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10 winners from Week 6 of the 2019 NFL season

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Sam Darnold just needed a serious bout of mono to reach his potential as a quarterback.

Jets QB Sam Darnold looks downfield holding a football, with a blue illustrated background
The Jets finally have QB Sam Darnold back after he was sidelined with mononucleosis.

There are two undefeated teams left standing through six weeks of the 2019 NFL season. The Patriots and 49ers remain at the top of the league’s pecking order, matched only by the inspired ineptitude of the Bengals and Dolphins on the other side of the spectrum. Cincinnati and Miami, both winless, continued their glass elevator ride to the top of next year’s draft by adding another defeat to a growing list of them.

Twenty-eight teams sit between them with varying postseason hopes. The Seahawks and Saints each made pointed arguments that they belong with the Niners in the NFC’s upper class with wins against the Browns and Jaguars, respectively. The Texans turned their road game in Kansas City into an opportunity by upending the Chiefs and gaining half a game on the bye-week Colts in the AFC South standings.

And a certain team from Georgia continued its rich tradition by melting down late in a soul-crushing game. Am I talking about football? Baseball? College football? Doesn’t matter!

But Week 6’s action was filled with winners that go beyond the final scores. Here are the 10 biggest victors of the week so far.

It wasn’t: the Chiefs, who have to be at least mildly concerned about Patrick Mahomes’ ankle

Mahomes started his Week 6 showdown with the Texans with quite possibly the greatest single-drive passing performance in NFL history. Thanks to four different Chiefs penalties, he was able to throw for 116 yards in the game’s first three minutes.

But the reigning MVP couldn’t come close to sustaining that pace, and a bum ankle may be to blame. Mahomes appeared to re-aggravate the lower leg malady that had limited him this season when he took a big hit in the second quarter. This left him unable to fully step into his throws or easily escape pressure in the pocket, taking away the versatility that makes him so dangerous.

After a stunning start where he averaged 19.3 yards per dropback, Mahomes completed just 51.7 percent of his passes against a Texans defense that was missing Johnathan Joseph and, for the second half, Bradley Roby. Mahomes averaged only 5.4 yards per passing play after that opening drive as Kansas City, watching an early 17-3 lead dissolve into a 31-24 defeat. The Chiefs have now lost two games in a row, and while that’s something this team can overcome, a diminished Mahomes may not be.

Now, on to ...

This week’s actual winners

10. The Dolphins, whose quest for the top overall pick in next year’s draft is still very much intact

Siri, show me the two-point conversion play you’d run when you want to ensure you’ll have the top pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Ah, perfect. With that Washington win and the Jets’ triumph over the Cowboys, the Dolphins are one of only two winless teams remaining through six weeks of the 2019 season. Those two teams play in Miami in Week 16. Tickets will not be expensive.

9. Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who may not be a Jet much longer

Williams has seen his value in New York fluctuate wildly since entering the league as the sixth overall pick in 2015. He had seven sacks in a Pro Bowl sophomore season, then just seven sacks in his next 37 games with the Jets. He only has four quarterback hits in five games this fall.

That hasn’t scared off other teams from floating trade possibilities to New York’s brain trust:

The Jets got their biggest (and only) win of the season Sunday when they upended the Cowboys — more on that later — but at 1-4 they still have an uphill climb just to get into the wild card discussion. Williams badly needs to revive his value as a player with free agency looming in 2020. It doesn’t look like he’ll be able to do that with an uneven Jets franchise. Unless he gets traded to Washington, Miami, or Cincinnati, a new team would be a win for him.

8. Everyone who didn’t have to watch Titans-Broncos Sunday afternoon

Tennessee and Denver combined for 15 drives in the first half. All but four ended in punts.

Gross. Sunday’s game was a major win for any remaining Ryan Tannehill fans, however. He was inserted into the lineup with five minutes left in the third quarter to replace an entirely ineffective Marcus Mariota behind center. He drove Tennessee into Denver territory in three of his four drives.

And he scored zero points in a 16-0 loss.

7. Lamar Jackson, who is usually on this list for his aerial exploits ...

But not today. While he was a perfectly acceptable passer (21-of-33, 236 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), Sunday’s win over the Bengals was a function of his still-impressive ground game.

Jackson now has 460 rushing yards in 2019, putting him on pace for a 1,200+ yard campaign. Michael Vick’s single-season rushing yard record for a quarterback is currently 1,039 yards — and Vick seems pretty hyped about Jackson’s odds of eclipsing him in the NFL.

6. Stefon Diggs, who the Vikings absolutely should not trade

The Vikings made no attempt to hide the fact they were going to involve Diggs heavily in their offense against the Eagles, giving him the ball three times in their first six plays. Despite this, the Eagles steadfastly refused to even consider double-covering him.

This was a tremendously bad idea.

Diggs repeatedly roasted the Eagles’ half-assed man-to-man coverage en route to seven catches, 167 yards, and a career-high three touchdowns (a fourth was only stopped by pass interference in the end zone). Minnesota and its revitalized offense improved to 4-2, remaining undefeated at home in the process.

5. The Saints’ defense, which made mustaches and headbands slightly less fashionable in Jacksonville

The Jaguars had surged the past three weeks under rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew. The mustachioed gunslinger had built a reputation as one of the league’s most promising young arms after throwing six touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last three starts, going 2-1 in the process.

His biggest test of 2019 came Sunday, and the NFC’s most complete team made sure he failed it. New Orleans stopped Jacksonville’s offense in every phase of the game in a 13-6 win, limiting the Jags to an inefficient 4.1 yards per play and coming up with Minshew’s first interception as a starter in the process.

New Orleans also shut down Leonard Fournette, who came into Week 6 as the league’s third-leading rusher. He needed 20 carries to gain just 72 yards as Jacksonville was held without a touchdown for the first time this season.

4. Kyler Murray, who absolutely looked like the No. 1 overall pick

Here’s Murray’s box score through three drives against the Falcons:

As impressive as that was, Murray took those numbers to new heights by spreading those 10 catches across eight different targets. Starting wide receiver Christian Kirk’s absence failed to throw a wrench in the rookie’s development, as he took advantage of Atlanta’s scattershot defense to carve up the NFC’s most depressing team.

Murray finished his day with career highs in total yards (372, with 340 through the air), yards per pass (9.2), and passer rating (128.2, topping his previous best of 90.5) en route to a 34-33 home victory. At 2-3-1, the Cardinals now just one win away from besting last year’s record — though with their only triumphs coming against the 1-5 Falcons and 0-6 Bengals, it’s tough to take their playoff hopes too seriously.

3. The Patriots’ defense/special teams, which is papering over any concerns about Tom Brady’s slow decline

Through six games, the Patriots have scored two touchdowns on blocked punt returns. That’s one more touchdown than opponents have scored through the air against their league-best passing defense.

New England has returned to its early Bill Belichick roots, fielding a dominant defense to prop up a good, but not great (at least so far in 2019) quarterback. That group has allowed three touchdowns in six weeks, which is excellent. It’s also scored three touchdowns in six weeks, which is insane.

Meanwhile, Brady has shown signs of mortality in recent weeks. He threw red zone interceptions in Weeks 4 and 5 that wiped out scoring opportunities. His inability to feel his pocket collapsing around him on Thursday night led to a sack and fumble return touchdown that also cost him his top receiving threatJosh Gordon was injured making a goal-line tackle on the play.

A leaky offensive line hasn’t helped the 42-year-old so far this fall. Isaiah Wynn’s return to injured reserve pushed Marshall Newhouse, signed off the street in September, into the starting lineup at left tackle. He’s effective in spurts, but also prone to brain farts that leave his comparatively elderly quarterback vulnerable to big hits:

New England is 6-0 after beating opponents by an average score of 32 to 8. But those wins came against only one club with a winning record, and there are plenty of questions left for the Patriots’ to answer. Fortunately for them, 2019’s most dominant defense has plenty of answers.

2. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who made the Rams look like a Sun Belt team

Through 80 percent — 48 minutes — of a showdown with the Rams in Los Angeles, the Niners had held the defending NFC champs and their explosive offense to 14 net passing yards. LA took its first drive of the game 56 yards for a touchdown, then saw four of its next six drives end in negative yardage against a San Francisco defense that had 15 men on the field at all times — or, at least it seemed that way. The Rams averaged 6.0 yards per play coming into Sunday. They gained 3.1 yards per play against the Niners.

That defensive mastery wasn’t limited to harassing Jared Goff into bad decisions with pocket-crumpling pressure. San Francisco swallowed up a Todd Gurley-less running game with regularity, leaving the Rams few avenues to success.

The Rams didn’t convert a single third- or fourth-down attempt, and they had 13 damn tries. One such stop — a goal-line stand on fourth down in the middle of a 7-7 game — made Saleh absolutely lose his mind on the sideline.

Goff had more sacks taken (four) than he had passes for a first down (one). LA gained 157 total yards in its most anemic performance in the Sean McVay era. Now his team is 2.5 games behind the 49ers in the NFC West standings, and Saleh deserves much of the credit for that hot start. Head coach Kyle Shanahan recognized that, too; he allowed Saleh to take over his postgame presser and field questions about his dominance Sunday night.

The Rams will have a shot at revenge against San Francisco, but it won’t come until a Week 16 date in Santa Clara.

1. Sam Darnold, who somehow got better after getting mono

Darnold missed three games this season thanks to a bout with mononucleosis and the enlarged spleen that comes with it. This was ultimately very fortunate for the Jets, because the spleen is where football talent is stored.*

The second-year quarterback roared back to relevance to roast the Cowboys in his triumphant return to the field. His 338 passing yards were the second-most of his blossoming NFL career and nearly double the 175-yard performance he put together in a Week 1 come-from-ahead loss to the Bills. His 10.6 yards per pass was the highest single-game mark he’s ever recorded.

That included the longest play from scrimmage in the NFL so far in 2019:

Darnold was solid for all 60 minutes Sunday, with the exception of a third-quarter interception that erased a scoring opportunity. He completed two of his three pass attempts for 48 yards in New York’s last meaningful drive of the game, leading to a 38-yard Sam Ficken field goal that served as the winning points in a 24-22 win.

The Jets may be 1-4 on the season, but they’re a .500 team with Darnold behind center — and if this version shows up every week, New York may finally have found the franchise quarterback it’s been looking for since, uh, Chad Pennington? Ken O’Brien? Maybe Joe Namath?

*citation needed. I am not a doctor.