CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Browns came back from a 15-point deficit to stun the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday, 33-31. But there was more going on around the NFL than just what was happening in this AFC North showdown.
Every week, we’ll go through the biggest storylines and examine potential narratives from around the NFL.
To help us examine these storylines and narratives, we’re following in the footsteps of the 1990s show, “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction,” which you may know better from the memes of host Jonathan Frakes.
Just like Frakes, we will decide every week whether several of the top storylines from around the league are fact or fiction. Here are this week’s six biggest storylines.
1. The Browns can win the AFC North with how Deshaun Watson helped close out the Ravens
Deshaun Watson had a dreadful start in Baltimore, throwing a pick-six on the second play of scrimmage and starting 1-for-9 passing. But in the second half, Watson had his first true signature moment that showed why the Browns gave up six draft picks and paid $230 million to bring him into Cleveland.
Watson was 14 of 14 in the second half for 139 yards and a touchdown to help the Browns come back and beat the Ravens. He finished 20 of 34 passing for 213 yards, a TD and an INT.
With the comeback win, the Browns are now 6-3, just a half game behind the Ravens for first place in the AFC North. They also split the season series, taking that potential tiebreaker off the board.
The Browns took a lot of heat for the move to get Watson for most of the first season and a half since the trade. But in this game, Watson looked like his Houston self against an elite opponent. Despite not having his top three tackles and after a poor start, Watson led his team on two touchdown drives in addition to the game-winning drive at the end of the game.
That’s the Watson they have been waiting for. And that Watson can give the Browns a legitimate shot to win the AFC North. According to the New York Times Playoff Simulator, the Browns now have a 31% chance to win the AFC North.
The focus suddenly shifts to a home game vs. the Steelers in Week 11. A win not only wipes away another head-to-head tiebreaker, but guarantees a record of at least .500 in the division.
They’ve won games with their defense and, at times, in spite of the quarterback. Sunday, they won due in large part to the play of their quarterback.
The next step is for Watson to build off of it. He wasn’t able to build off of his game vs. the Titans because that’s when he strained his right rotator cuff. But Sunday’s second half was Watson’s finest moment since coming to Cleveland.
It’s the kind of elite quarterback play that allows a team to win a game like the Browns did in Baltimore. And if the Browns keep getting it, they can do what they haven’t done in 34 years and win the very tough AFC North.
2. Thursday night’s game vs. the Bengals is the biggest of the Ravens’ season
Narratives in the NFL can change on a dime. A week ago, the Ravens looked like the best team in football and the Bengals looked like they were going to go on a long winning streak like they did a year ago.
But after the Ravens lost at home to the Browns and the Bengals fell to the suddenly red-hot Texans, the feelings in Baltimore and Cincinnati are night and day from where they were a week ago.
The only good news for both teams is they have a chance to redeem themselves when they meet on Thursday night in Baltimore. However, this feels like it could be a defining game for the Ravens.
Their lead atop the AFC North is tenuous at just a half game with the Steelers and Browns lurking. A loss means the Browns and Steelers are playing in Cleveland for first place in the AFC North.
It doesn’t help that the Ravens have a gauntlet to finish the season to say the least. They will travel to take on the Chargers in Week 12 before their bye week.
After hosting the Rams, they have to go on the road to Jacksonville and San Francisco before hosting the Dolphins and Steelers in the final four weeks.
That’s why Thursday night’s game could define Baltimore’s season. The Ravens need the division title more than the Bengals. Cincinnati could get into the playoffs as a wild card and still go all the way to the Super Bowl because of Joe Burrow and what he’s done the last two postseasons.
At this point, it would be a shocker if the Ravens missed the playoffs. But after blowing a 15-point lead to the Browns, they have to right the ship quickly vs. the Bengals on Thursday night. Otherwise, their season might take a different turn.
3. Joshua Dobbs is making Kirk Cousins expendable in Minnesota
The Joshua Dobbs story in Minnesota is quickly becoming a fairy tale. Dobbs came off the bench a week ago to lead the Vikings to a win just five days after being dealt to Minnesota.
Sunday, he had another impressive day as he led the Vikings to a 27-19 win vs. the Saints. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown, and he also rushed eight times for 44 yards and another TD.
With the win, the Vikings remain in a great position to make the playoffs at 6-4, which is impressive considering they started the season 1-4 and lost Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles.
That said, what Dobbs is doing right now doesn’t mean the Cousins era is over. Cousins is a free agent after the season, but he could easily come back, especially if the Vikings aren’t in position to pick a quarterback high in the 2024 NFL Draft.
The Vikings still have to play the Lions twice and they head to Cincinnati. But with what Dobbs has done, the Vikings should easily get back into the playoffs.
He’s not a long-term fix. But it’s a great story and it’s made for quite the ride in Minnesota.
4. The Patriots should move on from Bill Belichick
This would have been an unthinkable outcome even a year ago. But the Patriots have really regressed this season, in large part due to poor quarterback play. The Patriots are now just 2-8 after losing in Frankfurt, Germany to the Colts, 10-6.
Mac Jones threw an interception in the red zone with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter, and Bailey Zappe, who immediately replaced Jones on the following Patriots drive, also threw one on a fake spike.
The Patriots are now staring a rebuild squarely in the face. What they probably need is a fresh face to lead the operation.
Bill Belichick may be the greatest head coach in modern NFL history. However, nothing lasts forever, and it may be time for the Patriots to find a new coach and general manager to lead this rebuild.
5. The Texans will keep the Bills and Bengals out of the playoffs
Don’t look now, but the Houston Texans are in a playoff spot heading into Week 11. Imagine saying that at the end of last season when their Week 18 win in Indianapolis cost them the first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
But picking second was the best thing that could have happened because it got them C.J. Stroud, who has been special. After leading a stunning comeback vs. the Buccaneers a week ago, Stroud was the hero again as despite blowing a 10-point lead in the final minutes to the Bengals, Stroud led another game-winning drive in a 30-27 victory in Cincinnati.
Stroud was 23 of 39 passing for 356 yards, a touchdown and just his second interception of the season. He also rushed for a score.
As it stands, they would be in the playoffs at the expense of both the Bills and Bengals, who have been in AFC Championship Games the last three seasons.
However, with eight weeks left in the season, I don’t see that standing right now.
The NFL is a different world when you are the hunter vs. being the hunted. The Texans are no longer sneaking up on anyone and it’ll be fascinating how they adapt.
They do have some tough defense awaiting them as they still play the Jaguars, Jets and Browns. What they also have is a quarterback who has them believing.
That can’t be understated.
But so do the Bills and Bengals. They’ve also been there, which counts for something.
Even though the Texans will certainly be in the playoff mix to the end, it feels like either the Bills or Bengals will get hot in these final eight weeks and get back to the playoffs. Houston won’t be able to keep both teams out.
6. The 49ers are back to their usual selves
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the San Francisco 49ers. They had lost three straight games after a 5-0 start.
But with a week off to get healthy, the 49ers looked like the 5-0 version of themselves as they thoroughly dominated the Jaguars in Jacksonville, 34-3.
The offense gained 437 yards as Brock Purdy threw for 296 and three touchdowns. The defense also made Jacksonville’s life miserable, picking off Trevor Lawrence twice, sacking him five times and forcing four total turnovers.
Deebo Samuel was back and he made an impact with a rushing TD.
The 49ers are now 6-3, and after a week off, they look like the same team that rolled to start the season.