There’s blame to go around, and most of it falls on the Chargers around Herbert — but not all of it.
Herbert passed for 260 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that would have looked better without crucial drops. Keenan Allen dropped a touchdown that hit him between the 1 and 3 of his uniform. Rookie Quentin Johnston dropped a deep pass that hit him in both hands and would have put the Chargers in field goal territory on their final drive. Johnson had to lunge while running down the sideline, but it was a flat drop.
It was another performance that added to the case for replacing Coach Brandon Staley, an alleged defensive coach, even accounting for Joey Bosa being carted off early in the game with tears in his eyes. Surrendering 23 points doesn’t seem so bad, but that’s the most the Packers have scored in a game since Week 2. Jordan Love set a career high with 322 passing yards, and he didn’t throw an interception for just the second time in his past eight games. A staple of Staley’s Chargers defenses has been yielding big plays; the Packers ran for a 32-yard touchdown and completed six passes of 20 yards or longer.
Herbert, though, is not merely a victim. A quarterback averaging $50 million per year needs to elevate teammates. His 29-31 record as a starter, his playoff loss included, is proof enough that he’s not doing it. Taking all the Chargers’ failures off his shoulders is just excuse making. On the game’s final meaningful snap, Herbert had a pass batted down at the line on fourth and one. That happens way too much for a quarterback who’s 6-foot-6. Herbert needs to play better in big moments. More urgently, the Chargers need to restart with coaches and players around him.