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NFL Reset: Team rankings, QB injuries that may shift the playoff picture

Rookie Brock Purdy is the new starter for the 49ers after Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending broken foot. (Lachlan Cunningham/AP)

The San Francisco 49ers perhaps are out of the Super Bowl conversation.

The Baltimore Ravens can remain in it — at least on the fringes, at least for now.

The two significant quarterback injuries that occurred Sunday — to the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson — changed the postseason outlook in each conference. The surging 49ers had begun to resemble a top NFC contender. That may have dissipated with Garoppolo’s broken left foot. Jackson’s knee injury could keep the Ravens from challenging the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy. But it is wise to withhold judgment for now.

Rookie Brock Purdy, the final player chosen in this year’s draft, becomes the third starting quarterback of the season for the 49ers, following Trey Lance and Garoppolo. They’re in first place in the NFC West, at 8-4, and take a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Santa Clara, Calif.

49ers shuffle at QB again after Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending foot injury

It’s still conceivable the 49ers could hold off the Seattle Seahawks in the division race. Purdy did a competent job in relief of Garoppolo in Sunday’s 33-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins, throwing two touchdown passes with an interception in a 25-for-37, 210-yard showing.

The 49ers have the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They have stars all over the field on offense with tailback Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, tight end George Kittle and left tackle Trent Williams. Coach Kyle Shanahan merely will ask Purdy to get the ball out of his hand quickly and take advantage of the run-after-the-catch talents of McCaffrey, Samuel and Kittle.

That could be good enough for a division title and maybe even for a playoff win. But as things now stand, the 49ers probably would have to win a divisional playoff game in Minnesota and the NFC championship game in Philadelphia. With an experienced quarterback like Garoppolo, that would have been a considerable task but not out of the question. With an untested rookie, it is probably just too daunting.

ESPN reported Tuesday that Garoppolo’s injury will not require surgery and he could return in seven to eight weeks — during the postseason. Shanahan had said Sunday that Garoppolo was expected to undergo season-ending surgery.

The Ravens have a capable backup, Tyler Huntley. Their remaining schedule is far from imposing. They face the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, along with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons, before a Week 18 game at Cincinnati that could be for the AFC North crown. Presumably Jackson will be back in the lineup by then; Coach John Harbaugh called the quarterback’s status a week-to-week consideration.

Huntley is good enough to win a game or two for the Ravens. He’s probably not good enough to make them a major factor in the AFC playoffs. They need Jackson for that.

Top five teams

1. Eagles
They return to No. 1 after a dominant victory over the Titans. Jalen Hurts threw for three TDs and ran for another score. They’ve won three straight, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
2. Cowboys
The 33-point fourth quarter in their 54-point performance Sunday night against the Colts was stunning. It perhaps said more about the Colts than it did about the Cowboys, but it still was striking.
3. Bills
They did their part against the Patriots on Thursday night and then got some help Sunday from the Bengals to reclaim the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Now it’s up to the Bills to remain there.
4. Bengals
The defending AFC champs aren’t going away. The win over the Chiefs reaffirmed that. Joe Burrow throwing the ball to Ja’Marr Chase remains about as good as it gets.
5. Chiefs
Sure, the Chiefs are capable of winning on the road in the AFC playoffs. But that’s far tougher than staying home and getting it done.

Browns and Watson

Quarterback Deshaun Watson didn’t play well in his regular season debut for the Browns. But the Browns still were able to beat the pitiable Texans in Houston. They hope for far better from Watson, beginning with Sunday’s game in Cincinnati.

“First game back,” Coach Kevin Stefanski said after the 27-14 triumph in Houston. “You’re going to work through it.”

Watson’s off-field issues have been intensely scrutinized. He served an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy after more than two dozen women filed civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct in massage therapy sessions. Women’s groups remained sharply critical last week of Watson and his punishment, determined by a settlement between the league and the NFL Players Association.

