The Fifth Down: Firing Bill Belichick would be a mistake

In this week's edition of The Fifth Down, Kinnu Singh explains how calls to fire New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in the middle of the season are woefully short-sighted.

Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots
Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots / Alex Grimm/GettyImages
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Just a few years ago, when people were trying to dismiss Tom Brady’s greatness, there was always one main argument they’d make: “If it weren’t for Belichick, Brady would’ve never won all those Super Bowls.”

Now that Brady retired, only Belichick is left to discredit, and the narrative has shifted: “Belichick only won all of those Super Bowls because of Brady.” The truth doesn’t make as nice of a headline: the New England Patriots dynasty was only possible because Belichick and Brady worked together.

It’s hard to go a week without someone bringing up Belichick’s record without Brady. Most of the time, the narrative is coming from the same people who were unable to recognize Brady’s greatness even after seven Super Bowl championships.

Bill Belichick has an 81-97 record in 181 regular season games as an NFL head coach without Brady as his starting quarterback, as well as a 1-2 record in three postseason games.

That includes a 36-44 record in his five years as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, a 5-13 mark in New England prior to Brady’s first start, a 10-5 tally with quarterback Matt Cassel after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2008, a 3-1 start in 2016 while Brady served a suspension and a 27-35 record since Brady left following the 2019 season.

But, as a phrase popularized by Mark Twain so eloquently states, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Bill Belichick
Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots / Alex Grimm/GettyImages

Bill Belichick is a modern Paul Brown

Put the record and numbers aside. Bill Belichick is still the greatest coach in NFL history — and there shouldn’t be any doubt about it.

Of course, Belichick wouldn’t have garnered his accolades without the greatness of Brady. The same goes for Vince Lombardi with Bart Starr, Don Shula with Bob Griese and Dan Marino, Tom Landry with Roger Staubach, Bill Walsh with Joe Montana, or Marv Levy with Jim Kelly.

Paul Brown, one of the NFL’s greatest innovators, is the only coach who can be compared to Belichick. He was the first coach to test his players on their knowledge of a playbook, use game film to scout opponents and hire full-time assistants. He invented the modern face mask, the practice squad, and the draw play. The first African Americans to play professional football in the modern era were on his team. Like Belichick, Brown was widely disliked for his strict coaching style, personnel decisions, and salary negotiations.

Paul Brown won seven championships with quarterback Otto Graham, but never won another title in 15 seasons after Graham retired.

No coach wins without good players — especially without a good quarterback.

Bill Belichick
Green Bay Packers v New York Giants / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

Bill Belichick: The football historian

Nobody knows more about football and its history than Bill Belichick. Every once in a while, you can catch a glimpse of it, when he’s giving reporters a history lesson on the evolution of long snappers, making a field trip to Jim Brown’s statue to educate his players on the greats of yesteryear, or recapping Green Bay’s storied history and the evolution of the forward pass under Curly Lambeau and Don Hutson.

That’s why Belichick was a host for the NFL Films’ Emmy-winning television series that presented the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. Who else could give an in-depth analysis of players from as far back as 1919?

Rich Eisen and Chris Collinsworth, the other two hosts for the series, were blown away by Belichick’s wealth of knowledge.

“[Belichick] is a fantastic conveyor of the greatness of the sport, and the history of the sport, and the passion of the sport,” Eisen said on The Rich Eisen Show.

Throughout the series, Belichick recalled stories and memories of players he coached or coached against, including names like Lawrence Taylor, Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Joe Montana.

“I feel like [Rich Eisen or I] can take these conversations to a certain level,” Collinsworth said. “But at some point, somebody who has actually game planned against these players, that’s a whole different level,” Collinsworth said of Belichick’s insight. 

Belichick’s football memory goes as far back as the 1950s, when he was growing up watching the NFL as a fan. For the players on the list that played before his time, Belichick broke down grainy black-and-white footage from the NFL Films archive.

“Because he is so prepared and so knowledgeable, [for] the older players from the ‘30s and ‘40s … we just handed it off to Belichick to do a film session,” Eisen said. “… He’s amazing when he’s on the coaches clicker.”

Bill Belichick
1990 NFC Divisional Playoff Game - Chicago Bears vs New York Giants - January 13, 1991 / Ralph Waclawicz/GettyImages

Bill Belichick: The football strategist

As a strategist, Belichick has used his knowledge of the game to concoct team-specific game plans and situational strategies to outwit the opposing coaches.

While most NFL head coaches aren't comfortable straying away from "their" schemes, Belichick’s defenses have been shapeless and ever-evolving. He hasn't been shy about tearing up his defensive strategy and replacing it with something that could better defend that week’s opponent. 

