Week 5 Recap: Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders Fall Flat
Seven teams will represent the AFC in the playoffs this year. Perhaps four of them will actually have a chance of doing something once they get there.
The Bills are prohibitive AFC Super Bowl favorites after Sunday's win over the Kansas City Chiefs. That's one worthy playoff team. The Ravens, who face the Colts on Monday night, make two. Then things get cloudy.
We'll break the Chargers, Chiefs, and Browns down in a moment. For now, the Chargers' 47-42 win over the Browns suggests that both teams could do some damage in the playoffs, and the Chiefs still have a little benefit of the doubt left in their bank account even after Sunday's (and very early Monday's) midnight madness. That gets us to five worthy contenders, with the definition of "worthy contender" ready to snap.
Derrick Henry and his 21 dependents will get an automatic playoff bid from the Southern Culture on the Skids division. They're pretty terrible, but not as terrible as whomever earns the seventh playoff berth, the one that didn't exist until last year.
There's nothing unusual about some unimpressive teams squeaking into the playoffs, and it's too early to completely write off many of the conference also-rans. But a spate of Week 5 losses illustrated just how weak the AFC field has become now that a trio of perennial powerhouses has fallen on hard times and a pair of fluky 3-0 teams are starting to crash back to earth.
Here's a breakdown of the back half of the AFC playoff race as it stands after Week 5:
Los Angeles Chargers (4-1): Lookin' Great
The Chargers' lone true weakness appears to be theirs run defense. Everything else, like the team's early-season red zone woes, appears to be working itself out. A team can live with a weak run defense in the modern NFL, especially when its quarterback is working his way into the MVP discussion and they have already racked up a few tiebreaker-important victories through the first five weeks.
Cleveland Browns (3-2): No Worries … Yet
The Browns are the anti-Chargers. The teams proved nearly evenly matched in Week 5, but the Browns rely heavily on their running game, which is less likely to be useful to them in critical matchups than their passing game will be to the Chargers. And the Browns keep losing games with conference tiebreaker implications while racking up wins against weaklings from the NFC and the Eastern Texas Parochial Prep School Conference.
In a more competitive AFC, the Browns might be in a bit of trouble. But they'll be fine, especially since they control their own fate: after next week's visit from the Cardinals, the Browns face the Broncos, Steelers, Bengals, and Patriots in Weeks 7 through 10.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-3): In Serious Trouble
The defense, playing without Chris Jones and Charvarius Ward on Sunday, started the season terrible and looks a little worse each week. Reports of the offensive line's vast improvement were highly exaggerated; the Bills proved that stronger pass rushes are going to give the Chiefs fits. General sloppiness (penalties, special teams gaffes, coverage meltdowns) remain a weekly problem. Clyde Edwards-Helaire may be lost for the year. Worst of all, Patrick Mahomes was inaccurate on Sunday night, and not in his usual "trying to sidearm the ball between three defenders" way. Mahomes was just misfiring badly to open receivers.
Walkthrough still thinks the Chiefs are more likely to reach the playoffs than the Broncos or Raiders. They're just in danger of getting bounced out early once they get there.
Denver Broncos (3-2): Fading Fast
Teddy Bridgewater looked like Teddy Tapwater through three quarters, throwing in front of the sticks on third-and-long as if he hopes to win the 2021 failed completions title. Teddy Ballgame showed up in the fourth quarter of Denver's 27-19 loss to the Steelers, converting a few fourth-down conversions, making plays on the run, and launching a pair of bombs to Courtland Sutton up the left sideline.
Late-game heroics aside, injuries have turned the 2021 Broncos back into the 2017-2020 Broncos. Their 3-0 start was the result of a creamy schedule and the much stronger lineup the team fielded in early September. The only thing that will keep them in the wild-card race in the brutal AFC West is the weakness of the rest of the playoff field.
