New Orleans Saints: They’re 3-1. Which is no small task, considering they’re also 2-0 since starting quarterback Drew Brees went down with a thumb injury and the two squads they’ve toppled since then — the Seahawks and the Cowboys — were both undefeated when they played them. New Orleans beat Dallas 12-10 on Sunday night in a game in which it didn’t score a touchdown, but instead converted four field goals. The defense clamped down on the Cowboys’ rushing attack, holding Ezekiel Elliott to 35 yards, the third-lowest total of his career. The date to watch is Week 9, when the Saints have their bye. Until then, they face the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Bears and Cardinals, who are 7-8-1 combined. If the Saints can tread water until then — with a possible Brees return Week 10 — they should remain steady as legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
Leonard Fournette: For the first time since Week 11 of 2017, Fournette, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back, ran for 100 yards or more. Emphasis on more. He actually finished Jacksonville’s 26-24 victory with 225 yards. He was instrumental in helping the Jags score 20 unanswered points and 23 of the last 26 points of the game to erase a 14-point deficit. His rushing total was a career high, and remarkably, 190 of them came in the second half.
Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield: Facing mounting criticism over a sluggish start, perhaps no other team sent a stronger message Sunday than the Cleveland Browns. In a battle for first place in the AFC North, Cleveland dominated Baltimore on the road, winning 40-25. Kitchens, Cleveland’s head coach, and Mayfield, its quarterback, were much improved over their previous performances. For one, Mayfield faced far less pressure. He was sacked just once after being sacked 10 times in the first three games. But even when he simply faced pressure, Mayfield hung in the pocket and delivered passes with more accuracy. He had been bailing the pocket in the face of phantom pressure. And Kitchens was calculated in his play calls. While Baltimore mostly double-teamed Odell Beckham Jr., Kitchens dialed up plays that honed in on possession passes with Jarvis Landry leading the day with eight catches for 167 yards. Running back Nick Chubb, however, was the backbreaker, churning through 165 yards and three scores. It’s early, but the Browns now hold a crucial tiebreaker over Baltimore.
Jon Gruden: For the first time in 18 years, the Oakland Raiders won in Indianapolis. Facing the second roadtrip to the Midwest in as many weeks, just seven days after a thorough loss against the Vikings, Gruden dialed up a gameplan that focused on efficiency both in the passing and rushing attack and helped the Raiders beat the Colts, 31-24, to improve to 2-2. Facing mounting criticism over their inability to stop Vikings running back Dalvin Cook last week, the Raiders limited the Colts to only 81 rushing yards, while Oakland churned out 188 on a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. It snapped a two-game losing streak, and helped the team keep pace at second place in the AFC West.
Jay Gruden: Jon’s brother wasn’t as fortunate. Jay Gruden, the coach of the Washington Redskins, reportedly is coaching for his job and might be in trouble after the latest loss, 24-3, to the New York Giants. He benched veteran quarterback Case Keenum in the middle of the second quarter in favor of rookie first-round passer Dwayne Haskins. But it wasn’t much better. While Haskins helped lead Washington to a scoring drive in his first series, Washington went just three of 11 on third-down tries and generated just 176 yards of total offense. Haskins might have provided a brief spark, but his three interceptions showed he still has a long way to go. And Gruden might not have the time.
Dan Quinn and Matt Ryan: Another coach who might be in danger of losing his job, Quinn’s Falcons are one of those teams that are simply difficult to read. They have an abundance of speed and talent, just three years removed from playing in the Super Bowl. Yet, after it fell to the Titans, 24-10, Atlanta is 1-3 and in last place in the NFC South. Ryan snapped what was the second-longest active stretch of games with at least one scoring pass with 18. He threw the ball 53 times for 397 yards, but couldn’t find the end zone. The Falcons, again, had issues in the red zone, converting on just one of three trips inside the 20. The Falcons offense is one that lacks identity. It was just one play, but perhaps none other defined the start of the season more than a fourth-and-four from the Tennessee 25-yard line with 7:21 to play in the fourth quarter. The Falcons were down by two touchdowns. Yet Ryan took a snap with an empty backfield, left the pocket early and tried to scramble. Tennessee defenders quickly smothered him, stopped him short of the line of scrimmage, and turned the ball over on downs.
Minnesota Vikings: You can make the case that the Vikings have kicked off 2019 as one of the more inconsistent teams in the entire NFL. They’ve alternated between wins and losses in each of their four games, but the 16-6 defeat against the Bears was particularly concerning over an offensive ineptitude that could spell trouble down the stretch. The offensive line allowed six sacks, which meant Kirk Cousins was under duress all game long. But Cousins still hasn’t lived up to the billing when he signed his three-year, fully-guaranteed $84 million deal in March of 2018. The Vikes still have the rest of this season and next year to navigate this contract. Oh, and by the way, the only other quarterback who had a longer active streak of games with at least one touchdown pass than Ryan? That was Cousins, whose stretch of 19 straight was snapped, too.
Adam Thielen: “At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL. That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. … You have to be able to hit the deep balls.”
Deshaun Watson: The Texans traded for former Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil. They drafted right tackle Tytus Howard (first round) and left guard Max Scharping (second). Yet, somehow, the Houston Texans’ offensive line is still letting Watson get hit way too many times. In a 16-10 loss against the Carolina Panthers, Watson was sacked six times and hit 10 times. The Texans are now tied with the Dolphins for dead last in the NFL with 18 sacks allowed. This is just par for the course for Watson and Houston, which ranked last in sacks allowed last season (62) and second-to-last in 2017 (54). Watson does share some of the blame, though, as he ranks third-from-last in the league in time to throw among starting quarterbacks, getting the ball off in an average of 2.92 seconds after the snap. Houston is 2-2, which is tied with all teams in the AFC South, but if Watson keeps taking a beating, it’s hard to see him staying healthy for long.