The most notable one, of course, is his revered defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV. The game plan, which now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was to allow Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas to rush for 100 yards.

“We thought Bill was crazy, because [the] first thing he said was we want Thurman Thomas to get 100 yards,” Giants linebacker Carl Banks said. “... We just weren't allowing running backs to get 100 yards.”

“For the group that we had, we didn’t want anybody to get that amount of yards,” Banks said. “But as he began to explain the plan, we kind of understood why.”

Belichick wanted to focus on shutting down the Bills’ high-powered K-Gun offense by making sure quarterback Jim Kelly couldn’t get the passing game going. The defense was instructed to make the receivers pay every time they touched the ball. 

"As soon as [Bills wide receiver] Andre Reed got the ball, he needed a helmet in his ribs,” Banks said.

Belichick employed five defensive backs, four linebackers and just two defensive linemen, which invited Buffalo to run the ball, but made it extremely difficult to pass.

“It was a tough game looking back on it because we probably waited too long to … truly run them out of that defense and make them go back to their regular defense,” Bills offensive lineman Will Wolford said.

Bill Belichick
Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks / Tom Pennington/GettyImages

Bill Belichick: The champion under pressure

By any measure, Belichick stands at the top of his profession. On the biggest stages, his defensive game plans have stymied some of the league’s greatest offenses: Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers, the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV, the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl 36, the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs and many of Peyton Manning’s offenses.

When it comes to game management, other coaches tend to fall short. Even Andy Reid, who is considered to be one of the best coaches in the league right now, has had his fair share of struggles in this department. Belichick’s situational awareness and clock management is the best the league has ever seen. Game management isn’t just about taking timeouts to make sure there’s enough time left on the clock, it’s also about knowing when not to take a timeout. It’s about knowing how to manufacture time when there isn’t any, or how to create yards when there aren’t any.

As the clock ticked down in the final moments of Super Bowl XLIX, fans were screaming at their televisions for Belichick to call a timeout. With 66 seconds remaining, the Seattle Seahawks were at the one-yard line and needed a touchdown to take the lead. Conventional wisdom would suggest taking a timeout in that situation, but Belichick let Seattle chew the clock down to 26 seconds.

“It just seemed like — in the flow of the game — that we were OK with where we were,” Belichick explained on WEEI.com. 

If his instincts were betraying him and Seattle scored, Belichick would’ve been heavily scrutinized for not preserving enough time for his offense to tie the game. In that pressure-packed moment, with the entire season hanging in the balance, it would’ve been easy to just do what was expected of him and take a timeout.

For the first time all season, the Patriots trotted out a goal line defense with three cornerbacks — a defensive personnel that would’ve made it nearly impossible to run against. Belichick sensed some confusion on Seattle’s sideline and decided against taking a timeout. He didn’t want to give Seattle time to adjust to a defensive package they hadn’t seen on film.

"I thought about the timeout, and when I looked over there, I don’t know, something just didn’t look right," Belichick said in a NFL Films documentary. “[Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] said, 'Do you want the timeout?' … I said, 'No, just play goal line.'"

Belichick’s gamble paid off despite its statistical unlikelihood. On the next play, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was intercepted by Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler to seal the game.

While Belichick decided to forfeit time in that game, he has also decided to forfeit yards and forfeit points on separate occasions.

In Week 9 of the 2003 regular season, the Patriots were facing a 24-23 deficit against the Denver Broncos. Facing a fourth-and-10 from their own one-yard line, New England had to punt the ball back to Denver’s offense with 2:51 left in the game.

But instead of punting, Belichick instructed his long snapper to launch the ball out of the end zone for an intentional safety. Now the Patriots trailed by three points instead of one point.

“What the hell are we doing?” Patriots running back Kevin Faulk recalled thinking as New England went down 26-23.

Any team that takes a safety has to punt the ball to the opposing team regardless, so what was the point of extending Denver’s lead and granting them the ball? 

A punt following a safety occurs from the 20-yard line. By sacrificing two points, Belichick was able to add those 20 yards to the end of the punt. That meant Denver’s offense would start their drive with worse field position, making it tougher to get into scoring range. If the New England defense could make Denver punt the ball, it would also result in better starting field position for the Patriots offense.

“To me, it was a little bit shocking because I wasn’t thinking about taking a safety,” Special teams coordinator Brad Seely said. “I was thinking about how far we could punt it and have to play defense. Bill was thinking we would change the field position.”

Denver only took 31 seconds off the clock and went three-and-out. Following Denver’s punt, the Patriots offense took over at the 42-yard line with 2:15 left on the clock. From there, Brady took care of the rest, and the Patriots left Denver with a 30-26 victory.