Las Vegas Raiders (3-2): Fading Faster
The Raiders' offense was belly-up in the fishbowl for most of Sunday's 20-9 loss to the Bears. Derek Carr was briefly knocked out of the game, and while he returned to finish a short touchdown drive, he didn't appear all that comfortable in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders' tight early wins against the Steelers and Dolphins don't look so impressive now that we have had a longer look at the Steelers and Dolphins. Some things that went right for the Raiders in September are regressing toward the mean, including their high short-yardage conversion rate (and defensive stop rate) and field position advantages. The Raiders could still build a playoff portfolio out of a bunch of wins over mediocre-to-terrible opponents—the point of this segment is that someone is going to do it—but that's a heckuva thing to count upon in Year 4 of a rebuilding cycle.
Also, while the Raiders locker room has long been aware that Jon Gruden is an a**hole, they recently learned that he's the very specific type of a**hole that players are likely to tune completely out the moment the team's luck runs out.
New England Patriots (2-3): Clinging to Hope
Patriots homers (yes, Walkthrough sees you in our mentions) may boast that the Patriots would be 4-1, with an upset over the Buccaneers, if not for a Week 1 fumble and a Week 4 doinked field goal. Yes, Seamus from Kenmore Square, and they also would be 1-4, with a pair of losses to pathetic teams, if not for some fourth-down tomfoolery on Sunday by their former triple-A affiliate.
The Patriots' offensive line is riddled with injuries, their skill position "playmakers" are shockingly slow, and their defense is about 80% as good as advertised. But Mac Jones showed tremendous poise when drawing roughing-the-passer penalties for third-and-forever conversions and sailing would-be interceptions through defenders' arms in the game-winning drive of Sunday's 25-22 nail-biter over the Texans.
The Patriots' path to the playoff involves stomping on lots of Jets and Falcons, keeping every game close, and hoping multiple opponents contract a case of imposter syndrome once they mount a lead against the mighty eternal champions. That's a better strategy than what the Raiders or Steelers are relying upon. Speaking of whom:
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3): Dead, but Misinformed
Ben Roethlisberger absorbed several would-be knockout blows against the Broncos but somehow kept wobbling knuckleballs with some success. Juju Smith-Schuster suffered what looks like a serious shoulder injury. Also, linebacker Devin Bush suffered a groin injury, while Najeh Harris battled cramps. The Steelers are just staggering around waiting for a knockout blow. They might not get it for a while—they face the Seattle Seahawks Geno Smith Experience next week—so they are just as likely to hang around the bottom of the playoff chase for a few months as the Patriots.
Indianapolis Colts (1-3): About to Fall Out of the Race
Even if they lose on Monday, the Colts could climb over a heap of Texans and Jaguars to stay in the playoff picture. Don't count on it.
Miami Dolphins (1-4): Out of the Race
It's time to stop thinking of the Dolphins as a wild-card hopeful and start thinking of them as an awful team that may have made the absolute least of a golden rebuilding opportunity over the last two years.
Did we forget anyone? Oh yeah: the easy-to-forget-about Bengals. Let's get to them in the next segment!
Bananapants Early Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers 25, Cincinnati Bengals 22 (Overtime)
What Happened: At the risk of writing a complete oral history of this game, here's the condensed version inspired by a chapter in the David Foster Wallace classic The Pale King:
Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams, intercepted. Rodgers to Adams, big play. Rodgers to Adams, big play. Joe Burrow injured on a scramble! Never mind. Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase, big play. Burrow intercepted. Rodgers to Adams, big play. Burrow to Chase, big play. Aaron Jones, big run! Missed field goal. Missed field goal. Overtime. Burrow directly to linebacker, interception. Missed field goal. Missed field goal Mason Crosby 49-yard game winner. The end.
What it Means for the Packers: With Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith both out indefinitely and their offensive line battered by injuries, the Packers must figure out what they can count upon moving forward besides Rodgers, Adams, and Jones. Sunday's win provided few answers
Preston Smith and what's left of the Packers' pass rush provided pressure early in the game but faded in the second half. Adrian Amos undercut a deep route for an interception, but the secondary doesn't look Bucs-Rams seaworthy after allowing Chase to go 5-159-1. Randall Cobb and AJ Dillon add a little diversity to the offense, and lots of guys like Royce Newman and Yosuah Nijman are keeping the lights on along the line, but the Packers appear to be a notch below the Buccaneers, Rams, and, um, Cardinals right now. That's not where they want to remain as the season wears on.
