Cover 7 | Sunday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Sunday, three of The Athletic’s NFL writers react to the biggest news, plays and performances from the day’s games.
Entering Week 6, the 5-0 San Francisco 49ers looked like a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped. Well, things change fast in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns, led by backup quarterback P.J. Walker, pulled off a stunning upset Sunday, taking down the 49ers 19-17.
Brock Purdy’s regular season winning streak ends at 10 after a 19-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
It’s the 49ers’ first loss in the regular season since October 23, 2022. pic.twitter.com/ruoJpI7nRd
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) October 15, 2023
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins offensive machine kept humming, scoring 42 more points in a 42-21 win over the Carolina Panthers as wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s pursuit of 2,000 yards looks more and more realistic with each passing week.
The Cincinnati Bengals got back to .500 with a win over the Seattle Seahawks, and the Atlanta Falcons may just have a quarterback conundrum.
The Athletic NFL writers Jeff Howe, Dan Pompei and Ted Nguyen share their thoughts on the top headlines of Sunday.
The 49ers offense looked unstoppable for five weeks, averaging 33.4 points per game. But quarterback Brock Purdy (12-of-27 passing for 125 yards) and co. struggled mightily today in Cleveland. It was a rainy, windy day against a great Browns defense that also included some injuries (Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey), but do 49ers fans have any reason to be concerned going forward?
Howe: I’m going to chalk this up as a perfect confluence of factors, just because Purdy has been so good for such a long stretch. Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has had 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s number. That Browns defense is legitimately good and consistently plays like they’ve got something to prove. And I always wonder how West Coast teams are impacted by the 1 p.m. ET starts. Then, star left tackle Trent Williams was hobbled for a bit, while Samuel and McCaffrey went down, which is again another byproduct of playing a physical Cleveland team. Even still, the 49ers had a makeable kick to win and have a fair gripe on that defensive penalty early in the Browns’ go-ahead drive. The bigger concern is the team’s health, especially since the 49ers always seem to deal with injuries to their star players.
We’d like to welcome you to Emerson Island, we hope you enjoy your stay 🏝 pic.twitter.com/gs7IxqpdLI
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 15, 2023
Pompei: Purdy struggled — it was one of his worst performances — but he still put the 49ers in position to win the game with a 41-yard field goal. The conversation would be completely different if Purdy was being credited with a game-winning drive after a Jake Moody three-pointer. Then again, no one should be expecting Purdy to play like Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. The 49ers were playing against one of the best defenses in the league, on the road, and in less-than-ideal conditions. They also were without their two best offensive playmakers for much of the game. Their confidence should not be shaken.
Nguyen: Some quarterbacks struggle in the rain, and it looks like Purdy doesn’t have much control of the ball when it’s wet. He missed several throws including missing a wide-open McCaffrey and an interception in which he threw behind Brandon Aiyuk. The ball even slipped out of his hand while he was in his throwing motion. This could be a big potential problem in the playoffs when the weather isn’t always going to be clear. The 49ers suffered some bad breaks today, but there’s no denying the offense left a lot of points on the board.
After an ugly 3-1 start, the Bengals knocked off a hot Seahawks team 17-13 to move to 3-3. Is it safe to again regard them as the AFC contenders most believed them to be entering the season?
Howe: The Bengals’ ceiling is as high as any team in the conference. They’re still a work in progress, but quarterback Joe Burrow looks much healthier now than even two or three weeks ago, and that’s the most important factor. I think it’s safe to now believe the slow start was directly attributed to his lengthy camp absence with the calf injury. That’s a really good win, because I still think the Seahawks might end up being dangerous in January.
