Tom Brady and the New England Patriots emphatically answered their doubters on Sunday, as the five-time Super Bowl champions avoided a third-straight defeat by thrashing the Miami Dolphins 38-7.
Victory over the previously unbeaten Dolphins saw Bill Belichick’s men avoid losing three straight games for the first time since the 2002 season.
New England led 38-0 before the Dolphins put a touchdown on the board late in the fourth quarter, improving to 2-2 as they avoided falling three games behind AFC East division leaders Miami.
The Phins were denied their first 4-0 start since Hall of Fame coach Don Shula’s final season in 1995.
Brady threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns and the Patriots demonstrated the consistency they lacked in defeats to Jacksonville and Detroit.
The only downside for the Patriots was the departure of tight end Rob Gronkowski with a right ankle injury in the third quarter.
“Today is a big one to build on,” said Brady, who was nevertheless already focusing on a looming Thursday clash with Indianapolis.
“It’s a short week and we’ve got to get ready and try to go beat the Colts,” he said.
The Dolphins next take on the Cincinnati Bengals, who shook off an ugly leg injury to tight end Tyler Eifert to edge the Falcons 37-36 in an Atlanta thriller.
The Bengals built a 28-24 halftime lead before losing Eifert, who was in obvious pain after he was brought down following a third-quarter catch with his right ankle twisting badly. He was carted off the field with the leg in an air cast.
The Bengals fell behind 36-31 before Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton authored a last-gasp touchdown drive, connecting with A.J. Green on a 13-yard scoring pass to seal the victory.
“There’s no quit in our guys,” Dalton said. “Even with the setbcks we didn’t flinch, we just kept going.”
Elsewhere in the NFL, the Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders all won in overtime, while the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers notched narrow victories.
The Raiders rallied past the Cleveland Browns for a 45-42 win in overtime, denying the Browns a second-straight win. Derek Carr threw four touchdown passes and a two-point conversion with 30 seconds left in regulation and Matt McGrane then converted a 29-yard field goal in the extra period to win it.
The Titans converted three fourth downs in overtime to beat the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles 26-23.
The Texans snapped a nine-game losing streak as they edged the Indianapolis Colts 37-34.
Houston’s Ka’imi Fairbairn nailed a 37-yard field goal as overtime expired to seal the Texans’ first win since last November.
The defeat spoiled a landmark day for Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who surpassed Morten Andersen for most career field goals in NFL history. Vinatieri passed Andersen with his 566th career field goal in the first half and his 567th had given Indianapolis a 34-31 lead in overtime.
Sebastian Janikowski’s 52-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Seahawks to a 20-17 win over Arizona. Coach Pete Carroll called it a “bittersweet” victory after Seattle saw safety Earl Thomas carted off with a broken left leg in the third quarter.
In Dallas, Brett Maher booted a 38-yard field goal as time expired to seal the Cowboys’ 26-24 victory over Detroit.
The Chargers rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to edge the Jimmy Garoppolo-less San Francisco 49ers 29-27.
The second-year quarterback has gone from turning heads to being a legitimate MVP contender with consistently impressive performances in the Chiefs’ flawless start.
Mahomes already has 13 touchdown passes – the most by a player in the first three games of a season – without tossing a single interception, while Kansas City’s attack is averaging a league-best 39.3 points.
Denver, however, have an advantage heading into the AFC West match-up that none of the Chiefs’ first three opponents had.
Unlike the Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers or San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos have actually faced Mahomes before. In Mahomes’ first career start in Week 17 of last season, Denver limited the young gunslinger to 284 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 27-24 loss.
The circumstances are much different this time around though. Most importantly, Mahomes is no longer a rookie and had a full offseason and training camp to be groomed as the starter. Secondly, he didn’t have home-run hitter Tyreek Hill or reliable tight end Travis Kelce on the field for his first start as Kansas City chose to rest many of its top players ahead of the playoffs.
On paper, the Broncos defence has the personnel to make Mahomes and the Chiefs’ lives difficult. With playmakers like Chris Harris in the secondary and Von Miller and Bradley Chubb pass rushing off the edge, Denver are capable of disrupting Kansas City’s rhythm.
To do it, they’ll have to not only apply pressure, but get to Mahomes before he can get the ball out cleanly. Kansas City’s offensive line has only given up four sacks this season – tied for second-fewest in the league – but Mahomes has been under pressure on 37.1 per cent of his dropbacks, which is the third-highest rate.