What it Means for the Bengals: Joe Burrow will have an amazing career if he can survive Zac Taylor's play calling; Taylor insisted on calling fourth-down quarterback draws after Burrow narrowly escaped a serious injury. (Burrow was also poked in the throat at some point during the game; he was taken to the hospital on Sunday evening as a precaution.) Burrow sidesteps rushers and finds downfield targets like a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback when he's humming. Burrow-to-Chase could be Rodgers-to-Adams in a few years.
The Bengals are at least one year, another offensive lineman, another solid pass-rusher, and perhaps some better game-planners away from being serious contenders. But they are good enough right now to bob along near the top the AFC wild-card race merely by staying relatively healthy and letting Burrow and Chase cook.
What's Next: The Packers visit the Bears and host Washington, a pair of opponents unlikely to give them much trouble. The Bengals embark on a three-game Lions-Ravens-Jets road trip; they'll be in good shape if they come out of it with a pair of wins.
Mandatory National Viewing Game Spotlight: Dallas Cowboys 33, Giants 13
What Happened: The game much of the nation was forced to watch because Texas and the I-95 corridor cares so much about the rivalry (do we though?) checked all the expected boxes:
- The Cowboys dominated the game. Check.
- The Giants hung in for a while thanks to some chunk passing plays. Check.
- The reliably sloppy Cowboys also fumbled near the goal line and punted when they shouldn't have to keep things tight. Check.
- Saquon Barkley got injured. It was destined to happen sometime before Halloween, so Check.
- Daniel Jones suffered a concussion. This was unexpected, but Jones' attempt to plunge into the end zone on a zone read falls under the broad category of "the Giants making a critical goal-line mistake," so Check.
- Once he entered the game, Mike Glennon was awful, but he moved the Giants offense well enough to fool his next employer. Check, and repeat until the year 2030.
What it Means: While the Football Outsiders Playoff Odds were still in the oven when Walkthrough went to press, Aaron Schatz says that the Cowboys' chances of making the playoffs are now approximately 90%. Their leaky defense leaves them a notch below the usual suspects (and the Cardinals) atop the NFC race, but they are positioning themselves to glide through a soft schedule and land near the top of the playoff seedings.
There's not much else to say about the Cowboys: they are what you think they are.
We're not linking to an image, but Barkley's ankle was pure body horror when he left the field; it looked like a xenomorph was ready to pop out of it and eat a trainer. Jones will spend the week in concussion protocol. Cue Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge writing this season off due to injuries and claiming they were this close to turning the corner when Saquon went down. Oh, and rookie Kadarius Toney marred an impressive game by taking a swing at a Cowboys defender, but something something winning culture something something.
Finally, let's petition the NFL to put all these Cowboys-Giants games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights so the networks can enjoy the boffo ratings and the rest of us can enjoy better regional games.
What's Next: The Cowboys will visit and smoke the Patriots before their bye. The Giants host the Rams (LOL.)
News from the weekend that doesn't belong anywhere else.
Russell Wilson to Miss Several Weeks After Surgery on his Throwing Hand
Geno Smith will replace him. The Seahawks are morphing into the mid-2010s Jets before our eyes. The only thing missing is Bilal Powell.
Tom Brady's Right Hand was Wrapped During his Postgame Press Conference on Sunday
Brady was jealous of all the attention Wilson and Matthew Stafford got from their Thursday night hand injuries, and also plans to expand the TB12 product line to include saintly relics with healing powers.
Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer Celebrate Last-Second Vikings Victory over the Lions by Nearly Beating the Crap out of Each Other
If the Vikings ever beat a decent team, someone might end up in the hospital.
Two Washington Football Team Trainers have been Placed on Administrative Leave Amid DEA Investigation
At times it seems like the only difference between the WFT and an organized crime syndicate is that most organized crime syndicates are successful and somewhat interesting.
