Published: Nov 14, 2023 at 08:52 AM
A wild week in the NFL has not made my job easier.
The 49ers looked like their old selves. The Ravens must not like it when we heap praise on them, because they blew a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead to Cleveland.
The Bengals and Bills lost at home. The Jaguars were truly humbled at home.
And then there are the Vikings. They’re in a class unto their own.
What this season has not been is predictable. The Eagles might be the alpha dogs for now, but they’re not invulnerable. Is another member of the pack ready to knock them off their perch? Not quite yet.
Jalen Hurts admitted that the Week 10 bye came at the right time, and you hope he and his left knee got some proper rest. The Eagles’ next five games could be as tough a stretch as any that a contender will face this season. They’re at Kansas City in Week 11, followed by two challenging contests at home (vs. Buffalo and San Francisco), and then road games at Dallas and Seattle. Philadelphia is 8-1, but it will be surprising if the team doesn’t drop at least one game in that gauntlet. A 3-2 mark would be very respectable. The beleaguered pass defense will get a serious test during this next month; we should find out if this is the team’s Achilles’ heel, or if it’s something the Eagles can overcome with their pass rush and/or an offense that was starting to cook before the break.
Through nine games, the Chiefs are in the same spot as they were a season ago, when they’d eventually go on to win the Super Bowl: 7-2 and atop the AFC. Even the point differentials (plus-64 through nine games last year, plus-65 this year) are nearly identical. Does it feel that way, though? Perhaps it’s the way they’re winning games — without scoring as many points — that’s throwing us off. Patrick Mahomes isn’t a worse quarterback, and Travis Kelce isn’t a worse tight end, but the defense certainly is better. The Ravens’ loss had to be a nice little bye-week surprise, helping the Chiefs’ chances of earning the top playoff spot. They have four very winnable road games remaining, but tougher tests at home. The path to the AFC’s top seed begins now.
Let’s talk about the offensive line. It’s admittedly difficult to incorporate significant OL analysis here weekly, mostly for space reasons. But units that dominate like the Lions’ O-line did on Sunday deserve the ink. Starters Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow and Penei Sewell played every snap and turned in a nearly clean sheet; Detroit allowed zero sacks and eight pressures total on 33 Jared Goff dropbacks. RBs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored TDs of 1, 1 and 75 yards between them. Short-yardage, long-yardage — it didn’t matter. Outside of one Decker penalty wiping out a TD on the Lions’ first possession and a goal-line stop in the second quarter, this unit dominated a good Chargers front for 60 minutes. And it’s why I believe Detroit will be an extremely tough playoff out if the defense gets back in order.
Boy, the Week 10 victory checked off just about every box we could dream up after the three-game losing streak preceding the Week 9 bye. Is the pass rush back? Oh yeah. Did we see the good version of Brock Purdy? No doubt. Kyle Shanahan? In his bag. Hard to ask for much more than that in one game. Beating the Jaguars 34-3 isn’t as significant, positionally, as a divisional win would be, but it was a statement victory — which easily could have been even more lopsided — over a quality opponent on the road. It stanched the bleeding, calmed the hysterics and served as a springboard into Niners November. San Francisco has now won seven straight November games, and throwing out the injury-riddled 2020 season, this team has dominated the colder months in the Shanahan era. The 49ers’ final sprint lies ahead, but they’re on the move.
The post-bye schedule lays out nicely prior to the closing trio of games against Dallas, Baltimore and Buffalo. The Dolphins’ next five matchups come teams that are .500 or worse. They have five more home games and three on the road, with only the Ravens in Week 17 looking like a stiff test among those away dates. The critics who say Miami hasn’t beaten anyone good might not be quelled — at least, not until December. But I doubt this team minds the stigma for now. With De’Von Achane on the way back and reinforcements already having returned on the offensive line, the Dolphins should go on a run here. Just in time for the start of midseason Hard Knocks, too, which is nice. There are obvious pitfalls, such as the prospect of playing without Tua Tagovailoa or Tyreek Hill should either be injured, but this team is too talented to clunk its way through eminently winnable contests.
