It’s time to take the Texans seriously. The pairing of rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and new coach DeMeco Ryans established an incandescent future in Houston. That future may have arrived sooner than expected. Like, right now.
Sunday’s game in Cincinnati seemed like a test designed to smack an emergent team with a dose of NFL reality. Among a confluence of injuries, the Texans didn’t have top wideout Nico Collins. The playoff-hardened Bengals entered as perhaps the hottest team in the NFL, 5-1 in their previous six. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s exotic coverages habitually confuse experienced quarterbacks, let alone rookies. The Bengals scored a touchdown on their opening drive.
Stroud and the Texans never blinked. They took control of the game, weathered a late miscue and seized a convincing, 30-27 victory on the road. Stroud passed for 356 yards, ran for a touchdown and, for the second consecutive week, engineered a last-minute, game-winning drive. The rookie of the year race is over, and it might be time to welcome Stroud into the MVP discussion.
Houston led by multiple scores for most of the second half, but Stroud’s late interception — only his second of the season — and a three-and-out enabled the Bengals to erase a 10-point deficit and tie the score at 27 with 1:33 left. As he had all day following Bengals scores, Stroud responded. He hit tight end Dalton Schultz for 25 yards on third and six, then found wideout Noah Brown — who had 172 receiving yards — for 22 to push the Texans into field goal range. Matt Ammendola was true from 38 yards.
Houston showed it’s more than just Stroud. Devin Singletary ran for 150 yards. Ryans’s defense twice intercepted Joe Burrow, who hadn’t thrown multiple picks this season, and sacked him four times. With Jacksonville’s loss to San Francisco, the Texans moved within one game of first place in the AFC South. They also hold the AFC’s final wild-card spot. These Texans, winners of 11 games the previous three years combined, might be arriving ahead of schedule.
The Patriots discovered a new nadir. A week after they lost at home to the Washington Commanders and fell to 2-7, the New England Patriots flew to Germany to play the Indianapolis Colts. On the eve of the game, in a bar full of Patriots fans, team owner Robert Kraft called it a “critical” opportunity, seemingly ratcheting urgency on Coach Bill Belichick. In a season dense with unfamiliar misery in New England, the Patriots submitted their worst, most disquieting performance yet.
In a 10-6 loss, the Patriots did not score a touchdown. Belichick benched Mac Jones for New England’s final drive after he heaved a mind-numbing red-zone interception. Backup Bailey Zappe completed the anti-masterpiece with a game-sealing interception. Camera shots showed Kraft bowing his head in dismay.
The Patriots will go on their bye week at 2-8, worst in the AFC. In their past 17 games, they are 4-13. It seems feasible that they will emerge from the break with a new starting quarterback — or even a new coach. Before Sunday’s game, Kraft expressed disappointment in the Patriots’ season during an interview with NFL Network but said he hoped the Germany trip could be a “reset.” The Patriots only spiraled further. Belichick warrants a reverent farewell, but would playing out this string be any better than a midseason parting? And might Kraft decide there’s value in starting his search for a new coach now rather than later?
Jones, too, seems unlikely to be part of the Patriots’ future. Drafted 15th in 2021, he reached the playoffs as a rookie but continued his harsh regression Sunday. He was skittish behind a poor offensive line. The Patriots may tumble far enough to secure a draft pick with which they could take their next franchise quarterback. Jones may be salvageable, but he needs a fresh start.
Joshua Dobbs is more than just a great story. Dobbs’s introduction to the Minnesota Vikings last week was like something out of a movie. Acquired from the Arizona Cardinals midweek to replace out-for-the-season Kirk Cousins, Dobbs didn’t start against the Atlanta Falcons. But in the first quarter, he replaced injured rookie Jaren Hall, and he went on to lead the Vikings to victory despite not practicing with his new receivers and not knowing many of his teammates’ names.
On Sunday, the Vikings’ thorough, 27-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints suggested Dobbs could be a sustainable solution, enough to lead Minnesota to the playoffs. He put on a clinic in playmaking and efficiency, completing 23 of 34 passes for 268 yards with no interceptions and just one sack. He also ran eight times for 44 yards and a touchdown, keeping the Saints’ formidable defense on its heels.
Dobbs’s running ability is a legitimate weapon. He has run for 368 yards this season, second behind Lamar Jackson among quarterbacks. The Vikings have won five straight games, undaunted by Cousins’s Achilles’ tendon tear, and they currently own a playoff spot. Superstar wideout Justin Jefferson could return from injured reserve next week.
It was a disastrous day for the Ravens. A loss seemed impossible. The Baltimore Ravens had dominated the Cleveland Browns, scoring a pick-six on the second snap, leading 24-9 early in the third quarter and then 31-17 inside of 10 minutes left in the fourth. When the Browns marched for a touchdown, the languid pace of the drive seemed to help the Ravens.
But all of a sudden, Jackson tossed a lackadaisical pass that was tipped into the air and into Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II’s arms. Newsome returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. A missed extra point kept the Ravens ahead, but Myles Garrett briefly took over the game, Baltimore’s offense bogged down, and Cleveland booted a walk-off field goal to steal a 33-31 victory in Baltimore. The Ravens had to be asking themselves why rookie running back Keaton Mitchell, who scored on an electrifying 39-yard run in the first quarter, only touched the ball once in the second half.
