NFL Week 7: What we learned from Sunday's games

Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Tennessee Titans 24

1) The Steelers built a comfortable 27-7 lead in the third quarter. From there, it slowly was whittled away as Ben Roethlisberger saw two interceptions give Tennessee life. Getting the ball back down three points with 2:35 left in the fourth quarter after an end-zone INT, Ryan Tannehill maneuvered his squad into field goal range. Stephen Gostkowski , whose been on a rollercoaster season, lined up the game-tying 45-yard field goal. He pushed it wide right. Pittsburgh hung on despite getting outplayed in the second half. After forcing a three-and-out and scoring their own FG to open a 20-point second-half lead, the Steelers (6-0) allowed the Titans (5-1) to gobble up 200 yards on the next five possessions to claw their way back in it. In that timeframe, the Steelers offense turned it over twice had a three-and-out. Pittsburgh’s quick start, coupled with Gostkowski’s miss, was enough to keep the Steelers undefeated. Pittsburgh is also perfect when generating a 20-point lead — 213-0-1 in such games.

2) Big Ben got off to a hot start slinging pinpoint passes all over the field, including a bullseye between defenders to Diontae Johnson to open the scoring. Third downs were the key to the game for the Steelers. Pittsburgh went 13 of 18 on third downs, including eight of nine in the first half. The chain-moving offense — 23 first downs — allowed the Steelers to earn a 36:37 time of possession advantage and kept Derrick Henry on the sideline for the bulk of the first half. Pittsburgh scored on its first four possessions, including three touchdowns. The Titans’ defense looked gassed for much of the tilt. Three INTs, including an end-of-half heave, however, gave the Titans life late. While the past few weeks were the Chase Claypool show, this Sunday it was JuJu Smith-Schuster’s turn in the spotlight. With Malcolm Butler shutting down Claypool, JuJu caught nine passes for 85 yards, including a bevy of big first downs in big spots. Smith-Shuster was a key reason the Steelers converted so well on third downs. Johnson (9/80/2) also returned for a big day before hobbling off with an injury. When the Steelers are healthy, they have the weapons to spread the ball around with the best. It’s not just one WR who can win on any given day.

3) The Titans looked like a team playing their third game in 13 days. The defense that couldn’t get off the field early and rarely got pressure. Tannehill was off-target early and was under siege. It took until after halftime for Henry to find his legs. Credit T.J. Watt with wreaking havoc all over the field, crushing Henry and badgering Tannehill. The Titans did find life in the second half, thanks to A.J. Brown. The YAC monster took a short pass for a 73-yard TD gallop to give Tennessee hope. Brown (6/153/1) kept making plays as the Titans scrapped back into the game. When the WR is healthy and Henry is pounding it on the ground Tennessee is tough to handle. Given how the game was trending, had Gostkowski forced overtime, it could be the Titans who moved to 6-0. Instead, the Steelers are the last undefeated team in the AFC.

— Kevin Patra

Washington Football Team 25, Dallas Cowboys 3

1) With a patchwork offensive line missing key players due to injury, Dallas (2-5) couldn’t protect QB Andy Dalton or reserve Ben DiNucci, who had to finish after Dalton absorbed an egregious hit to the head that resulted in the ejection of LB Jon Bostic. Washington (2-5) tallied half a dozen sacks, two by Montez Sweat, and pretty much took up residence in the Cowboys backfield as the pressure came both up the middle and around the edge. Washington first-round rookie Chase Young was shut out of the sack fest, but applied his share of heat; Washington has invested heavily in the defensive line in recent drafts, and it showed up in a big way Sunday.

2) The Washington Football Team found a running game Sunday against perhaps the only NFL club that would allow it one. The team entered the game without an individual rushing performance of 60-plus yards all season, but Antonio Gibson had more than that by the end of the first quarter. The rookie, who primarily played wide receiver in college, sliced through Dallas’ much-maligned defense for 128 yards on 20 carries. Washington finished with 208 on the ground, keeping QB Kyle Allen in manageable down-and-distance situations.

3) Just a play after Washington WR Terry McLaurin and Cowboys rookie CB Trevon Diggs traded some nasty shoves in the first half, McLaurin ran right by Diggs for a 52-yard touchdown catch that put Washington ahead, 15-3. McLaurin then turned to Diggs and rocked the ball like a baby in his arms, adding insult to touchdown. Diggs broke up two passes on the day and has a bright future in Dallas, but learned a hard lesson on that play. McLaurin, one of the NFL’s underrated talents at receiver, finished with a 7-90-1 afternoon.

— Chase Goodbread

Green Bay Packers 35, Houston Texans 20

1) Texans QB Deshaun Watson makes a lot of good decisions under pressure in an offense that often gives him little help, but it was a Watson miscalculation that opened the door for the Packers to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. On a fourth-and-1 play near midfield with seven minutes left, with the Texans trailing, 28-13, but holding some momentum, Watson ran left with a QB option and kept for a one-yard loss and a turnover on downs. The Packers’ Preston Smith was unblocked on the edge and ran straight to Watson, making Watson’s proper read a pitch outside to the running back, who likely would’ve moved the chains with ease. Green Bay (5-1) converted its fifth TD on the ensuing possession.

