Cover 7 | Sunday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Sunday, three of The Athletic’s NFL writers react to the biggest news, plays and performances from the day’s games.
A week after the New England Patriots suffered the worst loss of Bill Belichick’s head-coaching career against the Cowboys (38-3), they nearly matched it in Sunday’s 31-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Things went from bad to worse for quarterback Mac Jones, who threw a pair of interceptions for the second straight game and was benched in the fourth quarter.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers rallied to beat the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 thanks to a host of Baltimore miscues including some uncharacteristic drops by the Ravens’ receivers, a blocked punt and a pair of game-changing turnovers.
The Athletic NFL writers Vic Tafur, Ted Nguyen and Dan Pompei share their thoughts on Sunday’s top headlines.
Patriots QB Mac Jones threw his NFL-high third pick-six of the season in the first quarter Sunday against the Saints and it was just the start of another dreadful day for the New England passer. Jones finished 12-of-22 for 110 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions and was replaced by Bailey Zappe in the fourth quarter. Is it time for the Patriots to start Zappe (or another QB)? And should the decision impact head coach Bill Belichick’s job security in New England?
Pompei: We don’t know if Zappe can improve the Patriots significantly. We do know that they have not been close to good enough with Jones. The Patriots are 1-4 and their season is slipping away. They need a quarterback change to create a spark if for no other reason. The locker room has to have doubts about Jones at this point. Belichick’s job security probably should be determined by one thing, as every coach’s job security should be – whether or not he is the best person to lead the team in 2024 and beyond. Even the greatest coach in history has a shelf life, but the Patriots may be best served in the hands of the coach who is responsible for their six Lombardis.
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
Nguyen: Jones has looked spooked since the Cowboys game. He’s feeling and looking at the pass rush even when he has protection and he’s not seeing open receivers. He’s in a serious slump right now. I think he should be allowed to play through it unless they believe Zappe has a chance to develop into a starter-level quarterback. We’ve seen better days from Jones so I think he can eventually get back to a baseline level of pla y— I’m not sure that’s enough for New England to look for an upgrade in the off-season. To me, Belichick gets at least another three-year pass to figure things out based on his incredible success.
Tafur: There have been whispers about Belichick losing his fastball for a while now, and people should be screaming it from the rooftops after the Patriots were shut out by the Saints at home. It probably doesn’t matter who plays quarterback at this point, as New England has no offensive weapons. The only way Belichick keeps his job now is if he was really tanking for Caleb Willaims the whole time. The Patriots had some big injuries on defense last week, which puts even more pressure on the offense. Or less, right? Tank for Caleb or else Belichick is just getting ready for a semi-retirement gig advising Josh McDaniels in Las Vegas.
Colts rookie QB Anthony Richardson left Sunday’s game against the Titans in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, the third time in four games Richardson has played this season that he’s had to leave early with an injury. Is this trend more a case of Indianapolis too often putting its QB in harm’s way or is it on Richardson to adjust his approach to avoid taking so many hits?
Pompei: Some of what has happened to Richardson probably is bad luck. He hasn’t taken more hits than others who have avoided injuries. Then again, he may be prone to injury. But no quarterback can survive long-term unless he can defeat defenses from the pocket and tries to run only if he has no passing options. Richardson is a work in progress in that regard, as many young quarterbacks with running ability are. Pocket presence and awareness, as well as discipline with taking off, will be critical to his success as well as his well-being.
Nguyen: Richardson definitely needs to learn how to avoid hits. The option needs to be a part of his game — not utilizing his athletic ability is a waste — but he’s also been much further ahead as a passer than most though. He’s at a level where I think they can cut down on the option when he does return and use this season to really develop him as a passer. The Indianapolis coaching staff has to actively work with him on taking fewer hits before they return to the option game. Hopefully, Richardson will be back at some point this season because he’s made so much progress already. This team is winning games, but the ultimate goal of this season is to set up Richardson for the future. A high-volume option attack can wait and he has to prove that he can learn to keep himself safe.