If you ask me who’s the best team in the NFL, I’ll say it’s the Cowboys (in the first half) at AT&T Stadium. In fact, I briefly mulled ranking 33 teams and listing “Cowboys (in the first half) at AT&T Stadium” at No. 1, but neither my editors nor you deserve that. Including Sunday’s shellacking of the Giants, Dallas has outscored opponents 107-22 in home first halves (after halftime, the team has been fine). Whatever the reason, the ‘Boys have so much more mojo at home, where they’ve now won their last 12 games. The problem? Dallas has work to do before thinking about home playoff games. But Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and the passing game are humming right now, and Sunday was great for the run game, which pounded away at a tired Giants defense.
After rising to unseen Power Rankings heights last week, the Jags fell hard and fast. Losing to the 49ers brings no shame by itself, but Jacksonville was truly clocked — and it could have been worse. Home losses this big prompt us to question everything about a contender’s credentials. That said, recent playoff teams have been on this side of the fence: Minnesota was stomped at home by Dallas last year, yet hosted a playoff game, and the 2020 Bucs were smashed at home by the Saints, but that season ended fairly well for them. So there’s encouraging historical precedent. Still, on a day when the defense just wasn’t getting it done, it would have been good for the offense to rise to the occasion. Jacksonville will need more going forward from Trevor Lawrence, Calvin Ridley and about a dozen other offensive players.
The Browns can absolutely win the North. They are 6-3, half a game back of Baltimore now, and don’t have an outrageous schedule left. But their chances have as much to do with Deshaun Watson as anything else. Sunday was Watson’s finest hour as a Brown: He rallied his team back from a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter deficit, overcoming his own rough start (6-for-20 passing with a pick-six in the first half). In the second half, Watson completed all 14 of his passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. That Watson did it with a hurt ankle and without his two starting tackles is meaningful. If anyone had any questions about his toughness or resilience, those have been answered for now. This team has just found ways to win this season, sometimes without great QB play — but now Watson is helping, too.
That was nothing short of an incredible showing from the Texans’ offense and QB C.J. Stroud, who not only is the massive Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite but perhaps has thrown his hat into the MVP ring. Stroud once again showed rare rookie poise and tremendous ball placement. Fellow rookie Tank Dell has become a real weapon. And veteran Noah Brown suddenly has back-to-back 150-yard receiving games. But we need to talk about the run game, which produced in a way we’ve not otherwise seen this season. New feature back Devin Singletary isn’t a game breaker, but he kept churning away in a 30-carry, 150-yard performance that allowed Houston to control the ball for 17 of the 30 second-half minutes. Credit, too, to the Texans’ offensive line for keeping Stroud clean and consistently opening holes against a dangerous Bengals front.
There were some plays throughout the game against Washington that showed the bad side of Geno Smith’s season, which has been marked by regression after a terrific 2022 campaign. Smith left yards and points on the field, struggled on third downs and was hearing the Seattle fans’ disappointment, but he summoned some late magic in leading the Seahawks to the go-ahead TD and game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. On top of that, Smith threw for a career-high 369 yards and had his first turnover-free game in his past five outings. That right there, along with a big Kenneth Walker III game, is Seattle’s formula for victory, even if it came against a weary Washington defense. The Seahawks’ defense certainly could firm up a bit, but they’ll take a win they absolutely needed.
Even taking into account all the recent positive vibes around this team, Thursday’s upcoming game at Baltimore suddenly shapes up as a near must-win contest if the Bengals harbor any hopes of claiming a third straight AFC North title. The Ravens’ loss to Cleveland on Sunday created an opportunity to gain ground, but Cincinnati couldn’t take care of business against the impressive Texans. The Bengals are now 5-4 overall and 0-2 in the division — the deck they shuffled is already stacked against them. Lamar Jackson has been a thorn in Cincinnati’s side for years now, and the Bengals already lost to the Ravens once this season. The defense can’t afford to have another day like it did Sunday against Houston — arguably the unit’s worst performance in a few years — in Week 11, or the whole thing could fall apart again.