Jon Gruden Used Racist Imagery when Describing NFLPA Leader DeMaurice Smith in a 2011 Email
Chucky's gonna have a hard time blaming this one on Mike Mayock.
Per ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Gruden's Emails Also Include Vulgar Criticism of Roger Goodell
It's too late to try to worm your way back into our good graces, Chucky.
Speaking of DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA Voted to Retain him as Executive Director for a Final Term
Likely eventual successors to Smith include lots of rugged individualist-type former players who not-so-secretly hate unions, some strikehawks likely to lead the players straight into an ambush at the first sign of conflict, and Eric Winston. Walkthrough really hopes it will be Winston.
Taysom Hill Leaves Saints Victory over Washington after Brutal Helmet-to-Helmet Hit
Don't worry; Sean Payton just paid $50,000 for a postgame-worn Healing Shroud of Brady.
Week 5 Awards
Time once again to hand out the only awards that anyone who loves football should really care about.
Defender of the Week
Darius Slay became the proud papa of a fifth child on Wednesday! Slay celebrated on Sunday with a pair of interceptions in the 21-18 Eagles' victory over the Panthers, cradling the second interception like a newborn in celebration.
Slay's interceptions were just about the only reasons the Eagles stayed in the game through three quarters. Also, at the rate the Slay family is growing: watch out, Philip Rivers! (Don't groan. It's only appropriate that the dad gets a dad joke.)
Special Teamer of the Week
Let's stick with the Eagles, who couldn't do anything offensively against the Panthers until T.J. Edwards' blocked punt and Shaun Bradley's recovery gave them the ball at the Panthers' 27-yard line. Jalen Hurts ran for a touchdown a few plays later, DeVonta Smith added a two-point conversion, and the Eagles suddenly found themselves on the road to an upset.
Offensive Line of the Week
The makeshift Browns offensive line of Blake Hance (filling in for Jed Wills), Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin, and James Hudson (who replaced the injured Conklin mid-game) helped the Browns rack up 230 rushing yards and held the Chargers to just one sack. The Chargers won, but it's not the offensive line's fault when the opponent scores 47 points.
Burn This Play
This is what a team calls on fourth-and-2 leading 22-9 when it has absolutely no faith in itself: the Texans' unfake-fake punt:
Texans faked a fake punt and then this happened 😅
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) October 10, 2021
The logic here was clearly to either get the Patriots to jump offsides or, if that failed, to prevent them from properly setting up a return. But of course it combined the worst elements of punting (it was a punt) and running a low-percentage play (all the motion and chicanery unnecessarily tempted fate.) It also signaled to the Patriots: we're cowed by your very presence and don't feel truly worthy to defeat you. Please come back to beat us and restore order to the cosmos.
As a bonus, the Texans attempted a 56-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 a few drives later. The miss set up a short Patriots touchdown drive, hastening the comeback.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
It's hard to single out which Washington defender deserves the award for their roles in Jameis Winston's "Hail Marquez" touchdown before halftime. Landon Collins appears to track the ball in the air but then falls backwards instead of leaping for it in the end zone. Kendall Fuller stands right next to Marquez Callaway and just watches the ball fall into the receiver's hands as if Fuller ran all the way down the field simply to get the best possible view of the Saints' touchdown. But something about William Jackson's dejected, slump-shouldered glance toward the officials after the catch just tickles me. Jackson's back may be to the camera, but I can almost imagine his heavy-lidded facial expression. "Well, that was a craptastophe. Are the refs gonna bail us out? Guess not."
HAIL MAR...QUEZ! 🙏
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 10, 2021
Honorable mention goes to the Chiefs for their latest goal-line puppet show:
The Chiefs red zone offense is so disrespectful!