NFL Sunday takeaways: Deshaun Watson wins Browns debut amid boos in Houston

But his on-field abilities have never been questioned. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection in four seasons for the Texans. He led the league in passing yards in the 2020 season. That’s why the Panthers, Falcons and New Orleans Saints also tried to trade for him in the offseason. It’s why the Browns surrendered a king’s ransom of draft choices in their trade with the Texans in March and signed him to a five-year contract worth $230 million guaranteed.

That version of Watson was not on display Sunday. He bounced passes to open receivers. He threw an interception. He connected on 12 of 22 throws for a modest 131 yards. The Browns’ offense did not reach the end zone, relying on two touchdowns by their defense and one on special teams.

“Next week, I definitely need to be better,” Watson said. “I will be better. The team will be better.”

Watson said he felt the full weight of his 700-day layoff since his previous regular season game, on Jan. 3, 2021, for the Texans. He played in one preseason game for the Browns in August.

The Browns, at 5-7, are two games out of an AFC playoff spot. They can afford few more on-field missteps, and they play the Bengals and Ravens the next two weekends. They must be far better than they were in Houston, and they need Watson to be a major contributor.

“It’s time away,” Stefanski said. “So you’ve got to get the first one out of the way. And I think he did. He’s looked very sharp in practice. I know he’s excited for the next one.”

Bottom five teams

28. Colts
Jeff Saturday had not looked overmatched and overwhelmed as an NFL coach until the fourth quarter Sunday night, when it all came undone in a dispiriting loss to the Cowboys.
29. Bears
They’ve lost six straight and nine of 10. It’s not easy to be this terrible while Justin Fields has developed into an excellent young QB.
30. Rams
No Matthew Stafford. No Cooper Kupp. No Aaron Donald. No hope whatsoever. Being awarded Baker Mayfield on waivers won’t solve much.
31. Broncos
Just think how dreadful this offense would be if they hadn’t hired an offensive guru as their coach in the offseason.
32. Texans
That was a feeble performance against the Browns. The boos at NRG Stadium were directed at Deshaun Watson. Perhaps some should have been reserved for the home team.

Texans’ woes

The Texans are truly dreadful. Their defense did not allow a touchdown Sunday to the Browns, yet they still lost by 13 points. They’re 1-10-1. They’ve beaten only the Jacksonville Jaguars. They benched second-year quarterback Davis Mills. Kyle Allen hasn’t been any better as the alternative.

They face three of the NFL’s best teams — the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans — in their next three games. They are probably going to be 1-13-1 going into their closing two-game stretch against the Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, and they essentially are already on the clock for the No. 1 selection in the draft. They can take the quarterback of their choosing and try to begin a rebuilding project around him.

But first, the Texans will have to make a decision about Coach Lovie Smith, whom they promoted from defensive coordinator in February after firing David Culley after only one season. Smith was asked following Sunday’s defeat about his job security.

“I’ve kind of never worried about job security,” he said. “What I’m worried about is doing the best job I can getting ready for the Cowboys. It’s kind of as simple as that.”

The Texans should give no thought to firing Smith after this season. He isn’t the problem. The problem is organizational disarray that is the responsibility of owner Cal McNair and General Manager Nick Caserio. Getting rid of another coach after only one season would not fix anything. Smith is competent and must be given a semblance of a legitimate opportunity to succeed.

The Texans considered former NFL quarterback Josh McCown as a head coaching candidate in each of the past two hiring cycles. McCown has not coached above the high school level. That puts his candidacy about on par with that of Jeff Saturday, the former all-pro center and ESPN analyst whom the Colts hired as their interim coach following the firing of Frank Reich last month.

If Saturday were thriving now, perhaps McCown would resemble an increasingly viable candidate for the Texans. Instead, the Colts are reeling. Saturday won his debut at Las Vegas, but since then the Colts have gone 0-3. They were overwhelmed, 54-19, on Sunday night by the host Cowboys. Saturday has had clock-management issues. His on-the-job training is not going particularly well. And the lesson to the Texans should be that McCown is not an immediate option.