I got a flat tire on the way home from LaGuardia on Monday and it got me thinking. First, I thought, "This isn't going to help me make deadline on this week's What We Learned column." Then I thought, "Unless I use this experience in the column lead!"
Maybe it's a stretch and maybe it's too meta, but when you're changing a tire in a rainy parking lot in Mamaroneck, New York, on your way home from rainy Cleveland, you've got to find some way to make it work for you.
So what I want to look at here is a couple of teams who were sitting on the side of the road with flat tires in September but now, for one reason or another, find themselves with a chance to make something of their seasons -- teams we may have felt like abandoning on the side of the road after the first few weeks but who have roared (or crawled, or lucked) back into contention by mid-October. A 16-game season sounds short, but it's amazing how much time you actually have to turn things around in this NFL. Unless you're the Raiders.
This is the weirdest one, because the Texans have rebounded from an 0-3 start with three straight wins for which they seem to have been only partially responsible.
They beat the Colts in overtime after Indy coach Frank Reich went for it on fourth down and didn't get it. They beat the Cowboys in overtime after Jason Garrett didn't go for it on fourth down. And they beat the Bills after Josh Allen got hurt and Buffalo had to put Nathan Intercepterman in the game at quarterback.
The Texans are three funny bounces away from being 0-6. They're the Giants' only win, which obviously doesn't scream "playoff contender." But 3-3 is good enough to be tied for first in the moribund AFC South. They were a preseason favorite in that division for a reason. J.J. Watt looks totally rejuvenated. And Houston's remaining schedule rates among the easiest in the league. The Texans are in this thing.
Seattle started 0-2 with road losses at Denver and Chicago but has won three of its past four and lost by only two to the undefeated Rams. Now, that's no small loss, since the Rams sit three games ahead of the Seahawks in their own division. But at 3-3, Seattle is in a midpack NFC jumble out of which two wild-card teams must eventually emerge. The Seahawks sacked Derek Carr six times Sunday in London, and if the Frank Clark-led pass rush can dominate like that, it will allow the young Legion of Boom replacements in the secondary some time to develop.
On offense, Seattle appears determined to sit out the NFL's high-octane passing-game revolution. But the Seahawks have rushed for at least 100 yards in each of their past four games, which is how they want to play it. Could Pete Carroll's bunch bore the rest of the NFC wild-card field into submission?
I wrote about the Chargers on Sunday off their victory in Cleveland, so I'll keep this short. They were 1-2 and have won three in a row to move within a game of Kansas City, and they don't play a team that currently has a winning record until their Steelers/Bengals/Chiefs/Ravens gantlet to open December. They could have Joey Bosa back by then.
Another preseason darling, Minnesota was 1-2-1 after a Week 4 loss to the Rams. The Vikings rebounded with a signature Week 5 victory in Philadelphia, avenging their NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs, then beat the Cardinals on Sunday to move within a half-game of the first-place Bears.
Kirk Cousins is red-hot to start the season, completing 71.2 percent of his passes while ranking fourth in the league in passing yards with 12 touchdown throws against just three interceptions. No one is playing the receiver position better than Adam Thielen, the ground game finally got going in Week 6, and the defense appears to be putting it together after a rough start. Minnesota's Nov. 25 rematch with the Packers could loom large, as the winner (if there is one!) will hold a tiebreaker edge over the loser. Of course, that will matter only if the Bears drop a few more puzzlers like they did Sunday in Miami.
When our man Jeremy Fowler reported two weeks ago that Le'Veon Bell was planning to report to the Steelers after the bye, we suggested in this space that the Steelers could easily lose to Atlanta and Cincinnati and be 1-4-1 by the time that happened. Instead, they drubbed the Falcons and broke the Bengals' hearts as usual, so they sit a half-game out of the Cincinnati/Baltimore first-place tie.
James Conner already has three games this season with 100 or more rushing yards and two or more touchdowns. Bell has had only three such games in his career. So when/if Bell does return, Pittsburgh will either be stacked at running back or be able to trade Bell for a helpful defensive player and/or nice draft pick. The Ravens' AFC-leading plus-76 point differential is daunting, and until the final minute Sunday the Bengals had played as well as any AFC team this side of Kansas City. But Pittsburgh knows what it's like to turn it on in the second half, and the Steelers are sure to be heard from before this is all over.
What? They've won two in a row after a 1-3 start. And their plus-26 point differential is only two worse than New England's. I'm not saying the Jets are a threat to steal the division from the Patriots, but they sure don't look like a lot of fun to play. Sam Darnold completed EIGHTY percent of his passes in Sunday's victory over the Colts. Now, the Jets were 3-3 last year and finished 5-11. So let's see them navigate this upcoming Vikings/Bears/Dolphins stretch before believing. But if the 3-3 Seahawks are on this list, the 3-3 Jets have to be on it, too.
Come on. You weren't REALLY worried about them at 1-2, were you? We've seen this movie before.
Couple of other things we learned in Week 6:
Progress is hardly ever smooth, and what the Browns are doing takes time
Cleveland was bummed after Sunday's 38-14 loss to the Chargers. It was the first game this season the Browns didn't have a real chance to win, and it dropped them to 2-3-1. Grouchy players left the locker room without doing their postgame interviews. The sense was that it was especially disappointing to be noncompetitive because the Browns consider themselves a team ready to take the next step. When I spoke with wideout Jarvis Landry before the game, he said the first five games were exciting but also resulted in a "want for more."
It's easy to look at this year's Browns and believe more is on the way. Baker Mayfield is an exciting young quarterback. Myles Garrett is a superstar edge rusher. Neither fit those descriptions Sunday, but there are days like that. This year, the difference is that the Browns have had days opposite of that. They are a competitive team, after a long stretch of not being one. They probably are not yet a playoff team, but that doesn't mean they're not pointing that way.
I believe they will win more games this year, and ideally build on the positive experiences and spin them into next year as they work their way toward legitimate contender status. Everyone may want the overnight turnaround the Rams made last year, but the reality is that, when you're coming from where the Browns are coming from, it usually takes time. The Bears went through a similar wake-up call Sunday, losing to Miami with a dud of a defensive effort that reminded their fans that maybe they're not ready to go from doormat to juggernaut after just one offseason. Chicago is further along than Cleveland, but both of those results Sunday served notice that building a winner takes time, and that progress is very rarely a smooth line in the upward direction.
The ugly time of the year is upon us
Some years it starts earlier than others. Remember the Bengals firing their offensive coordinator last season after two games? This year, it took a little while longer, but the Buccaneers let go of defensive coordinator Mike Smith on Monday after another noncompetitive defensive effort against Atlanta.
Two years ago, when the Bucs were 9-7, Smith's defense was one of the hot second-half stories in the league and he was interviewing for head-coaching jobs. Things can turn around quickly in Smith's chosen profession, as he well knows, and sometimes there's not much you can do about it. The Buccaneers' secondary isn't exactly teeming with potential solutions to a coordinator's problems this year.
Smith's mid-October firing is a signal to coaches and coordinators of underachieving units that the time has arrived. Teams that expected more than they're seeing in the standings right now (the Broncos jump to mind as an example) aren't going to be shy about making changes to try to get things moving back in the right direction before it's too late. More often than not, those changes involve coaches, and in-season that usually means coordinators. Smith was the first to go this year, but he's not likely to be the last.