ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It rained here all morning, snowed as night fell, and in between, the Patriots’ 2020 season turned to mud and slid into nearby Lake Erie.
Yes, the Bills (6-2) beat the Patriots (2-5) on Sunday, which is no small thing. They play twice a year, and this was the first time since 2016 that Buffalo won one of the games. It was the first time the Bills beat the Patriots under current head coach Sean McDermott. It was just the sixth time in 41 games — FORTY-ONE!!! — that Bill Belichick lost to Buffalo as head coach of the Patriots.
It was nerve-wracking, as curse-busting games must always be. No Bills fan over the age of 5 felt good about this thing until Cam Newton‘s fumble with 31 seconds left gave the ball back to Buffalo for good. But the first-place Bills did win, and they are 3½ games ahead of the Patriots with a half-season left to play. And while their October wasn’t as brilliantly breezy as their September was — and their November looks anything but easy — the Bills exorcised a pesky demon. They have, for the time being, earned the right to call themselves the class of the AFC East.
The Patriots … not so much. They’ve lost four in a row. Their Sunday touchdown total (two) matched their total from their previous three games combined. Newton and the Damien Harris-led run game looked better than they had in a while, but by too little, too late, and the story of the next two days will be whether the Patriots are trade-deadline sellers about to give up on a season for the first time in two decades.
These are two teams headed in opposite — and quite unusual — directions. If we hadn’t been watching one dominate the other since the turn of the century, this result wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. It would have just been one first-place team sweeping one third-place team into the dustbin and moving on into the second half of its season.
But instead, it was Patriots-Bills, turned on its head, and so we must begin this week’s overreaction column with …
The AFC East race is OVER
Look, at this point, the only reason to believe the Patriots will win this thing is that you can’t count out Belichick until the math says you can. But there’s only so much one genius can do. The Patriots had five active wide receivers on the roster Sunday. All five were undrafted, three within the past two years. Seriously, think about that the next time you get on the Packers’ case for waiting until the second round to draft receivers for Aaron Rodgers.
I’m not saying Newton has been perfect — far from it, and he admits as much. But this New England team is outmanned every week on at least one side of the ball, and when cornerback Stephon Gilmore doesn’t play (as he did not Sunday), it’s both.
The rest of the Patriots’ schedule doesn’t look tough — other than the Ravens game in two weeks — but let’s be real. They don’t look like a tough spot on other teams’ schedules right now. Buffalo does, and it has a 3.5-game lead with a head-to-head win in hand. The Pats are cooked. However …
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Because the Dolphins, you guys! Even if you’re willing to concede that the Patriots can’t come back, you have to remember that there’s a team in between Buffalo and New England, and it’s Miami, which just embarrassed Jared Goff and the Rams on Sunday to improve to 4-3 and stay within a game and a half of the Bills.
Buffalo beat Miami in Week 2, but only by a field goal, and look at the remaining schedules. The Bills have Seattle and Arizona the next two weeks, then an emotionally exhausting fourth-quarter comeback win against the Chargers followed by games against the 49ers and Steelers. The Dolphins have games left against the Chiefs and Raiders and Bills, but they also have a real juicy Chargers/Broncos/Jets/Bengals stretch coming up while the Bills deal with their gauntlet.
If rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can play — and he really wasn’t tested Sunday, as the Dolphins’ defense just kept turning over Goff — then Miami has a real shot to make that Week 17 game in Buffalo a Sunday night, prime-time division title game. Do not rule out Brian Flores’ bunch.
The Rams are the league’s worst five-win team
The flip side of Miami’s win Sunday was the Rams’ loss, and an ugly one at that. Los Angeles outgained Miami 471 yards to 175, had a 36:29 time of possession and collected 31 first downs to the Dolphins’ eight … and it wasn’t even in the game in the second half.
Four first-half turnovers by Goff sunk L.A. into a 28-10 halftime hole, and Miami plays good enough defense that the Rams weren’t going to come back from that. Goff’s Total QBR for the game was 12.9 — and remember, that’s on a scale of zero to 100. The Rams were as bad Sunday as any team in the league.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Their only competition for this honor comes from the Browns and the Bears. Coincidentally, the Bears are the only non-NFC East team the Rams have beaten this season. They won’t see the Browns unless they both make the Super Bowl, and I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
Sunday’s game couldn’t have set up better for the Rams, especially after Aaron Donald forced a Tagovailoa fumble on the Dolphins’ second play and the Rams scored the game’s first touchdown a few plays later. But then Goff started turning it over, and the Dolphins ran back a punt for a touchdown. And the Rams watched the game get away from them.