The reason Mahomes has still thrived despite the pressure has been two-fold. The Chiefs’ scheme has put him in the best position to succeed by designing plays that utilise space to get his receivers open, but Mahomes has also used his mobility and arm strength to do much of the heavy-lifting, as he did on that jaw-dropping scramble and laser throw for a touchdown last week.
Unless Miller and Co can put Mahomes on his heels, the Broncos could end up being the latest victims of the high-powered offence.
THE CASE FOR KEENUM
Even if Denver’s defence can rise to the challenge, they’ll need contributions from the other side of the ball, which has seen unreliable play from Case Keenum.
The quarterback has done just enough to improve on the putrid play the Broncos received at the position last season, but he’s been far from good. Keenum’s passer rating of 71.6 ranks 29th in the league, while his five interceptions are tied for the most by any quarterback.
If there was ever a time for Keenum to get going, it would be against a Chiefs defence that has shown almost no resistance. Kansas City have given up a league-worst 474.0 yards per game and rank 30th with an average of 30.7 points surrendered.
The secondary has been a mess without star safety Eric Berry, who is reportedly recovering from a heel deformity.
Without their leader, the Chiefs unit has also been undisciplined, missing a league-worst 36 tackles and being flagged 16 times, third-most among all teams, according to Pro Football Focus.
With how well their offence has played, Kansas City’s defensive issues have been so far masked, but at some point the Chiefs will have a game in which they can’t simply outgun their opponents.
Once a bloodbath built on defensive play and the running game, the match-up now features plenty of offence and points.
The teams have averaged a combined 51.2 points over their past four meetings, including an eye-popping 77 in the Ravens’ 39-38 win in their most recent clash – the most-ever points scored in the 22-year-old history between the teams.
With the way Baltimore and Pittsburgh’s offences have played through the first three weeks of this season, more trips to the end zone can be expected on Sunday.
The Ravens are averaging the fifth-most points in the league with 32.3, while the Steelers are just two spots back at 29.3. With both attacks ranking in the bottom-10 in rushing, the arms of Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have been heavily relied on to move the ball.
However, the similarities end when it comes to the other side of the ball.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh’s defences have been on the opposite end of the spectrum, with the former leading the league in fewest yards allowed (273.0) and ranking fifth in fewest points (17.0), while the latter sits 29th (410.3) and 28th (30.0), respectively.
The Ravens’ unit will be tested this week, particularly the secondary which will have its hands full against Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Brown has yet to truly get going this season and has only 210 yards despite coming into the week with the second-most targets among all receivers (42).
Smith-Schuster has been the more efficient player and has 356 yards on four fewer targets, but it should be only a matter of time before Brown explodes.
Here’s a look at other talking points in Sunday’s match-ups.
MAYFIELD READY TO BAKE
It’s officially a new era for the Cleveland Browns with Baker Mayfield set to make his first start under centre.
This year’s number one overall pick impressed in the preseason and looked commanding in his relief appearance last week to lead the Browns to their first win since 2016, but Sunday’s meeting with the Oakland Raiders officially begins a new, more hopeful chapter in the franchise’s bleak history.
And as far as welcoming opponents for a rookie quarterback, the Raiders are ripe for the picking. Oakland’s defence has mightily struggled against the pass, ranking 29th in the league in yards allowed per attempt (8.7) and 25th in passer rating against (105.2).
Their issues are stemming from a lack of pass rush – which is to the surprise of no one besides maybe Jon Gruden – as it has looked tranquilised without Khalil Mack. Oakland have the fewest sacks in the league (three) and are on pace to set a record for the lowest pressure rate since 2006, according to Pro Football Focus.
If there ever was a time for the Raiders to generate pressure though, it would on Sunday as they play a Browns side that has allowed the most sacks in the league (14).
Mayfield’s play-making abilities are such that he can make things happen even without the cleanest pockets, but affording him as much time as possible should be near the top of Cleveland’s priorities.
It sounds crazy to say in Week 4, but the New England Patriots might be facing a game that is as close to a ‘must-win’ as they’ve had in the regular season in recent memory.
It’s the Patriots, so even if they fall to 1-3, it doesn’t mean we won’t see them in the playoffs, but considering they’re playing a Miami Dolphins team that already has two games on them in the AFC East, New England would be better served not falling into a deeper hole.
Especially with this being a home game for the Patriots, losing on Sunday could be fatal as they’ll have to travel to Miami in December, which has been their Kryptonite in the Tom Brady era for whatever reason.
Even more concerning would be if New England don’t show any improvement for the third week in a row – something that many assume won’t happen simply because of the Patriots’ track record.