The Bucs were supposed to stink without Tom Brady. Then came Baker Mayfield

When Tom Brady finally retired, the NFC South was set to be wide open. After all, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to replace perhaps the best player in NFL history with Baker Mayfield, best known for his disappointing stint with the Cleveland Browns, which ended with his teammates’ dads weighing in on his faults and faint praise for his comic acting chops. The Bucs’ divisional rivals, the New Orleans Saints, were among the teams looking to take advantage of Brady’s retirement.

Heading into the teams’ first meeting of the year, the 2-1 Saints could take first place by defeating the Buccaneers, who were also 2-1 after a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In theory, New Orleans had the advantage at quarterback, having signed four-time Pro Bowler Derek Carr. Carr did not have a single touchdown pass during Sunday’s 26-9 Tampa Bay victory. In contrast, Mayfield went 25-for-32 and threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns.

Mayfield’s four years with the Browns were so disappointing that the team made the beyond controversial decision to acquire Deshaun Watson. So far, it’s a decision that has not paid off. An injured Watson did not take the field for the Browns on Sunday. Instead, backup Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions in a 28-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But at this point, it’s clear that Cleveland’s institutional problems run deep enough that the mess goes beyond uncertainty at the QB position.

“This is only the second time in my pro career that I’ve had a coaching staff that let me play to my full potential,” Mayfield said after the win, before crediting Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay for reviving his career after a failed stint in Carolina. “McVay understood what I’m capable of but no one else before that did.”

If this sounds like Mayfield was taking a shot at the Browns, it is because there is no conceivable universe where he was not taking one. And why wouldn’t he? His career was left for dead after he was labeled “not good enough to be a Cleveland Brown”. Given his current success – and the concurrent struggles of his former franchise – he has earned the right to take that shot.

Baker Mayfield stats

Maybe it helps that nobody is expecting him to be the Next Brady. During Tampa Bay training camp, in fact, it wasn’t even certain he would beat out 2021 second-rounder Kyle Trask for the starting gig. He may not even be the long-term solution, given that he only signed a one-year deal. One assumes that Mayfield is looking for a multi-year contract to be a starter somewhere, something which would have sounded like a tall order just two months ago.

The teams he has beaten this season – the Saints, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings – are hardly Super Bowl contenders. But Mayfield has a 69.6% completion rating this season, is on pace to throw for 29 touchdowns and more than 3,500 yards and is seventh among NFL starters in QBR rating, ahead of the likes of Lamar Jackson, Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts. Mayfield will probably revert to the mean at some stage, but chances are that Trask will remain on the bench for the foreseeable future.

MVP of the week

Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo Bills. Early on, the Miami Dolphins-Buffalo Bills game looked like it would come down to which team held the other to a field goal first, as they traded touchdowns during the first half. Eventually, however, Buffalo’s offense figured out Miami’s defense as the Bills emerged on top of the AFC East with a 48-20 victory over their rivals. A key reason? Diggs’s three receiving touchdowns. That’s the third time he has accomplished the feat for the Bills, setting a new team record. He also notched 120 receiving yards.

Stefon Diggs shares a drink with fans during the Bills’ win over the Dolphins
Stefon Diggs shares a drink with fans during the Bills’ win over the Dolphins. Photograph: Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Stat of the week

Zero. That’s how many first-half touchdowns the Cincinnati Bengals have scored this season, a major reason why they are now 1-3.

In fact, no Bengal scored a touchdown in the team’s 27-3 loss to the Titans (Tennessee running back Derrick Henry managed one more passing touchdown than Joe Burrow on Sunday). While there is still plenty of football left, the Bengals are bottom of the competitive AFC North and will need a sharp turnaround to make the playoffs. It’s been a rough start for a team that had serious Super Bowl hopes a month ago and Burrow is clearly still not fully fit.

Video of the week

The winless Minnesota Vikings found themselves in the hole early against the similarly struggling Carolina Panthers with Kirk Cousins giving up a 99-yard pick-six. Given that it was essentially a 14-point swing to start the game, it felt like Minnesota were doomed from the start.

Still, the Panthers also started the season 0-3 for a reason. Despite this early hiccup, the Vikings were able to recover and pull off a 21-13 comeback win for their first victory of the season. The Panthers, meanwhile, are 0-4 and would be in the hunt for the 2024 No 1 overall pick if they hadn’t already traded it away – the immediate future looks grim in Carolina.

