Six quick takes on Week 6 in the NFL:
1. The NFL’s new roughing the passer rules are changing the way defensive players are playing the game. With five minutes left Sunday night and the Kansas City leading New England by three on third-and-goal at the four-yard-line, Chiefs rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks had chance to sack Tom Brady from behind to force the Patriots to take a field goal. But he let Brady escape because he thought Brady had thrown the ball and Brady scampered for a touchdown in a game the Pats wound up winning, 43-40. Speaks said he didn’t take want to take Brady to the ground because he feared a flag. “It sucks, it sucks,’’ he said. “You’re supposed to finish plays like that.’’ In the future, he said he will risk the flag and make the play. For better or worse, the NFL is fundamentally changing the way the game has been played since the days of Pop Warner.
2. There is more evidence that the downturn in TV ratings last year was reflected by not having enough stars and good matchups. Match the unbeaten Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes against the Patriots and Tom Brady and the fans will tune in, especially if it’s a 43-40 shootout. The Chiefs-Pats rating was the highest for Sunday Night Football since NBC got the package in 2006. They’ve also had a double-digit increase the last five weeks compared to 2017, although that is somewhat misleading because the ratings nosedived last year. Still, the NFL has too many primetime games, and it is difficult to have good matchups all the time. Oversaturation remains the problem.
3. The Baltimore Ravens defense is starting to bring back memories of the kind of defense the team used to have while winning two Super Bowls. They did something against the Tennessee Titans in a 21-0 victory that the 2000 Ravens never did — they got 11 sacks against Marcus Mariota. They had nine going into the last drive and when told they needed one more to break the team record, they got two more. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time a team got 11 sacks in a shutout since team sacks were recorded in 1963, which means the 1985 Chicago Bears and the Steel Curtain of the 1970s never did it. Mariota completed 10 passes as he became the first player since Jay Cutler in 2010 to have more sacks then completions. The Ravens may be on the verge of saving coach John Harbaugh’s job. They are tied for first in the AFC North with the Bengals at 4-2.
4. Gus Bradley’s defense stymied Baker Mayfield’s bid to become the first quarterback drafted No. 1 since the common draft in 1967 to win his first two home games. The Los Angeles Chargers sacked Mayfield five times and picked him off twice in a 38-14 win over Cleveland. Even more significant for the Chargers was the fact that rookie Michael Badgley made four extra points and a 44-yard field goal filling in for Caleb Sturgis, who has a quadriceps injury. The Chargers have had kicking problems for years, and Sturgis has missed three field-goal attempts and four extra-point attempts this year. In their last visit to Cleveland in 2016, Josh Lambo, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, missed a game-tying field goal from 45 yards out as time expired. And he had one blocked with just over four minutes left. That was Cleveland’s only win of the 2016 season and prevented them from going 0-16 two years in a row.
5. When the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, Pittsburgh agreed to be one of the three teams to switch to the AFL. Cleveland agreed to make the move only if Pittsburgh joined the Browns because the two teams had a long-standing rivalry. Cincinnati and Houston were paired with them. At the time, Pittsburgh, founded in 1933, had never won a playoff game and was 1-13 in Chuck Noll’s first year in 1969. Nobody knew Pittsburgh was building a dynasty. Joining Pittsburgh in the division meant playing the Steelers twice a year, which hasn’t gone well for the Bengals, who lost their seventh in a row to the Steelers, including Sunday’s 28-21 defeat on Ben Roesthlisberger’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown late in the game. The Steelers hold a 63-35 edge in the rivalry with the Bengals. “They ain’t better than us,’’ Cincinnati cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. But after the Steelers fell behind 21-20 with 1:20 left, Kirkpatrick’s holding penalty on a third-and-10 play kept the drive alive, and Roethlisberger threw the game-winner two plays later. It was a critical win for the Steelers, keeping them in the division race at 3-2-1 while Cincinnati fell to 4-2, although they are tied for first in the AFC North with Baltimore.
6. The Atlanta Falcons ended their freefall with a 34-29 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs. Matt Ryan passed for 346 yards and they added 70 rushing yards. That cost former Falcons head coach Mike Smith his defensive coordinator’s job with the Bucs. Since head coach Dirk Koetter hired Smith when he got the head job in 2016, the Bucs have given up 400 or more yards 20 times, most in the NFL. They’ve also given up 400 yards in all five games this year. He was replaced by linebacker coach Mark Duffner. Smith was 67-50 in seven years as the Falcons’ head coach and 13-3 in 2012 and made the NFC title game before being fired after two losing seasons. Fortunes can change quickly in the NFL. There is a reason people say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.”