CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Browns came back from a 15-point deficit to knock out the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday, 33-31. But there was a lot more going on around the NFL than what was happening in this AFC North showdown.
Each week, we’ll review the biggest storylines and examine potential NFL narratives.
To help us examine these plots and narratives, we’re following in the footsteps of the 1990s show, “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction,” which you may know best from host Jonathan Frakes’ memes.
Just like Frakes, we’ll decide each week whether several of the league’s major storylines are fact or fiction. Here are the six biggest storylines from this week.
1. The Browns can win the AFC North because of how Deshaun Watson helped close out the Ravens
Deshaun Watson had a terrible start in Baltimore, throwing a pick six on the second play from scrimmage and starting 1 of 9 passes. But in the second half, Watson had his first true signature moment that showed why the Browns gave up six draft pick and paid $230 million to bring him to Cleveland.
Watson finished 14 of 14 in the second half for 139 yards and a touchdown to help the Browns come back and beat the Ravens. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 213 yards, one TD and one INT.
With the comeback victory, 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, removing this potential tiebreaker.
The Browns have been under a lot of pressure 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 missing his best 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.
This is the Watson they’ve been waiting for. And that Watson can give the Browns a legitimate chance to win the AFC North. According to the New York Times Playoff Simulator, the Browns now have a 31% chance of winning the AFC North.
Attention suddenly shifts to a home game against the Steelers in Week 11. A win not only erases another head-to-head tiebreaker, but guarantees a record of at least .500 in the division.
They won games with their defense and sometimes despite the quarterback. On Sunday, they won thanks in large part to the play of their quarterback.
The next step is for Watson to take inspiration from it. He wasn’t able to capitalize on his game against the Titans because that’s when he strained his right rotator cuff. But Sunday’s second half was Watson’s best moment since arriving in Cleveland.
This is the kind of elite quarterback play that allows a team to win a game like the Browns did in Baltimore. And if the Browns continue to be successful, they can do what they haven’t done in 34 years and win the very tough AFC North.
2. Thursday night’s game against the Bengals is the Ravens’ biggest of the 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 seemed poised 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, feelings in Baltimore and Cincinnati are night and day compared to where they were a week ago.
The only good news for both teams is that they have a chance to redeem themselves when they meet Thursday night in Baltimore. However, it looks like this could be a defining game for the Ravens.
Their lead atop the AFC North is tenuous after just half a game with the Steelers and Browns lurking. A loss means the Browns and Steelers are playing Cleveland for first place in the AFC North.
It doesn’t help that the Ravens have a challenge finishing the season, to say the least. They will travel to face the Chargers in Week 12 before their bye week.
After hosting the Rams, they must travel 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 make the playoffs as a wild card and go all the way to the Super Bowl because of Joe Burrow and what he has done in the last two playoff series.
At this point, it would be a shock if the Ravens missed the playoffs. But after blowing a 15-point lead to the Browns, they need to right the ship quickly against the Bengals on Thursday night. Otherwise, their season could take a different turn.
3. Joshua Dobbs makes Kirk Cousins expendable in Minnesota
The story of Joshua Dobbs in Minnesota is quickly becoming a fairy tale. Dobbs came off the bench a week ago to lead the Vikings to a victory just five days after being dealt to Minnesota.
On Sunday, he had another impressive day leading the Vikings to a 27-19 victory over 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 touchdown.
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 return, especially if the Vikings are unable to select a quarterback in the 2024 NFL Draft.
The Vikings still have to face the Lions twice and are headed to Cincinnati. But with what Dobbs has done, the Vikings should easily get back into the playoffs.
This is not a long term solution. But it’s a great story and it’s made for quite a trip to Minnesota.
4. The Patriots should move on from Bill Belichick
This would have been unthinkable just a year ago. But the Patriots have really regressed this season, largely 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 Patriots’ next drive, also threw one on a fake spike.
The Patriots are now facing a reconstruction. What they probably need is a new face to run the operation.
Bill Belichick is perhaps 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 the playoffs heading into Week 11. Imagine saying that at the end of last season when their Week 18 win at Indianapolis cost them the top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft .
But picking second place was the best thing that could have happened to them because it got them CJ Stroud, who was special. After leading a stunning comeback against the Buccaneers a week ago, Stroud was the hero again as despite leading by 10 points in the final minutes against the Bengals, Stroud led another victory in a 30-27 win at Cincinnati .
Stroud completed 23 of 39 passes for 356 yards, a touchdown and only his second interception of the season. He also rushed to score.
As it stands, they would make the playoffs at the expense of the Bills and Bengals, who have made the AFC Championships the past three seasons.
However, with eight weeks to go until the end of the season, I don’t think that holds true at the moment.
The NFL is a different world when you’re the hunter rather than the hunted. The Texans aren’t surprising anyone anymore and it will be fascinating to see how they adapt.
They have a solid defense waiting for them as they still face the Jaguars, Jets and Browns. What they also have is a quarterback who makes them believe.
This cannot be underestimated.
But so do the Bills and Bengals. They’ve been there too, which counts for something.
While the Texans will certainly be in the playoff mix until the end, it looks like the Bills or Bengals will heat up over these final eight weeks and get back into the playoffs. Houston won’t be able to keep both teams out.
6. The 49ers are back to their usual self
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 bye week to get back into shape, the 49ers looked like the 5-0 version of themselves as they heavily dominated the Jaguars in Jacksonville, 34-3.
The offense gained 437 yards while 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 causing 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 started the season.