Gary Tranquill, Bill Belichick
Denver Broncos v Cleveland Browns / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

Belichick's Cleveland Browns era

Belichick’s record during his time in Cleveland was much better than it should have been. If he had been given more time and more stability, it’s likely that Cleveland — not New England — would’ve turned into a dynasty. During Belichick’s five-year tenure in Cleveland, the failure occurred at the ownership level, not the coaching level.

At age 38, Bill Belichick became the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL. By this point, he wasn’t as much of an unknown commodity as Sean McVay was when the Los Angeles Rams made him the youngest head coach in NFL history at age 30.

Belichick had already developed an impressive résumé as a defensive coordinator, and he was universally regarded as one of the top young minds in football.

Being a great strategist isn’t enough to succeed as a head coach, and there still things that Belichick had to learn. As a first-time head coach, and the youngest head coach in NFL history, he needed experience and time to learn from his mistakes each year.

Still, Belichick’s stint in Cleveland was not an abject failure. He laid the groundwork for a solid program.

Belichick assembled a vast array of young talent on his coaching staff.  Cleveland's staff during Bellichick’s years included nine future NFL head coaches or general managers and three who became successful head coaches at major college programs. Ozzie Newsome, the architect of two Super Bowl titles in Baltimore, was a scout and assistant for Belichick. Future Alabama head coach Nick Saban served as the Browns defensive coordinator from 1991-94. Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff, who both spent decades as executives in the NFL, were both on Belichick’s staff without titles. Other future head coaches and executives included names such as Michael Lombardi, Mike Tannebaum, Kirk Ferentz, Phil Savage, Scott O’Brien, Ernie Adams, Jim Schwartz and Eric Mangini.

“We were all committed,” Saban said. “I mean, we had a great group of people there and we were all committed to trying to sort of bring that franchise back.”

"You had [Bill] Belichick, Ozzie [Newsome] and [Nick] Saban on the same staff," Browns historian Steve King said. "You can make the argument all three are the best at what they do now."

Bill Belichick
Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

Bringing Belichick to Cleveland

In 1990, Cleveland had hit rock bottom with a 3-13 record. It was clear that they needed a new plan. The Browns were one of the NFL’s major franchises, founded by the legendary Paul Brown and led to championships by all-time greats like Otto Graham and Jim Brown. They had made it to the playoff seven times in the 1980s but failed to reach the Super Bowl, instead accumulating losses full of heartbreaking moments are etched in football history: Red Right 88, The Drive and The Fumble.

So they brought in Bill Belichick.

The former Giants defensive coordinator was a radical departure from former head coach Bud Carson, who has been known as a players’ coach.

Belichick had little interest in making friends, and he alienated some veterans and fans as he attempted to instill a new culture. More than anything, Belichick replacing quarterback Bernie Kosar, a hometown hero, caused fans to resent the head coach. Tougher practices caused veterans to resent him. 

"A number of guys wanted out of Cleveland when I got there," linebacker Frank Stams recalled. "Bill had made training camps really difficult. It was a 'last guy standing makes the team' mentality. Clay Matthews said under Bud it was a real player-friendly culture. The team might gotten a little soft."

It’s hard to cut out a rotten core and change a culture overnight, but Belichick’s Browns were improving year-to-year. In his first three seasons as head coach, he took the Browns went from three wins to six wins, then from six wins to seven wins.

By 1994, Belichick had managed to fill the locker room with smart and hard-working players. Stams said that by the start of the regular season that year, the veterans on the team had a graduate-level understanding of the system — a concept foreign to the Browns teams that would follow.

Former Browns running back Leroy Hoard said the organization developed "one voice” — a trait that would become notorious with Belichick’s teams in New England.

In 1994, the Browns defense allowed a league-low 201 points — just 12.8 points per game. They allowed more than 20 points just twice. Only 11 other defenses in NFL history have allowed fewer points in a full 16-game season.

Much like Belichick’s New England defenses, the 1994 Browns defensive unit did not have a superstar. They relied on an athletic secondary led by All-Pro safety Eric Turner to shut down opposing offenses.

"We had such a good handle on things on defense," Stams said. "We had cut down on the mistakes and went into that year really confident."

The ‘94 Browns finished with an 11-5 record and earned a postseason victory, while quarterback Vinny Testaverse’s career seemed to be on the upswing.

In 1995, national sports publications like Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News picked the Cleveland Browns to go to the Super Bowl. A city that was once the butt of late night jokes was finally proud again.

Cleveland’s coaches and players believed the hype surrounding their ‘95 Browns. 

“I thought we would be good for a long time,” Saban recalled.

“There was that sense of we had turned the corner,” Mangini said. “All that time, all that work, all that effort — we were poised to make the next jump.”

Their belief only grew strong after they won three of their first four games.

Then, news leaked. Owner Art Modell, who was accruing significant financial debt, had been secretly looking at relocated the team to Baltimore.

Cleveland fans were livid. The Browns home stadium proved to be a more hostile environment than any stadium they played in for their road games.

Fans showed up to the Browns’ last home game with ladders, saws, and hammers. During the game, they were pulling out rows of bleacher seats and throwing them onto the field.

“I told my wife not to come to that game because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Ozzie Newsome said.

The Browns lost six of their final seven games and finished the season 5-11.

There was nothing anyone could have done — Paul Brown included — to stop that.

“After the announcement, the players' attention was elsewhere,” center Steve Everitt said. “The season became a joke.”

"We were prepared to do something great, but because of the move we never got the chance," said running back Earnest Byner.

"We were close," ESPN analyst and former safety Louis Riddick said. "… They would have talked about Cleveland the way they talk about the Patriots."

“We had a good mix of veteran players and young players, we had drafted well,” Schwartz said. “Everybody there thought that it was just the beginning.”

Belichick's relationship with Modell ended on Valentine's Day in 1996, when the owner fired him over the phone.

Then Modell moved the team to Baltimore, and the coaching staff all fell apart.

While Belichick would go on to win six Super Bowls, the new Cleveland Browns team would never find any lasting success. The Browns have never won more than 11 games in franchise history. They didn’t have another 11-win season or playoff victory until 2020. 

The Browns have torn through twelve head coaches in the 24 seasons since their 1999 return. None have approached the five seasons Belichick was granted to compile a 36-44 mark. Current head coach Kevin Stefanski, now in his third year as head coach, is the longest-tenured coach the Browns have had since Belichick.

“Owners, GMs, and fans may not care, but the most important thing to players is consistency and continuity,” former running back Leroy Hoard said. “How can you build something if you keep changing who's in charge of delivering the message?”

Since firing Belichick, Cleveland’s rebuild has been like a construction project in a big city. The “under construction” sign has been there for so long that daily commuters don’t even notice it anymore.

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady
New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady celebr / JEFF HAYNES/GettyImages

Belichick will always be the common denominator

When asked about his Super Bowl teams with the New York Giants, Belichick did what he’s always done: he downplayed his own contributions and credited the players. 

“I think games are won by players,” Belichick said. “The coach tries to put the players in a position where they have a chance to compete, but players are the ones that make the plays. [We had] a lot of great players and they’re the ones that made the plays and that’s why we won. [You can] put anything you want down on a piece of paper, but you’ve got to have players to go out there and play and we had that.”

While Belichick would never say it, the same thing could be said about the teams that drudgingly go through a season with few wins. Belichick can scheme up a victory for the players, but he can’t go on the field and earn it for them. He can do great coaching a team with a losing record.  He isn’t perfect, and he’s made his fair share of mistakes. The difference is that he’s made a lot fewer mistakes than his contemporaries have.

No other coach has replicated Belichick’s ability to manage the salary cap and maintain a talented roster during the salary cap and free agency era. Belichick’s trade record is great. His ability to stockpile draft picks and find late-round talent is exemplary. His hiring and development of assistant coaches has been good. Countless opposing head coaches and quarterbacks have talked about how playing against a Belichick-led defense is like playing left-handed.

Yet, the Belichick-without-Brady narrative persists.

Week 13 Power Rankings

. . p. . Trend: --. 54. . Grade: 94. . 1

Preseason Record Prediction: 11-6
Week 5 Record Prediction: 13-4

The Eagles offense has sputtered before, but in the first half against the Bills, Jalen Hurts and Co. looked like they were finally going to stall. The Eagles were outplayed by Buffalo throughout the first half of the game.

For the second time in as many games, the Eagles found themselves trailing by 10 points. Yet, for the second time in as many games, the Eagles found a way to win.

After James Bradberry intercepted Josh Allen, the team flipped the switch. It was just another reminder of how much talent this team has, and how a spark can come from any position on any unit of the team.

Still, the Eagles can’t afford to start slow every week — especially in the postseason. They needed a lot of things to go their way to pull off this comeback, including kicker Jake Elliott’s miraculous 59-yard field goal in the rain to send the game into overtime. The defense gave up 505 yards, and they were on the field for 92 plays. Performances like that can wear down a team.

Regardless, they managed to pull it off, and the Eagles have now beaten the Cowboys, Chiefs and Bills in their last three games — teams that have been mainstays in the top half of these power rankings. Nick Sirianni joined Don Shula and Tony Dungy as the only coaches in NFL history to lead their teams to a 10-1 start in back-to-back seasons.

42. . 2. . f. . Grade: 91. Trend: --. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 12-5
Week 5 Record Prediction: 14-3

The San Francisco 49ers have put their three-game losing streak far behind them. On Thanksgiving, they continued their dominance in the NFC West, winning their 10th consecutive divisional game.

While San Francisco hasn’t clinched the division just yet, they’ve made it incredibly unlikely for anyone to catch them. Now they can turn their focus to the next challenge: claiming the NFC’s top seed.

Their Week 13 matchup will go a long way in determining whether they’ll be able to capture that spot. In what might be the most pivotal game of their 2023 campaign, the 49ers will travel to Philadelphia for a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game.

Sitting two games behind the Eagles in playoff seeding, a win would go a long way in helping San Francisco secure home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Brock Purdy has been playing well and the pass rush is starting to find its groove. Unlike the Eagles, who have been digging themselves out of early deficits, the 49ers have won their last three games by comfortable double digit margins. It could be a good time for San Francisco to capitalize on a physically and emotionally worn out Eagles team.

. 26. r. . Trend: --. Grade: 89. 3. . .

Preseason Record Prediction: 11-6
Week 5 Record Prediction: 12-5

The Ravens are the most balanced team in the AFC, which bodes well for postseason success. Baltimore leads the league in rushing (158.6 yards per game) and rank seventh in total offensive yards (366.1 yards per game). The stingy defense is allowing just 15.6 points per game, second best in the NFL. The well-rounded attack has culminated in an average of 27.6 points per game, which is their highest average through 12 weeks since Lamar Jackson’s 2019 NFL MVP season.

While Baltimore has led at the start of every fourth quarter this season, they have a bad habit of taking their foot off the gas near the end of the game. It’s one of the few concerns with this team right now, but they have time to get it cleaned up. 

The good news for the Ravens is that they now hold a 1.5-game lead in the AFC North, and the other three teams in their division are all facing uncertainty or injury at the quarterback position.

Baltimore has been riddled with significant injuries of their own for the past few years, and they’ll have to avoid losing any their key players. If they can do that, this team could be a threat to win the conference championship.

c. . . 124. 4. . Grade: 88. Trend: ▲1. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 12-5
Week 5 Record Prediction: 13-4

Kansas City seemed to be heading toward their second consecutive loss after an early 14-0 deficit against the Las Vegas Raiders, but then the offense finally found its rhythm. The Chiefs scored four touchdowns to take a two-touchdown lead, then burned three minutes off the clock before kicking a late field goal to cap off the 31-17 victory.

The offense was running smoother than it had in previous weeks due to a breakout game by rookie receiver Rashee Rice, who reeled in eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. The offense didn’t turn over the ball and Mahomes only took one sack. This is the type of performance Andy Reid wanted to see, and it’s the type of performance the Chiefs will need to reproduce against better competition in the postseason.

. Grade: 86. . 5. 123. . . d. Trend: ▲1.

Preseason Record Prediction: 11-6
Week 5 Record Prediction: 12-5

Dak Prescott is averaging 312.3 passing yards per game in his past six games. During that span, he’s thrown 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Since their humiliating Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Cowboys have quietly been picking up steam. This is exactly when Super Bowl teams get hot, and Dallas is fitting the mold. While the offensive yardage isn’t as impressive on paper as it was in prior seasons, statistics don’t win games. Mike McCarthy is clearly aware of that, and his play calling has led to a more efficient and productive offense. Dallas is set to make another attempt at reaching the NFC Championship Game for the first time in almost 30 years.

6. . Grade: 85. Trend: ▼2. . 6. . . 50.

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 11-6

The Lions have spent the season proving that they are no longer the same old Lions, but those old Lions showed up for their annual Thanksgiving game. 

Splash plays on defense led to Detroit’s early-season success, but they were no where to be found once again. The offensive line was porous, and that resulted in Jared Goff reverting to a turnover-prone quarterback. He looked as finicky as he did in Super Bowl LIII, when Bill Belichick’s 6-1 defense stalled the Los Angeles Rams offense.

Detroit’s struggles in recent weeks are becoming a growing concern. Even their Week 11 victory against the Chicago Bears took late-game heroics to pull off. 

The Lions have played well enough to still be able to secure the NFC North crown. The goal here, however, isn’t just to make it to the postseason. If the Lions want to win their first playoff game in over three decades, they’ll have to iron out their wrinkles by January.

. 59. D. Trend: --. . . Grade: 84. . . 7

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 11-6

Playing against the New York Jets offense is a good opportunity for any defense to display its talent, and Miami’s defense rose to the occasion. The Dolphins compiled seven sacks, two interceptions and a 99-yard touchdown during the NFL’s first Black Friday game. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has helped this unit make strides as the season has gone along, and the front seven has become a strength of the Dolphins roster.

Unfortunately, Jaelan Phillips suffered a season-ending Achilles injury during the game, and that’s a loss that will undoubtedly hurt this team. Still, there’s enough firepower on this defensive front seven, especially when Emmanuel Ogbah and Bradley Chubb are playing well.

j. . . Grade: 81. . . 52. Trend: ▲1. . 8

Preseason Record Prediction: 11-6
Week 5 Record Prediction: 11-6

Trevor Lawrence hasn’t quite been world-beater that he was expected to be when he got drafted, but he has made steady progress in the right direction. On Sunday, he almost threw for a career high in passing yards as the Jaguars narrowly held off the Texans. It was a big win for Jacksonville, as getting swept by Houston would have put them in danger of losing the AFC South. With six games remaining and a relatively easy schedule ahead, the Jaguars still control their own destiny. The bad news is that left tackle Cam Robinson will miss most the remaining regular season games with a knee injury. The Jaguars have struggled without Robinson before, and they’ll need to figure out a way to make it work this time.

. t. . Trend: ▼1. 10. . Grade: 80. 9. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 4-13
Week 5 Record Prediction: 6-11

Football is a game of inches. For the Houston Texans, that’s what their Week 12 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars came down to.

A few more inches on their last drive might’ve meant that kicker Matt Ammendola’s 58-yard field goal attempt would’ve tied the game with 34 seconds left on the clock. Instead, the kick bounced off the center of the goal post.

For Houston, a win would’ve given them the division lead with a sweep over Jacksonville. But now they’re two games behind the Jaguars, who now hold the tiebreakers with better division and conference records.

Houston’s fight for a playoff spot just became a lot tougher, but they have only themselves to blame. Penalties plagued both the offense and the defense, C.J. Stroud took three sacks in the second half, blown coverage in the secondary led to big plays for Jacksonville and Ammendola missed a kick to end each half. If they want to keep their postseason hopes alive, it’ll need to start with a win against Denver in Week 13.

p. . . . . Trend: ▲4. 55. Grade: 76. . 10

Preseason Record Prediction: 10-7
Week 5 Record Prediction: 7-10

This season has been rife with mid-season coach firings followed by instant improvements, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no different. After firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the Steelers racked up a season-high 421 yards in Week 12, including a season-high 278 passing yards from Kenny Pickett. Finally, after 58 straight games, the Steelers join the ranks of the rest of the NFL with their occasional 400-yarder.

At last, the Steelers may be able to live up to their 7-4 record.

b. . Trend: ▲5. 11. . . Grade: 74. . . 45

Preseason Record Prediction: 10-7
Week 5 Record Prediction: 7-10

Sean Peyton’s effect on this team is beginning to show. After their rough start to the season, the Broncos have been able to go on an impressive win streak by adjusting their approach. 

Peyton decided to slow down their games by limiting their passing attempts. Instead, Denver has run the ball efficiently and taken what’s been given to them. The Broncos head coach also isn’t worried about analytics. While fans have booed his decision to kick field goals on fourth down, those field goals have helped Denver win games. Of the 110 points that the Broncos have scored during their win streak, 48 have come from field goals.

On defense, the Broncos have generated 16 turnovers in their last five games, helping them earn a +13 in turnover margin.

It takes a while to establish a culture, but Peyton is showing that he can turn this team around.

. . . b. 12. . Trend: ▼2. . 53. Grade: 73

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 7-10

The Cleveland Browns probably would have been able to defeat the Denver Broncos earlier this season when the Browns were better and the Broncos were worse. Instead, the two teams battled in Week 12, and the impenetrable Browns defense gave up a lot more than 29 points.

Already without Deshaun Watson and Denzel Ward, the Browns saw Myles Garrett, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Amari Cooper, and Jordan Elliott exit the game with injuries.

There was already a tough road ahead without the team's key players, and in losing more, the Browns are doomed to repeat history,

. . 16. 13. . b. . Grade: 71. Trend: ▼2.

Preseason Record Prediction: 11-6
Week 5 Record Prediction: 13-4

In the first half, it looked like Buffalo was going to cruise to an impressive win against one of the best teams in the league. Then, Josh Allen threw an interception to James Bradberry and everything began to unravel. The Bills had plenty of opportunities to win this game, and they let them all slip by. Even then, the Bills offense had a chance to close out the game in overtime. Gabe Davis got open for what would’ve been an easy game-winning touchdown, but Josh Allen threw the pass inside while Davis cut to the corner, and the play resulted in an incompletion. Super Bowl teams don’t suffer from those sort of sloppy mistakes in big moments, and it’s clear this team has too many issues to work out to compete for a title right now.

The Bills’ players frustration is boiling over as well, evident by defensive end Shaw Lawson’s mid-game altercation with a Philadelphia Eagles fan in the stands.

. Trend: ▼2. . 36. s. . Grade: 70. 14. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 10-7
Week 5 Record Prediction: 11-6

While the Seattle Seahawks could still win the division, it became incredibly unlikely after the Week 12 loss to San Francisco. Realistically, they have to set their sights on a wildcard spot.

15. Trend: --. . . . . . 46. Grade: 69. c

Preseason Record Prediction: 5-12
Week 5 Record Prediction: 5-12

Quarterback Gardner Minshew is still holding down the fort in Indianapolis, continuing a three-game win streak in a 27-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now, two of those wins came against No. 30 and No. 32 on this list, but this week's win occurred against No. 23. That, along with the dismal state of the NFL landscape, puts the 6-5 Indianapolis Colts at No. 15.

Minshew only completed 24 of 41 yards and an interception, but he did manage 251 yards and a rushing touchdown. Credit goes to running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Michael Pittman Jr.: Taylor logged two rushing touchdowns and 91 rushing yards, while Pittman secured 107 receiving yards.

p. Grade: 66. . . Trend: ▲2. . . 49. . 16

Preseason Record Prediction: 8-9
Week 5 Record Prediction: 10-7

The Detroit Lions may have scraped by to beat the Chicago Bears in Week 11, but a surging Green Bay Packers team simply wouldn't let them succeed in Week 12. Quarterback Jordan Love threw for an efficient 268 yards and three touchdowns, which was fewer yards and one more passing touchdown than Lions quarterback Jared Goff.

In his three-touchdown performance, Love tied his career high in single-game touchdowns with three. That's also three wins in the past four weeks. It'll probably end next week against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Packers are hitting their stride and seeing more chemistry and points on the board.

. 44. Grade: 64. Trend: ▲6. 17. . . . a.

Preseason Record Prediction: 7-10
Week 5 Record Prediction: 7-10

After three straight losses, the Atlanta Falcons finally got two key wins. First, they defeated the rival New Orleans Saints 24-15, which gave them their second win: a No. 1 ranking in the NFC South.

It wasn't a perfect game — Desmond Ridder threw two interceptions — but he did score a passing touchdown. Running back Bijan Robinson's 16 attempts for 91 yards and a rushing touchdown was a game-changer as well.

It's less that the Falcons are good than the rest of the NFC South is bad, but No. 1 is No. 1, even if it's at 5-6.

. . Trend: ▲6. . 18. r. Grade: 60. . . 51

Preseason Record Prediction: 7-10
Week 5 Record Prediction: 9-8

Another week, another high-scoring Los Angeles Rams win. Back to the good old days with Matthew Stafford scoring four total touchdowns, including 193 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone.

But the Rams also rushed for 228 total yards, forcing the worst rushing performance by the Arizona Cardinals all year. Returning from injury, running back Kyren Williams rushed for 143 yards on 15 attempts, plus two receiving touchdowns on six catches for 61 yards.

In the third quarter alone, Williams had more yards than the entire Cardinals offense.

b. . 19. 56. . . Grade: 59. Trend: ▼6. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 12-5
Week 5 Record Prediction: 9-8

This weekend, Cincinnati FC advanced to the semifinal round of the MLS Cup playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals won't be as lucky this postseason, especially without quarterback Joe Burrow. While Jake Browning has held his own, it hasn't been enough to defeat the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers. The rest of their season doesn't look so easy, either.

. . Trend: ▼3. 20. 60. Grade: 58. . . v.

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 9-8

Despite his electric start in Minnesota, Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs experienced more turbulence on Sunday in a 10-12 loss to the Chicago Bears. Dobbs threw four interceptions, which became hard to overcome, even against a team like Chicago. For the second straight week, the Vikings lost a game their easily could have won by two or fewer points.

. 21. Grade: 55. . s. Trend: ▼2. . . 15.

Preseason Record Prediction: 10-7
Week 5 Record Prediction: 8-9

The New Orleans Saints finally surrendered the NFC South to the Atlanta Falcons in a 15-24 loss on Sunday, which put both teams at 5-6. Of the two teams, the Falcons appear to be better as of late. The Saints were without Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed due to injury, and they're going to be without Michael Thomas for the foreseeable future. Derek Carr proved how tough that was to overcome with five field goals and zero touchdowns.

. Grade: 52. . . Trend: ▼2. . 28. raiders. . 22

Preseason Record Prediction: 7-10
Week 5 Record Prediction: 4-13

Josh McDaniels may have been bad, but sadly, so are the Las Vegas Raiders. Following a thrilling two-game win streak, Las Vegas is on a two-game loss streak: first to the Miami Dolphins, then to the Kansas City Chiefs. Things could be worse for the Raiders, but it would be disillusioned to imagine they'll get much better from here on out. It's tough to overcome seven losses.