Elsewhere around the league

The Kansas City Chiefs were 17-0 up in the first quarter of Sunday Night Football against the New York Jets and the main question was whether a team would score 70 points for a second week in succession. Then something happened: Zach Wilson – yep, that Zach Wilson – started playing out of his skin, and Patrick Mahomes – yep, that Patrick Mahomes – started throwing interceptions under pressure from the superb Jets defense. By the third quarter the score was tied at 20-20. Crucial drops by the Jets, a fumble by Wilson and a questionable late penalty that negated what would have been a New York interception helped the Chiefs edge the game 23-20. But it was an impressive fight by the Jets, and particularly from Wilson, who had endured the weighty scorn of the New York media for the last few weeks. “He made a lot of big time throws, so I was proud of him to go and show out,” said Mahomes of Wilson after the game. The fumble aside, Wilson was excellent, going 28 of 39 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was so good, in fact, that NBC limited itself to just the 84 shots of Taylor Swift whooping it up in the stands. Do we know if Wilson is single?

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Zach Wilson … a good NFL quarterback?
Zach Wilson … a good NFL quarterback? Photograph: Adam Hunger/AP

Khalil Mack perhaps isn’t the consistent gamechanger he was when he was named the 2016 defensive player of the year. But that doesn’t mean he never changes games. He had six sacks in the Los Angeles Chargers’ 24-17 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders – the NFL single game record in seven. The Chargers had built a 24-7 lead before, in true Chargers fashion, they almost let the Raiders back in. It was mostly down to Mack – and a late Asante Samuel Jr interception – that they didn’t blow this one as they so often have in the past.

In a game between two winless teams, it looked like the Chicago Bears were about to salvage some dignity by beating up on the possibly even more flea-bitten Denver Broncos. There was good news for the Bears in the contest: Justin Fields played perhaps his best game as a professional, throwing for four touchdowns and 335 yards and staking his team a 28-7 lead.

Then, unfortunately, Chicago’s porous defense became the story of the game and allowed 24 straight points. Russell Wilson, who had been better in the first half than the scoreboard indicated, ended the game with one fewer touchdown than Fields but also one fewer interception. In this battle between a resistible force and a highly moveable object, the Broncos managed to leave with the momentum by winning 31-28 on Wil Lutz’s 51-yard game-winner.

The Bills’ win over the Dolphins came at a cost. Cornerback Tre’Davious White suffered a suspected torn achilles and the injury comes less than a year after he came back from a torn ACL. “He’s been through a lot. And sometimes you wonder, right? Why things like that happen twice, you know, to someone,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said after the game. On a more positive note, Damar Hamlin played in his first regular-season game since his cardiac arrest.

It’s certainly been a turnaround from the time when the Jacksonville Jaguars were the NFL’s consolation prize to the UK, sent overseas to lose. The Trevor Lawrence era promises to be different and England’s unofficial Other Football team easily handled the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 on Sunday, capitalizing on two Desmond Ridder interceptions.

Ridder is apparently not making friends among his teammates. With the Falcons already down 17-0, receiver Mack Hollins did not feel it was an appropriate time to return his quarterback’s high-five. It may have not meant anything, but in a league where every bit of body language is analyzed, it became the enduring image of Atlanta’s overseas embarrassment.

The Philadelphia Eagles headed into Sunday as one of the NFL’s last undefeated teams and for a spell it looked like the Washington Commanders were going to challenge that status. Philadelphia took a late lead but surrendered it in the very last second (literally) on a touchdown throw from Sam Howell to Jahan Dotson. The Eagles won 34-31 in overtime on Jake Elliott’s field goal. Nick Sirianni’s team have an undefeated record but the Eagles head coach knows that they still have work to do.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was close to perfect in his (unbeaten) team’s 35-16 victory over the surprisingly spicy Arizona Cardinals, completing 20 of his 21 passes, throwing for one touchdown and passing for another. He had help from a four-touchdown performance by Christian McCaffrey, who ran for 106 yards and added another 71 as a receiver. As for the Cardinals, Kyler Murray isn’t coming back any time soon but Joshua Dobbs has been an able stand-in – the NFL’s greatest rocket scientist/QB had two touchdowns on Sunday and, like Purdy, has yet to throw an interception this season.

The Los Angeles Rams had a dramatic overtime win in their 29-23 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts. Puka Nacua’s offensive rookie of the year campaign continues: he had 163 receiving yards, which he capped off with the game-sealing touchdown catch in overtime.

CJ Stroud already looks like an NFL-caliber quarterback just four games into his professional career. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he threw for 306 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-6 home win as the Texans improved to 2-2. The Steelers meanwhile, dropped to 2-2 and may have lost their starting QB Kenny Pickett to a knee injury.