In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 7 of the 2023 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at teams that are better than their respective records would suggest ...
When we look back on this season, we'll remember two things about Week 6. One is that this was the moment when everybody finally became human. The San Francisco 49ers suffered their first loss of the season, as the Cleveland Browns' defense manhandled the boys from the Bay. The Philadelphia Eagles also dropped their first game. Their upset came at the hands of those suddenly upstart New York Jets. Pop the bubbly, 1972 Dolphins -- nobody's perfect in 2023.
The other obvious takeaway from Week 6 is that looks truly can be deceiving. Take a quick glance around the NFL and you see teams that have real possibilities attached to ordinary records. They may be inconsistent, or the victims of tough early-season scheduling, but these squads have legitimate potential -- they just haven't reached a point where people can see how good they really are.
That's what I'm here for in today's version of The First Read. It's always easy to talk about the powerhouse teams that jump out to fast starts and cruise to double-digit wins and playoff spots. It's much harder to identify those squads that might turn into something special if certain factors work out in their favor. Here's a quick summary of five clubs that fall into that category, along with why they actually are better than their records would indicate.
The Bengals have rebounded from a slow start for the second straight season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them start rolling again. Cincinnati lost its first two games in 2022 before winning 12 of its next 14 regular-season contests. It’s a much harder road to create that kind of success this year -- after this week's bye, the Bengals will see the 49ers, Bills and Ravens in three of their next four games -- but there’s a lot to like about Cincinnati. First off, quarterback Joe Burrow is playing at a high level again after dealing with a lingering calf strain. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase is asserting his dominance, as well. The defense also is starting to find itself, as the Seattle Seahawks learned in Cincinnati’s 17-13 win on Sunday. The Bengals came up with two huge fourth-quarter stops after Seattle had moved deep into Cincinnati territory and looked ready to take the lead on a touchdown. Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith also had a horrible day against that unit, throwing two interceptions and taking four sacks. The Bengals knew it would be a tough transition when safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III left in free agency, and this unit has gone through its growing pains. However, the talent is there for this defense to be as reliable as it was in each of the last two seasons. If it can keep playing like it did on Sunday -- and Burrow remains healthy -- the Bengals will very much be in the Super Bowl discussion.
Anybody who watched Cleveland's 19-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers realizes that the Browns are as dangerous as they’ve been in years. They beat a team that had been whipping opponents and accomplished that feat with quarterback Deshaun Watson sidelined for the second straight game. It’s fair to argue that the injuries to wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Christian McCaffrey plagued the 49ers in this game. That also would be a huge slight to the Browns' defense, which has been elite all season and frustrated the Niners’ prolific attack for most of this contest. Cleveland is a team that has been intriguing since training camp, largely because of Watson having a full season to play and the potential of that defense with new coordinator Jim Schwartz running it. Now we’re seeing what that buzz was about. The Browns have the look of a legitimate playoff contender as long as Watson can build on the momentum he created before his shoulder injury -- he produced his best game with that franchise in a blowout win over Tennessee in Week 3 -- and their ground game can withstand the loss of running back Nick Chubb to a season-ending knee injury.
There’s no way anybody was picking Houston for this kind of list when the season began. That was before rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud started his career in stellar fashion, and the Texans found various ways to battle through adversity. This is a team that has endured all sorts of offensive line issues. It didn’t have much of a running attack before this Sunday’s win over New Orleans, and the defense doesn’t possess any real star power. Yet here the Texans stand, with blowout wins over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, and one game separating them from the AFC South lead. This team is so balanced that it ranked 11th in both scoring offense and defense coming into Sunday's triumph over the Saints. It also has a favorable schedule coming up after this week's bye, with four winnable games arriving in the ensuing six weeks (against the Panthers, Buccaneers, Cardinals and Broncos). The Texans spent a lot of time early in this past offseason talking about how they wanted to build a team to put around whomever they ultimately drafted at quarterback. That strategy has put them much farther ahead than expected.
Sean McVay is a phenomenal coach when he’s blessed with a star-studded roster. It turns out that he’s even more impressive when working with a team carrying low expectations. The Rams aren’t as good as their NFC West rivals, San Francisco and Seattle, but they’re more than capable of competing for a wild-card playoff spot. That’s not only because the NFC is weak; it’s because McVay has made the most of a team that seemed destined for a major rebuild. His greatest feat thus far is finding a way to turn an offense that lost its centerpiece for four weeks (wide receiver Cooper Kupp) into one that hardly missed a beat with new faces (Puka Nacua quickly became one of the rising stars of this young season). The Rams also have played strong teams close, losing by seven to the 49ers and three to the Bengals. It’s hard to know how much longer Los Angeles can keep this up, but this much is true: McVay will find ways to maximize that passing attack, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald is still a beast. Those two factors are enough to stay optimistic about how this team evolves over the course of the year.
The Jets were supposed to be dead by now, five weeks after Aaron Rodgers went down with that torn Achilles. Instead, they’re sitting at 3-3 because their head man, Robert Saleh, is coaching his butt off. Zach Wilson wouldn’t be playing better if Saleh didn’t support him. The Jets wouldn’t be able to beat the Eagles without both starting cornerbacks (Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed were out with concussions) if Saleh wasn’t inspiring them. New York has now beaten Buffalo and Philadelphia -- and given the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs all they could handle in a loss. That says something about Gang Green's competitive spirit and the talent that still exists on this roster. The blueprint for this team after Rodgers was lost was obvious: Run the football and play elite defense. The Jets have done more of that lately -- they forced four turnovers against Philadelphia -- and it’s given them a chance to remain viable.