The best TE in the game starts at QB -> Then the fastest WR in the game moves to QB -> then the most talented QB in the game goes to QB and throws a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/Ur5ziUhXWH
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) October 11, 2021
When I was in college, we used to hold talent nights in various student centers. There was always a small troupe of drama kids who would make an elaborate pantomime of pretending to have no idea what they were doing on the stage before breaking into an a cappella version of California Dreamin' or some such. I wandered by one of their dorm rooms three days before one of the talent shows and saw them meticulously planning their pre-song pantomime: You shrug your shoulders, you look around in confusion, I'll count us down with my foot. I would have found it obnoxiously contrived if I didn't want to date every single one of the girls in the troupe. And I would find the Chiefs' little improv routines ridiculous if they also weren't so darn compelling to watch.
Live, laugh, and wager along with Walkthrough for yet another Same-Game Parlay and Prop-a-Palooza!
Atlanta Falcons Moneyline AND Total Points Over 45.5 at +222
Rationale: Crippling self-loathing.
Result: The Jets kicked a field goal with 17 seconds left to cut the Falcons lead to 27-20? What a foolish strategy. What are the odds that the Falcons would make a hilarious mistake on an onside ki ... eh, come to think of it, the tactic made perfect sense, and Walkthrough will take an over-clearing field goal any way we can get it. Also, that's it for betting on the Falcons again until at least 2022. Watching that Sunday morning glorified preseason game made my soul sad. WIN.
Dak Prescott and Daniels Jones Over 549.5 yards at +125
Rationale: The Cowboys cannot be counted on to win games they are supposed to win. The Giants cannot be counted on to win games. But both teams can usually be counted on to rack up a bunch of passing yards.
Result: We were humming along at a pretty fine clip before Daniel Jones got knocked out. LOSS.
Jalen Hurts Over 249.5 Passing Yards and 1+ Passing Touchdowns at +130
Rationale: The Panthers entered Week 5 ranked 32nd in pass defense on throws to the offensive right. Hurts does little else besides throw screens and bombs to his right. Hurts is also already a fifth-degree black belt in martial art of the meaningless late scoring drive.
Result: Hurts was 3-of-6 for -6 yards at one point. Apparently, opponents have figured out that the Eagles run almost nothing but screen and swing passes. Thanks to a bomb, a blocked kick, and three interceptions by his defense, Hurts finished with 198 passing yards, two touchdowns, and an Eagles victory which hurt this wager more than it helped it: the Eagles spent the late fourth quarter handing off instead of throwing. LOSS.
Davis Mills Interceptions Over 0.5 at -230
Rationale: From 2001 through Saturday, 32 first-year quarterbacks threw at least 10 passes in a game against the Patriots. They combined for 50 interceptions.
Result: Drat. Should have instead bet on poised Mac Jones, who is poised. LOSS.
New England Patriots Moneyline AND Total Points Over 39.5 vs. Houston Texans at +135
Rationale: Walkthrough saw two paths to victory here: a Patriots romp in the 37-10 range or a tight turnover-and-short-drive fest between a pair of rookie quarterbacks.
Result: We weren't expecting the Texans to nearly upset the Patriots, but the Moneyline bet did prove to be shrewd alternative to a spread bet. Sometimes, when you give yourself two paths to victory, a third one will open up to you. So speaketh the Zen Gambler. WIN.
Pittsburgh Steelers +1.5 AND Total Points Over 39.5 at +245
Rationale: We liked the Steelers as undervalued home dogs against the battered Broncos. We really like going over anything below 40 points when the pick-six and blocked-kick probabilities are high. And we just loved the payout.
Result: Steelers-Broncos played out almost exactly the way we thought it would. WIN.
Washington Football Team Under 20.5 Total Points at -110
Rationale: With so many offensive starters injured, we couldn't image Washington scoring many points against the Saints defense.
Result: We should have imagined an early Jameis Winston interception to set up a short field goal drive and a total of 12 Washington possessions when the Saints kept settling for punts with a semi-comfortable lead. LOSS.
Final Tally: Seven units wagered for a 9.02 payout. Not bad overall, thanks to three same-game parlays. Be prudent with your parlays, and your wins will more than offset your losses. So speaketh the Zen Gambler.