Pompei: It’s probably safe to assume the Bengals would be 5-1 if Burrow didn’t limp into the season. So there is no question they should be one of the better teams in the conference from now on. They have the potential to be dynamic and balanced offensively. And Burrow has yet to hit his stride and play like the MVP candidate he is capable of being. Their defense seems to be putting it together, though there is room for improvement. The best should be yet to come for Cincinnati.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 15, 2023
Nguyen: It was an ugly win in Seattle, but the Bengals demonstrated their defense can still step up to the plate when necessary. Defensive coordinator Lou Anrumo had Seahawks QB Geno Smith flustered and forced him to hold onto the ball, allowing the rush to get to him and sack him four times. They also intercepted him twice. The Bengals offense didn’t play well today, but Burrow looks like he’s moving around better. Star wide receiver Tee Higgins also returned to the lineup today.
Now, they’ll head into a bye week at .500 with time to rest up and continue to get healthier. I won’t consider them contenders just yet, not until I see their offense string together some big performances. They’ll have a big test waiting for them after their bye week when they’ll travel to Santa Clara to play the 49ers.
Hill racked up 163 more receiving yards Sunday and now has 814 yards this season, putting the Dolphins star on pace for 2,306. Outside of injury, is there any way he doesn’t become the first 2,000-yard WR in NFL history?
Howe: The only other thing that could get in his way is if the league stops fining him and starts suspending him for the touchdown celebrations. But I digress. Hill is as dangerous as any skill player on the planet, and he’s got a coach who can adjust his game plan on the fly if defenses are rolling toward Hill, which was evident in Week 2 in Foxboro. If Hill plays 17 games, 2,000 should be a breeze.
Pompei: Hill is one of the most difficult wide receivers in the league to cover, and he’s playing on an offense that is clicking in every way. The Dolphins’ complementary weapons — Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert, Braxton Berrios and De’Von Achane (when he returns) — make Hill even more dangerous, because defenses can’t focus solely on him. If Hill stays healthy and Tua Tagovailoa stays healthy, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Hill does not collect 2,000 receiving yards.
Nguyen: This offense is just incredible, and if there was a way to take Hill out of the game, we would have seen it by now. Even if you dedicate your game plan to stopping Hill, their running game or Waddle will eventually force you to play him honestly again. If he stays healthy, we’ll see Hill break 2,000.
Falcons QB Desmond Ridder threw three bad interceptions today against Washington, including a backbreaker late in the fourth quarter with Atlanta driving for a chance to tie the game. Should coach Arthur Smith continue to ride with Ridder or make the move to Taylor Heinicke?
FIRST CAREER INT FOR @Benj_Juice AT THE PERFECT TIME
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) October 15, 2023
Howe: Smith spent a lot of time staring upward in this one, to the point where I was wondering if the broadcast was running a sideline shot on a loop. The Falcons are still very much alive in the NFC South, but they need more out of their quarterback to win the division. Plus, they’ve got a trip to Tampa next week that could truly define the direction of their season. Heinicke has proven himself as a capable, high-energy type of player over the past couple of seasons with Washington, so I’d be surprised if Smith is going to allow this to go on much longer.
Pompei: The Falcons have lost three of four and averaged 9.6 points in those losses. Ridder has thrown five interceptions in his last three games. The Falcons have a chance to make the playoffs, as the division they play isn’t as strong as many. The only reason to stick with Ridder is if the organization truly believes he is the long-term answer and he needs to learn from playing. But the Falcons probably have a better chance to be all they can be by making a change. And going with Heinicke wouldn’t necessarily preclude going back to Ridder at some point if circumstances dictated another change.
Kendall read it like a book 📖
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) October 15, 2023
Nguyen: I thought the switch might have flipped for Ridder after a strong game last week against the Texans in which he made several impressive downfield throws. I think overall he’s trending up. He made some big throws against the Commanders, but he can’t throw the bone-headed interceptions. He didn’t throw up “YOLO” balls or turn the ball over at a high rate. I don’t think that’s part of his personality. I think he’s shown enough progress to continue playing him and let him self-correct. But you have to pull him if he has a couple more games like this one.
(Photo: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers/ Getty Images)
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