Whatever drama was festering around Buffalo's star wide receiver during the offseason has quietly vanished. The only thing left to talk about when it comes to Diggs is how routinely he’s been roasting opposing defensive backs. He had 10 receptions for 100 yards in Sunday’s win over the Giants, which marked his fourth straight 100-yard effort this season. There are a lot of reasons why Bills quarterback Josh Allen started playing like an MVP candidate again after his season-opener clunker against the Jets, but the play of Diggs is one of the biggest.
The Chiefs tight end has been a hot topic all season, primarily because of his relationship with a certain pop star. His play on the field hadn’t been as impressive, although that is starting to change. Kelce followed up a heroic effort two weeks ago -- playing on a sprained ankle in a win over Minnesota -- with a performance against Denver on Thursday night that was more typical of the high bar he’s set for himself. Kelce finished with nine receptions for a season-high 124 yards that night. He had all of 222 receiving yards in four games prior to the effort. Kelce may be more beat up this year (he also missed the season opener with a knee injury), but he’s still deadly.
There’s rarely an opportunity for a kicker to make this list, so you have to give respect when it’s warranted. Tucker proved once again why he’s the best kicker in the league, as he hit six field goals in Baltimore’s win over Tennessee. That total matched his career-high, and his dependability can’t be overstated for this team. We’re still waiting for that offensive explosion in Baltimore. Until then, we know Tucker will be ready when called upon.
This has been a sore spot for Philadelphia for a few weeks, and it’s not getting any better. The Eagles, simply put, have one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They miss the presence of cornerback Avonte Maddox (who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 2) and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (who left in free agency). The secondary also took more hits in Sunday's loss to the Jets, as safety Reed Blankenship and cornerback Bradley Roby didn’t finish the game. Roby just joined the team two weeks ago. That tells you how many concerns the Eagles have on the back end these days.
San Francisco's rookie kicker didn’t miss a field goal in his first five games. He missed two in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland, including the would-be game-winner from 41 yards out. It’s bad enough that Moody cost the 49ers a victory. However, the bigger concern is how the third-round pick will perform in clutch situations moving forward. Moody was known for his reliability in college, but the Niners might need more from him with their offense taking a couple hits to star players (neither Deebo Samuel nor Christian McCaffrey finished Sunday's contest). He better be up to the challenge.
Denver's quarterback produced arguably the worst game of his career in Thursday night's loss to Kansas City. He threw for just 95 yards, tossed two interceptions and took four sacks. In fairness to Wilson, he has generally performed much better this season than last. But he was playing on the national stage against a division rival with a strong defense. Russ simply didn’t show up when his team needed a stellar effort from him.
SUNDAY'S BIGGEST SURPRISE
Aaron Rodgers throwing passes prior to the Jets' win over Philadelphia. Rodgers has talked openly about wanting to shock the world and find his way back onto the field this season after sustaining an Achilles tear in Week 1. The sight of him tossing the ball during warm-ups should give Jets fans some hope that he isn't full of poop. It's only been about a month since Rodgers underwent surgery, but he reportedly showed up at MetLife Stadium without crutches. Witnesses said the informal throwing session only lasted around five minutes, which was more than enough to back up the team's assertion that Rodgers has been doing exceptionally well in his recovery.
- 49ers at Browns: PJ Walker fills in for injured quarterback Deshaun Watson and helps Cleveland pull off a huge upset
- Seahawks at Bengals: The Cincinnati defense produces some huge fourth-quarter stops to derail Seattle.
- Eagles at Jets: The Jets torment Jalen Hurts and the Eagles with an impressive defensive effort.
MOST INTRIGUING GAME OF WEEK 7
As noted above, Philadelphia’s secondary is a mess right now -- and life certainly doesn't get any easier with Miami coming to town. The Dolphins have all sorts of big-play weapons and a quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, who is playing at an MVP level. The Eagles will need to be at their best to avoid a second consecutive defeat.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Will the Chiefs' wide receivers become more productive as the season goes on?
Anonymous AFC general manager: They should improve because talent isn't an issue in that room. I'd imagine (rookie) Rashee Rice is going to land a bigger role, based on how he's been playing. They took him in the second round, and the ball seems to be coming his way a little more. Kadarius Toney has been inconsistent, but defenses do have to account for him because he's too good with the ball in his hands in space. You can't just let him run free. As for the other guys, (Marquez) Valdes-Scantling is there to take the top off the defense, and Skyy Moore just hasn't been what they hoped for. I don't see either of them becoming high-volume players, but it's also not critical. They run their offense through (tight end) Travis Kelce, so the other receivers just have to do their ancillary roles. It's no different than how New England used Rob Gronkowski when he was there. The difference in Kansas City now is they're playing better defense, and they can play ball-control.
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 7 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 9 a.m. ET on Oct. 17):
- Caesars odds: +350
- Weeks in top five: 6
- Next game: at Eagles | Sunday, Oct. 22
- Caesars odds: +850
- Weeks in top five: 4
- Next game: at Patriots | Sunday, Oct. 22
- Caesars odds: +2200
- Weeks in top five: 1
- Next game: at Ravens | Sunday, Oct. 22
- Caesars odds: +450
- Weeks in top five: 6
- Next game: vs. Chargers | Sunday, Oct. 22
- Caesars odds: +700
- Weeks in top five: 2
- Next game: at Vikings | Monday, Oct. 23
My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Dolphins.
Previous picks ...
- Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 4: 49ers over Bills
- Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 2: 49ers over Bills
- Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins