NFL Winners and Losers: Even in a win, it's clear the Patriots are nowhere close to great

·11 min read

For many years the most bankable thing in the NFL was Bill Belichick against a rookie quarterback. 

Really, the Patriots beating up any team with any quarterback was a sure thing for most of the past two decades. 

New England won 25-22 Sunday, but it's unlikely anyone involved with the Patriots or who roots for them were impressed. New England needed a roughing-the-passer call on third-and-16 late in the fourth quarter to come back and beat the lowly Houston Texans. A field goal in the final minute, after the roughing-the-passer call, provided the winning points. 

The Patriots spent a ton of money in the offseason after a 7-9 season. They're 2-3, and not out of the playoff race by any means, but it's hard to get excited about a team whose two wins are against the Jets and a game-long struggle against the Texans. 

Rookie quarterback Davis Mills made play after play against the Patriots. Mills, a third-round pick, hasn't been good since taking over for the injured Tyrod Taylor. He was bad last week in a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. And he looked like an all-star carving up Belichick's defense. Belichick's Patriots teams were 22-6 against rookie quarterbacks before Sunday. 

If Belichick can't figure out how to get the Patriots back to a playoff level — and if anyone can figure that out, it's him — people will compare his record with and without Brady. Since 2001, the Patriots were without Brady in 2008 (he missed all but the first quarter of the first game with a knee injury) and 2020, and missed the playoffs both times. This season could be three-for-three. The Patriots made the playoffs in 17 of Brady's 18 full seasons as starter. This season's Patriots offense is getting solid quarterback play from rookie Mac Jones, but very few explosive plays. It's hard to win that way in the NFL. 

It was strange to watch the Patriots defense allow so many plays to Mills and his no-name group of skill-position talent. Mills was 21 of 29 for 311 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 141.6 rating. They hadn't looked bad in close losses like the one last week to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they did look bad on Sunday, even in a win. Even if we view that as an anomaly, this does not look like a vintage Patriots team or anywhere close. 

The good news is the Patriots got a win and there's plenty of time left this season. Belichick has a big challenge on his hands. This Patriots team doesn't look like a playoff team yet, and it'll be hard to get it there. 

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is off to a rough start this season. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is off to a rough start this season. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 5 of the NFL season: 

WINNERS

Arizona Cardinals defense: Two hits won the Cardinals a hard-fought game.

One came in the first half. Trey Lance, who the San Francisco 49ers decided didn’t need to be protected in his first start so they ran him the entire game, was blasted on a fourth-and-goal play inches short of the goal line. Then in the fourth quarter, the 49ers ran fullback Kyle Juszczyk on a sneak up the middle on fourth-and-1 and he was stopped cold.

The Cardinals made some other plays, but those are the two that led a 17-10 win. The undefeated Cardinals are able to win games when their offense doesn’t have a big game, too.

Brandon Staley: Staley has coached five games in the NFL and he might already be the NFL’s most aggressive coach.

Staley’s willingness to go for it on fourth down paid off Sunday. The Los Angeles Chargers won a thrilling 47-42 game over the Cleveland Browns. The Chargers might not have won without Staley going for it on fourth down three times, and the Chargers picking up a first down each time.

The biggest fourth-down decision came with 7:48 left. The Chargers trailed 35-28 and faced fourth-and-8. Most coaches would have kicked a field goal. Staley went for it, Justin Herbert completed a 20-yard pass to Keenan Allen, and the Chargers scored a touchdown on the next play to tie the game.

After years of blowing games, the Chargers are 4-1 and turning things around. Their coach’s faith in them is playing a role.

The Bucs' Antonio Brown gamble: Disregarding the moral dilemma of signing Brown, whose off-field issues were voluminous, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were gambling. There was no guarantee Brown, a supremely talented player, would not disrupt the team. 

It's safe to say Brown has worked out, in football terms. 

Brown came on late last season during the Bucs' Super Bowl run, and he is having a big impact this season too. Brown had two first-half touchdowns, including a 61-yarder, to make sure there would be no upset bid by the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The Buccaneers blew out Miami 45-17, with Brady throwing for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns. 

There have been many times this season in which Brown, not Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, looks like Tom Brady's favorite receiver. The Buccaneers' offense is hard to stop when all three are involved. Even Tampa Bay couldn't have anticipated the Brown signing working out this well. 

Adam Thielen and Greg Joseph: Thielen and Joseph might have saved Mike Zimmer's job. 

After the Detroit Lions scored and got the two-point conversion to take a 17-16 lead, which was set up by a shocking Alexander Mattison fumble with Minnesota trying to seal the win, the Vikings had 37 seconds left. Thielen made catches of 21 and 19 yards to set up Joseph's 54-yard attempt. Joseph missed a 37-yarder that would have won a game at Arizona earlier this season, but nailed this one for the 19-17 win. Poor Lions. 

If the Vikings would have lost, they would have been 1-4 coming off blowing a late 10-point lead to the Lions. It wouldn't have been crazy to wonder about Zimmer being fired during the season, or maybe in the 24 hours after the game. He survives for another week to figure out why the Vikings have been so mediocre this season. 

Mason Crosby: Anyone who misses three field goals from 2:12 left in the fourth quarter to the end of the game shouldn't feel too great. But being able to hit the game-winner will make it a much, much better week for Crosby. 

Crosby missed just before the two-minute warning of regulation, missed at the end of regulation and missed again in overtime, but the Green Bay Packers kept giving him chances (mostly because the Bengals missed two field goals of their own in the final minutes of regulation and overtime). Crosby finally hit a 49-yard field goal to get Green Bay a 25-22 win. Imagine his flight home had he missed again. 

Now Crosby and the Packers can laugh about the misses. He's a reliable vet and will be fine. And he didn't cost the Packers a win. 

Derrick Henry: We take Henry for granted. A 130-yard, three-touchdown day doesn't seem like a big deal anymore. 

It was a big deal for a Tennessee Titans team that needed a win after losing to the New York Jets last week. Henry took the team on his back, as he has done so often. The Titans won 37-19 to improve to 3-2. 

While the win isn't going to impress anyone because it came against an Urban Meyer-coached squad, it is important for the Titans, who are still the clear favorite in the AFC South. They'll remain the favorite as long as Henry is still Henry. 

LOSERS

Jon Gruden: Gruden found himself in trouble this week when a racist email from years ago surfaced. Not even a football win would make anyone forget that.

But Gruden is paid to win football games and his team couldn’t do that either.

The Las Vegas Raiders, who have started fast and faded each of the past two seasons under Gruden, appear to be pulling the same stunt again. The Raiders, who started 3-0, lost their second in a row. They were listless in a 20-9 loss to the Chicago Bears. The offense, so explosive through three games, did almost nothing. It was a bad loss to a mediocre Bears team. Too bad questions about the loss aren’t the only ones Gruden needs to answer.

New York Giants’ injury report: It’s hard to win an NFL game when you lose all your players.

The Giants were down their quarterback, star running back and top three receivers before Sunday’s game was over. They predictably lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

Daniel Jones got knocked out on a big hit on a goal line run. He was ruled out with a concussion. Saquon Barkley hurt his ankle on a fluky play when he got undercut by a defender flying past. Kenny Golladay joined Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton on the sideline when he hurt his knee. The Giants lost 44-20. 

The Giants are 1-4 and it’ll be tough for them to dig out of that unless they start to get some guys healthy soon.

That Denver Broncos 3-0 start: The Broncos looked good with three straight wins to start the season, but there was skepticism involved because their opponents were the Giants, Jaguars and Jets. 

When the schedule got tougher, the Broncos haven't looked so good. 

The Broncos followed up a loss to the Ravens by falling short against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 27-19 loss. A key moment came for the Broncos in the third quarter, when they were down 17-6. They got a penalty for Dre'mont Jones using leverage to push off on a lineman to try to jump over the line. That gave the Steelers a first down and instead of settling for a field goal, they got a touchdown and a 24-6 lead. It's the kind of sloppy mistake the Broncos have made too often the past two games. 

The Broncos did rally and had a chance to tie at the end, but they couldn't get in the end zone from the 3-yard line. Teddy Bridgewater's fourth-down pass was intercepted to seal the loss. A horrible start was too tough to overcome, and all of the momentum from a 3-0 start is gone. 

The strange tale of the WFT defense: The Washington Football Team defense was supposed to be good this season. It has been nowhere close. 

It's rare to see a highly touted defense be among the worst in the league, but WFT struggled again on Sunday in a 33-22 loss to the New Orleans Saints. They gave up a mostly uncontested Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half. Jameis Winston made a few other big plays including a 72-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Harris. 

Washington isn't going to go anywhere if the defense isn't good this season. And through five weeks, it has shown no signs of being good. 

Carolina Panthers: It's hard for a team to look as bad as the Eagles looked for almost three quarters and still win.

The Panthers just couldn't put them away. 

The Eagles, who trailed 15-6 late in the third quarter and had no offense going, came back to beat the Carolina Panthers 21-18. Jalen Hurts made some plays and had a pair of rushing touchdowns. 

It's a bad loss for the Panthers, who are trying to earn some respect and be in the playoff race this season. It looked like they could be a contender after a 3-0 start. A loss to the Cowboys in Week 4 wasn't too bad. But blowing a winnable game in Week 5 was. They will wonder how they lost to the Eagles. 

New York Jets: A winning streak for the Jets was too much to ask. 

The Jets beat the Tennessee Titans last week for their first win of the season. Then, facing a shorthanded and bad Atlanta Falcons team, the Jets got off to a miserable start and a rally fell short in a 27-20 loss in London. The Jets, like most weeks, looked unprepared and sloppy early against a Falcons offense that didn't have top receiver Calvin Ridley. 

It'll be a long season for the Jets. At least they don't have to worry about when their first win might come. 

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