Tafur: Richardson is a big target and is at risk just by the nature of his playing style. The Colts knew that when they drafted him, and they can’t ask him to change the way he plays — he is too dynamic with his legs and arm, and he will learn some restraint with experience. In the meantime, backup QB Gardner Minshew is a nice security blanket for the Colts staff. The team has shown it can win games with him and its defense, and now gets running back Jonathan Taylor back.
A week after securing a statement win against the Dolphins, the Bills fell to the Jaguars 25-20 in London in a game that saw Buffalo’s late rally come up short and two more defensive starters go down with injuries – LB Matt Milano (knee) and DT DaQuan Jones (pectoral). What’s the Bills’ bigger concern right now: Buffalo’s slow start on offense Sunday or the mounting injuries on defense?
Dan Pompei: Given the talent, the offense should come around. Whether or not the defense can absorb the injuries is a concern. The offense has been pretty solid for Buffalo before Sunday. If the Bills are going to be the kind of elite team many think they can be, they will need to win games with their defense. Getting Von Miller back is significant, but they will miss Tra’Davious White’s cover ability. If Milano’s absence is long term as well as White’s, the defense will be compromised. Milano has been as valuable as any of their defenders in the early part of the season. He’s also become one of football’s best off-the-ball linebackers.
Ted Nguyen: The injuries are definitely the biggest concern. You can sort of excuse the slow start to the international game and the offense will be fine as long as Josh Allen is healthy. But the defense just potentially lost two of their best defenders long term. Milano is a top-three linebacker in my eyes and one of the main reasons the Bills can live in sub-personnel and light boxes without getting consistently run on. Buffalo still has a good defensive line and it will get better as Miller gets acclimated but Milano is so valuable. The Bills can win shootouts but their defense was playing at such a high level.
Vic Tafur: It was a classic letdown game, traveling to London after shutting down the high-powered Dolphins in a division game. The Bills defensive line was underrated and now gets Miller back, so I think they could have weathered that storm if Milano’s injury was not long term. Milano is one of the most underrated players in the league. And the offense got going once they slept through the first half. So I am not too worried about the Bills’ defense or offense. They are still one of the six teams that can win the Super Bowl.
In perhaps the most strange game of the 1 p.m ET window, the Steelers rallied to beat the Ravens with the help of multiple Baltimore miscues. Pittsburgh blocked a punt that resulted in a safety, picked off Lamar Jackson and forced a game-sealing Jackson fumble — all in the second half — en route to securing the 17-10 win. The whole AFC North could be separated by a single game by the end of Week 5. Who is your current favorite to win the division and why?
Pompei: Any of the four teams can win this division, including the Bengals. Maybe especially the Bengals if Joe Burrow gets healthy. But for now, the Ravens, with a 2-1 record against North opponents, still look like the best. It was a bad loss to the Steelers, no question, but not a completely unexpected one given the nature of the rivalry. Baltimore had a really bad, out-of-character day offensively but remains tied for first in the division. There is a lot of football to be played, and this division surely will have many swings in power before the champion is decided — probably in the last week of the season.
Nguyen: The Ravens are the favorites and should have won against the Steelers by multiple touchdowns. I’ve never seen receivers let down a quarterback like they did Jackson in this game. And these weren’t just small drops. These were downfield, explosive passes that were in their hands. Zay Flowers even tripped on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown. The Ravens are just getting healthy, they have an elite defense, and the receivers will improve. The Ravens are the team to beat.
Tafur: It’s still the Ravens. I am going to assume that their receivers don’t drop as many passes going forward — Zay Flowers has so much upside — and that Lamar Jackson is not going to make terrible passes in the red zone. Jackson was doing so much better in that area under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken before Sunday. Jackson may have set a career high for frustrated helmet slams in the loss to the Steelers. I don’t know how Pittsburgh does it. They had no business beating the Browns or the Ravens, but here they are. Give Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett credit, I don’t see it in terms of his skill set, but he made some nice throws down the stretch.
(Top photo of Mac Jones: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)
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