48. . 23. . . Grade: 50. . Trend: ▼2. . b

Preseason Record Prediction: 5-12
Week 5 Record Prediction: 9-8

At 4-7, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the third-worst team in the NFL's worst division, but it's still possible for them to punch a ticket to the playoffs. If the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons relinquish their 5-6 leads, Tampa Bay could at least show up in the Wild Card round. But don't expect much: the Buccaneers lost again this week in a 20-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The Bucs can score touchdowns, but they're not very good at stopping them.

13. . . 24. Trend: ▼2. . c. . . Grade: 49

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 11-6

It was a great day for Baltimore Ravens rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers, but not for the Los Angeles Chargers. The 4-7 franchise struck out again in a 10-20 loss to Baltimore, which was punctuated by four forced turnovers at the hands of the Ravens. While the Chargers held the Ravens to three points for most of the second half, it wasn't enough for a team that went scoreless for two entire quarters.

t. Grade: 45. . 25. . 35. . . Trend: ▲2.

Preseason Record Prediction: 5-12
Week 5 Record Prediction: 8-9

The Tennessee Titans are among the best of the NFL's worst teams. There's no playoffs in the cards this year as the AFC South's bottom-ranked team, but they did claim a 17-10 win over the Carolina Panthers after a mauling from the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11. Good for Mike Vrabel, bad for Frank Reich.

Grade: 40. . 26. c. . Trend: ▼1. . . 58.

Preseason Record Prediction: 7-10
Week 5 Record Prediction: 7-10

The Washington Commanders did lose by 35 points this week, but in fairness, they faced a Dallas Cowboys team featuring DaRon Bland and Dak Prescott. That left them at 45-10, and while their season is lost, they did put up a good fight in some of their losses. Unfortunately for Washington, their schedule doesn't get easier from here except for a brief respite thanks to the New York Jets.

Grade: 37. Trend: ▲2. 27. . . . . 57. b.

Preseason Record Prediction: 5-12
Week 5 Record Prediction: 3-14

The Chicago Bears lost their first divisional matchup against the Minnesota Vikings this season, but their rematch in Minneapolis compensated for their last-minute loss against teh Detroit Lions in Week 11. In a low-scoring game at 12-10, the Bears became the NFL's first team in 2023 that won without scoring a touchdown and broke their 12-game losing streak against NFC North foes. The Jets could take notes.

Trend: --. . . . . 28. . 31. g. Grade: 36

Preseason Record Prediction: 6-11
Week 5 Record Prediction: 5-12

After a significant 31-19 win against the Washington Commanders in Week 11, the New York Giants extended their win streak by defeating the dysfunctional New England Patriots 10-7. It's no high-scoring affair, but it's a win nonetheless, putting the Giants at 4-8.

. 30. . Grade: 34. . Trend: ▼3. . 29. . j

Preseason Record Prediction: 9-8
Week 5 Record Prediction: 4-13

It’s hard to not feel bad for this defense — or any of the talented young players on this team — that are having a year of their career wasted by another disastrous Jets team.

p. . Grade: 29. . 47. . 30. Trend: --. .

Preseason Record Prediction: 10-7
Week 5 Record Prediction: 8-9

Mac Jones may desire to remain New England's quarterback, but his 2024 season — and Bill Belichick's, perhaps — could lie elsewhere. Benched for the fourth time in 11 games, Jones was completed 12 of 21 passing attempts for 89 yards and two interceptions in a humiliating loss to the New York Giants. The 2-9 Patriots are ahead of two teams: the 2-10 Arizona Cardinals and the 1-10 Carolina Panthers.

. Grade: 25. 32. . . a. . Trend: --. 31.

Preseason Record Prediction: 3-14
Week 5 Record Prediction: 5-12

Kyler Murray enjoyed a triumphant return in a rare win against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11, but it's been downhill since then. Even the Cardinals website describes Murray as "struggling", which was matched by a defensive performance that surrendered three passing touchdowns, 193 passing yards, and 228 rushing yards.

. . . 87. . c. Grade: 25. Trend: --. . 32

Preseason Record Prediction: 5-12
Week 5 Record Prediction: 3-14

The Carolina Panthers lost for the fourth straight week, adding another loss to their 1-10 record. This time, it was a 10-17 loss to the struggling Tennessee Titans.

The Panthers also lost their head coach this week when Frank Reich was fired on Monday. In his stead, special teams coach Chris Tabor will take over as interim head coach. It can only go up from here.