L.A. is in third place in the league’s toughest division, and the bad news is it doesn’t get any more games against the NFC East. It gets the Seahawks, Buccaneers, 49ers and Cardinals over the next four weeks. If we’re wrong about the Rams here, they have a chance to prove it. But they’re going to have to play a lot better than they did in Miami.
Sorry, Steelers — the Chiefs are still the best team in the AFC
The Steelers held off reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on Sunday to improve to 7-0. It is the only remaining unbeaten team in the league. Its victory, while far from dominant, makes a decent case to be considered more impressive than the Chiefs’ layup over the winless Jets, given the degree of difficulty.
It comes one week after the Steelers beat the Titans, who were undefeated prior to that game. There is nothing about the Steelers’ season to dislike, and voting the league’s only undefeated team as the best in the league is never going to be a terrible idea.
Patrick Mahomes throws for 416 yards and connects with four players on five touchdowns, as the Chiefs rout the Jets, 35-9.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Layups count, too, and the Chiefs looked just about pristine in doing what they needed to do against the Jets. Pittsburgh’s defense is a dominant unit, but Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t look nearly as dominatingly sharp as Patrick Mahomes, who threw five touchdown passes Sunday. The Chiefs are pretty much doing calisthenics right now, staying loose for January and a shot at a repeat title run. They are on cruise control.
What Pittsburgh is doing is impressive, and it might well be the best team. But it’s also possible we overthink these things, and the only reason the Chiefs aren’t beating every team by 28 every week is that the regular season doesn’t have their full attention. I’m still taking Kansas City until I see a good reason to feel otherwise.
The 2-5 Vikings can still make the playoffs
The Vikings’ victory over the Packers was among Sunday’s weirdest. Running back Dalvin Cook returned from injury with 226 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Minnesota fell behind Aaron Rodgers & Co. twice in the first half and just kept coming back, using Cook as a bludgeon against a perpetually stunned Green Bay defense that looked as if it had never seen him before.
The Vikings are still in last place in the NFC North, but they’re the only team in their division that won this week, and they beat the first-place team to do it. Green Bay has lost two of its past three.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Vikings are merely one example of why this matters, but their victory makes them a worthwhile one: For the first time, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs. That means a 2-5 record is not as discouraging as it used to be. If the season ended today, the NFC wild-card teams would be the 5-2 Cardinals, the 5-2 Buccaneers and the 5-3 Rams, whose legitimacy we’ve already called into question here.
Mathematically, the Vikings are not impossibly behind the Rams, and the only team between them that currently has a winning record is the overrated Bears. Chicago, two weeks from now, is the only team the Vikings will play between now and Dec. 13 that currently has a winning record.
I don’t know if they can get there. Heck, they just traded big offseason trade acquisition Yannick Ngakoue and might not even technically be “going for it” at this point. But it’s important, as the second half of this season unfolds, that you keep in mind the point about the expanded playoffs. And “Whoa, the Vikings aren’t out of it yet?” is as good a way as any to keep that in mind.
The 49ers need a quarterback
Seattle’s pass defense is the worst in the NFL — by a lot. Entering Sunday, the Seahawks were allowing an average of 57.3 more passing yards per game than any other team. In their first seven games, the only team that didn’t throw for at least 300 yards against them was Minnesota in Week 5. The Seahawks came in allowing 7.71 yards per attempt, and without their best safety and best cornerback.
And Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers couldn’t throw it against them. Garoppolo was 11-for-16 passing for 84 yards before leaving in the second half with an ankle injury. Nick Mullens relieved him and went 18-for-25 for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
Yeah, the games was more or less in hand by then. But the stark difference between the trouble Garoppolo had moving the ball and the ease with which Mullens moved it cannot be explained simply by shrugging and saying, “Garbage time.” One wonders if the Niners would have had a better chance to win this game had Garoppolo not injured his ankle sooner.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Garoppolo is fine, and obviously the Niners have won a lot of games with him — he’s 22-8 as the starter in the regular season. San Francisco’s injury situation this season is unrivaled league-wide, and it might be unfair to judge anyone as a result. But Garoppolo’s inconsistencies — be they of performance or availability — have become too much for an otherwise steady team to ignore.
Do they go with Mullens on Thursday against Green Bay, whether Garoppolo’s ankle is fine or not? Do they think about making a switch in the second half of the season? It feels inevitable that they at least consider alternatives in the offseason, and the way Garoppolo’s contract is structured allows them to replace him quite easily if that’s what they decide to do.
Again, he’s not their biggest problem. But they have given him enough of a chance to prove he can be the steadying, consistent presence they need at the position. That the jury has remained out this long might tell them all they need to know.