2) The Texans (1-6) could not contain Packers WR Davante Adams in any respect. Aaron Rodgers hit him short and long, inside and outside, against different coverages and defenders, and Houston had no answer for any of it. Adams went into the half already with star-of-the-game numbers — eight catches, 114 yards and a touchdown — with Green Bay holding a 21-0 lead. If the Texans adjusted at the half, it wasn’t effective. Adams put the game out of reach with 4:44 left in the third quarter, scoring on a 45-yard throw from Rodgers, and finished 13-196-2. Houston entered having allowed a QB rating of 111, 31st-ranked in the NFL, and looked it.

3) Houston’s offense sleep-walked through another first quarter and, once again, could not recover. Outscored in the opening stanza, 34-14, this year, the Texans now have failed to put first-quarter points on the board for four consecutive games. It was an especially glaring issue this week. Forget about points; Green Bay had 14 points before Houston had three first downs, and that’s no recipe for beating Rodgers. The Texans have one of the league’s worst rushing attacks, making early deficits all the more challenging for Watson.

Chase Goodbread

New Orleans Saints 27, Carolina Panthers 24

1) Sunday brought us the Saints offense we’ve expected to see from them in 2020. Drew Brees was sharp, completing 29-of-36 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns, connected with eight different targets, and none of them were named Michael Thomas. Alvin Kamara carried the weight left behind by Thomas’ absence, racking up 148 all-purpose yards — his seventh-straight game of 100-plus all-purpose yards, the longest active streak in the NFL. Deonte Harris caught his first career touchdown pass. Jared Cook celebrated National Tight End Day with an excellent touchdown grab. Three players (Kamara, Tre'Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway) broke 50 receiving yards. And while Dennis Allen’s defense needs to be better (and get more pressure), the group stood tall when needed most. A fun game produced an enjoyable Sunday for Saints fans, who can smile after watching their team move to 4-2 in a tight NFC South.

2) The Panthers (3-4) lost, sure, but Teddy Bridgewater passed a notable test Sunday. Carolina had very little of a rushing attack to speak of, leaving Bridgewater to do the majority of the offensive work, and he answered the call. Bridgewater completed 23-of-28 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and a 128.3 passer rating, spreading the ball among six pass-catchers and improvising when necessary to keep drives alive. His longest pass was a 75-yard strike to D.J. Moore (four catches, 93 yards, two touchdowns), and he even got Curtis Samuel involved (six catches, 48 yards; one rush, five yards, one touchdown). Watching Bridgewater operate in Joe Brady’s offense is a treat, and even if the Panthers aren’t quite contention material just yet, he’s making this first season under Matt Rhule worthwhile. He nearly got them a win Sunday.

3) In a game in which defense wasn’t exactly prominent, the two best plays came on sacks. One meant much more than the other. Brian Burns toasted replacement tackle James Hurst with a quick up-and-under move around the edge in the second quarter, sacking Brees and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Carolina. The turnover sparked a touchdown drive for Carolina to take a 17-14 lead (Carolina didn’t close the half, though, surrendering a Brees touchdown pass to Harris to give up the lead with 0:01 left in the quarter). Marcus Davenport’s sack essentially decided the game. The Saints showed blitz and brought five, with linebacker Alex Anzalone running a quick stunt with Davenport to free him up on the inside shoulder of the guard and breaking through to sack Bridgewater for a loss of eight. Carolina was forced to try a 65-yard field goal (instead of 57, had the play simply gained nothing), and Joey Slye came a yard short of resetting the field goal record in the Superdome. The Panther pain was immense. In games like this, that’s the difference between a win and a loss.

— Nick Shook

Cleveland Browns 37, Cincinnati Bengals 34

1) A week after looking absolutely dreadful, Baker Mayfield continued such struggles with a miserable 0-for-5 start that included an ugly interception on a play that saw Odell Beckham and JC Tretter get hurt. Mayfield lost his No. 1 receiver, and promptly proceeded to complete his next 15 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns, skyrocketing his passer rating north of 121. His streak finished at 21 straight, when Mayfield was forced to throw an incompletion because he needed to stop the clock with a spike. If we overlook that spike, Mayfield completed each of his 22 legitimate attempts following that miserable start. He threw five touchdown passes — including a beauty to Rashard Higgins inside the game’s final minute, and an impressive strike to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones for the game-winning score — and finished with a rating of 135.6. The tweets with screenshots of Mayfield’s opening line stopped popping up once he got hot. Much of Mayfield’s criticism in the Cleveland area has included the statement: He’s not a quarterback who is going to go win you a game when you need him to. He proved that crowd wrong Sunday.

2) It’s only right that on National Tight End Day, Mayfield threw his three touchdown passes to tight ends — even on a day in which he didn’t have Austin Hooper available. Harrison Bryant’s coming-out party saw the rookie catch four of five targets for 56 yards and two touchdowns, both with less than 2.5 yards of separation, and David Njoku followed fresh rumors of discontent with a spectacular 16-yard touchdown grab with Vonn Bell blanketed over him. How tight was the coverage? Njoku had 0.56 yards of separation when the pass from Mayfield arrived, and his catch completed a connection that had a 24.2% chance of happening. Not bad for a group that didn’t include Hooper.