The loss may not have been the worst part for the Ravens. Top cornerback Marlon Humphrey and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, two of their most important players, left with injuries and did not return. Coach John Harbaugh did not clarify either player’s status, but Humphrey’s injury was particularly worrisome. While in coverage, he planted and collapsed without contact.
The result left the AFC North in a muddle. The Ravens remain on top, just barely, at 7-3, with the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers at 6-3 and the Bengals at 5-4.
The 49ers got well. San Francisco had lost three consecutive games when it went on its bye week, its dominant start to the season a distant memory. The 49ers used the bye to rest and, most important, get healthy. Left tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver Deebo Samuel returned from injuries, and the 49ers looked like the 49ers again.
San Francisco drubbed the host Jaguars, 34-3, and reasserted itself as one of the NFL’s best teams. Brock Purdy silenced any questions that arose during the losing streak, completing 19 of 26 passes for 296 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Defensive end Chase Young made his 49ers debut after arriving in a deadline trade, and he joined with former Ohio State teammate Nick Bosa on a strip-sack of Trevor Lawrence. Even with their skid, the 49ers’ plus-109 point differential is second in the NFL.
The victory had only one drawback. Christian McCaffrey did not score a touchdown for the first time in 17 games, leaving him tied with Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore for the longest streak of all time. “Yeah, I suck,” McCaffrey told reporters, cracking a smile. “Everyone else on the team scored except for me.” McCaffrey settled for 142 total yards, a feat he makes look routine.
Dan Campbell isn’t scared. The Detroit Lions made their intentions clear from the start of their 41-38 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. In the first quarter, the Lions faced fourth and five at the Los Angeles 28. They not only eschewed a field goal; they ran the ball. Jared Goff handed off to David Montgomery, who blasted through the line to the first-down marker, then let a pair of offensive linemen shove him over the line to gain.
The play set an apt tone. The Lions went for it on fourth down five times and converted on four of them, the biggest coming in the final minutes. With 1:47 left and the score tied at 38, Detroit faced fourth and two at the Chargers 26. Campbell could have kicked a go-ahead field goal. He instead went for it again, wanting to drain the clock so Justin Herbert couldn’t touch the ball. Goff hit rookie tight end Sam LaPorta on a short slant; after three kneel-downs, Riley Patterson booted the game-winner as time expired.
Campbell’s message was clear: The Lions think they can do whatever they want on offense. They gained 8.3 yards per play. Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs each surpassed 100 total yards. Amon-Ra St. Brown gained 156 receiving yards for his sixth game over 100 this season. Goff threw for 333 yards. They’re a bully on offense.
The Lions are going to challenge all year long for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Detroit’s next five games come against the Bears, Packers, Saints, Bears again and Broncos. They might be favored in every game the rest of the season aside from their trip to Dallas in Week 17.
Kyler Murray still has it. When Murray lined up behind center Sunday, it had been 11 months since he tore the ACL in his right knee. It may as well have been 11 seconds. He was the same quarterback: risk-taking, running pass rushers in circles, accelerating like a Formula One car, hoisting deep balls that scraped the ceiling.
Murray led the Cardinals to their second victory, a 25-23 win over Atlanta earned on a walk-off field goal. He engineered the final score in pure Murray fashion: On third and 10 at the Cardinals 42-yard line with less than two minutes to go, he drifted back inside his own 20-yard line, evaded a trio of pass rushers and scurried for a 13-yard gain. Two plays later, Murray heaved a moonball to tight end Trey McBride, setting up a chip-shot field goal to win the game.
Here’s the big question: What do the Cardinals want out of the final seven games of their season? They are headed for a top pick in a draft with two potential franchise quarterbacks at the top. Are they showcasing Murray (and his enormous contract) for a trade? Do they want to evaluate him after his return from surgery? Do they plan to use their draft capital to build around him? It’ll be a fascinating few months in Arizona.
CeeDee Lamb is an elite wide receiver. The Dallas Cowboys’ 49-17 demolition of Tommy DeVito and the Giants was competitive for roughly zero plays, but it still provided a platform for Lamb to continue his ascent to the top of his position. The quartet of Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Justin Jefferson and Cooper Kupp hovers above the rest of their wideout brethren, but Lamb may be breaking into that club, if he hasn’t already.
Lamb has been on a borderline historic tear. On Sunday, he caught 11 passes for 151 yards, which made him the first receiver in the Super Bowl era to catch at least 10 passes for at least 150 yards in three consecutive games. In his past four games, Lamb has 41 catches for 617 yards and three touchdowns. He’s a silky route runner with strong hands and both speed and power with the ball, and he’s starting to put his tools together consistently.
Lamb’s latest performance helped the Cowboys dominate the Giants in a way usually reserved for college football in early September. Dallas recorded 32 first downs and gained 640 yards to the Giants’ 172. The 2-8 Giants have reached embarrassing depths in Coach Brian Daboll’s second season, injuries or not. The Cowboys beat them with an 89-17 aggregate score this season.