3) Joe Burrow keeps improving. Burrow was electric in Cincinnati’s (1-5-1) first meeting with Cleveland (5-2) and was even better Sunday. Burrow became the fourth rookie passer to register five 300-plus passing yards games Sunday, then topped that by becoming the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400-plus yards, three passing touchdowns and run for a score in a single game. He drove the Bengals down the field in the game’s final minutes, tossing a touchdown to Giovani Bernard on fourth-and-1 inside the 5 to take the lead with 64 seconds to play. All of that is remarkable, but what really stood out Sunday was Burrow’s moxie, specifically in how he escaped collapsing pockets, kept his eyes downfield and found his target for positive gains, going three for four on passes on the run for 47 yards and a 113.5 passer rating. This type of improvisation was frequent and required thanks to the harassment of Myles Garrett — who did record his second strip sack on Burrow in 2020 – and thanks to the efforts of Burrow, the Bengals were in the game until the very end. They just don’t have a win to show for it.

— Nick Shook

Buffalo Bills 18, New York Jets 10

1) Don’t let the ugly ending distract you from the fact that the Bills defense played lights out in the second half. It appeared that Buffalo (5-2) had yet to find a cure for its run defense woes, allowing 82 rushing yards in the first half. Costly PI penalties helped set up La'Mical Perine’s first career TD to give N.Y. a 10-point lead. Things continued to look iffy until CB Dane Jackson came up with a momentum-shifting INT just before half. From there, the Bills went on a stampede, limiting the Jets to 17 rushing yards and four passing yards (116 in the first half). Defensive end Jerry Hughes (two sacks, PD, FF) stamped his smothering effort with a game-sealing pick after a Quinton Jefferson bat down at the line. Overall, the Bills forced four punts and two turnovers after the Jets score, and tacked on four more sacks to give them six on the day.

2) Even with the terrible second half, the Jets had a shot late. Making his return from a two-week hiatus, Sam Darnold (12-23, 120 yards, 2 INTs) looked rejuvenated through two quarters. Perhaps Adam Gase’s decision to surrender play-calling duties to OC Dowell Loggains contributed to the energy. The defense played just well enough, holding one of the NFL’s better offenses to six FGs (0-5 in red zone), to position Darnold and Co. for a potential game-tying drive. After getting sacked, Darnold fired a deep shot to Breshad Perriman, who was blown up by Micah Hyde for an unnecessary roughness penalty. A holding call then negated a 10-yard Darnold scramble before another Hughes sack and the aforementioned pick delivered the one-two KO. And just like that, N.Y. is 0-7 for the first time since 1996.

3) The Bills began the season like a team on a mission ,but sloppy play has continued to plague them. Josh Allen (307 yards, 30-for-43) found some drive-sustaining success with Cole Beasley (11/112) and in the run game (11/61) but made several forced, tight-window throws to Stefon Diggs (6/48) that stifled momentum. Most egregiously, though, Buffalo accrued 11 penalties (106 yards). Hyde’s big hit could’ve cost them, but prior to that, Buffalo missed out on a TD (illegal formation) late in the third, lost precious yardage on several nice Andre Roberts punt returns and gave away a score with PIs. They escaped with one today, but they’ll have to clean up the lack of discipline up moving forward.

— Jelani Scott

Detroit Lions 23, Atlanta Falcons 22

1) This one got fun late, as games are wont to do involving the 2020 Falcons. Atlanta’s latest collapse could have probably been avoided had it not scored a go-ahead touchdown. Todd Gurley tried to down the ball at the Lions’ 1 to set up a last-second field goal, but his momentum took him into the end zone, giving the Falcons a 22-16 lead. Matthew Stafford used the remaining 64 seconds to drive Detroit to a game-winning score, hitting T.J. Hockenson from 11 yards out as the clock expired. Matt Prater, who pushed a 46-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter but connected from 49 yards out soon after, split the uprights on a 48-yard extra-point attempt to end the game. It was all so Falcons.

2) It couldn’t have been lost on Matt Patricia what happened to Dan Quinn just two weeks ago. The Lions entered Sunday’s contest in far better shape, in early wild-card contention even, but a loss to the Falcons would have been a lost opportunity. And it might have been one that caught up to Patricia and Detroit at the end of the regular season. Instead, thanks to the heroics of Stafford, Kenny Golladay and Romeo Okwara, the Lions (3-3) return home on a two-game winning streak before taking on a Colts team that has looked vulnerable in recent weeks.

3) The Falcons (1-6) are three plays away from being 4-3. That would have them a half-game off the NFC South lead. Interim coach Raheem Morris delivered Atlanta its first win a week ago, but it took just one more for the team’s deep-rooted issues to arise. The Falcons can’t run the ball with any consistency and their pass defense might be worse — the perfect ingredients to blowing big leads. The previous front office invested heavily on both fronts in recent years, so perhaps the Falcons will experience a comeback of their own. But it’s looking more likely that they’ve wasted the primes of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

— Adam Maya

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