Another defender lost to injury, more passing-game disappointment — and another victory. It’s stupendous, really. The Steelers have mastered the rope-a-dope art of winning with minimal style points and shocking efficiency. Here’s a more positive spin: The Steelers know when to make big plays. They’ve only outscored opponents in one quarter this season, but it’s the key one: the fourth. And while they yield plenty of yards on defense — Green Bay had eight plays of 20-plus yards Sunday — the Steelers are strong in departments that mean more: sacks, takeaways and points allowed. In almost every single victory, the defense had to shut the door late. It’s hard to question a team that consistently shows it can win close games, but how far can this approach really take Pittsburgh?
Four turnovers, or five if you count the third-quarter turnover on downs. A defense that spent 37-plus minutes on the field. Two back-breaking penalties in the final 35 seconds. And that, kids, is how the Bills lost to the Broncos on Monday night. That’s a fourth defeat in the last six weeks, dropping Buffalo to a shocking .500 record. What do you do with this team? Josh Allen did his usual goat-turned-hero thing, but the early missed opportunities — and too much time left on the clock — came back to bite Buffalo. Digging out of holes is no way to live on a weekly basis. When I alluded to the idea of the Bills missing the playoffs last week, it still felt like they’d get things straightened out, but now it’s in real doubt. They still have to weather the Jets at home and go to Philly before the badly needed bye.
If nothing else, this is clear: Joshua Dobbs can play in this league, and Kevin O’Connell can coach a little. This season has gone nothing like the 2022 campaign did, and yet, the Vikings are right back in contention. After Sunday’s triumph over New Orleans, they’ve won five straight — the longest active win streak in the league — despite starting three different quarterbacks in the last three games. That shouldn’t be a problem going forward, assuming Dobbs stays healthy, because he’s the man. I openly called for a change in Arizona because things went stale there after a certain point with Dobbs, but he’s rediscovered his mojo and is in a better situation, especially with Justin Jefferson approaching a return. Oh, and how about that Minnesota defense? It is allowing 297.9 yards per game since Week 4 and has 11 turnovers in the past five contests, including two huge ones against the Saints in the final three-plus minutes.
Derek Carr’s shoulder might be OK, but that doesn’t mean the Saints came out healthy after the loss to the Vikings. Both CB Marshon Lattimore and WR Michael Thomas suffered injuries that could sting a bit, so the bye seems to have come at a fairly opportune time. Remember, we’re talking about a division leader here, despite the 5-5 record. It might be harder to not win the South at this point. The Saints have the easiest schedule left by opponents’ win percentage, with only one remaining foe currently owning more than four wins, and four of their remaining seven games are at home, including three straight in December. But if the defense keeps sliding, it could open the door for Tampa Bay and/or Atlanta. The Saints couldn’t stop Joshua Dobbs and T.J. Hockenson, and they didn’t generate a single takeaway at Minnesota on Sunday.
They’ve stepped into the bye on a mini high, winning two straight after a rough patch to get back to .500. Technically, every team remaining on their schedule is in contention, but right now, the 6-3 Steelers have the best record among those foes. The Week 14 road game at Cincinnati will be a challenge, too, with the Bengals barely ahead of them in the playoff standings. Strangely, the Colts are now 4-1 on the road after the sausage grinder of a win in Frankfurt, but only 1-4 at Lucas Oil Stadium. That latter record will have to improve if Indianapolis is serious about making a playoff push, as four of the Colts’ final seven games are at home. The defense and Gardner Minshew limit this team’s chances, but it should get healthier this week to be ready for the stretch run.
Not sure if the lose-two, win-two pace will keep up all season, but the Chargers followed their most recent pair of victories with a defensive nightmare that landed them back in the loss column, so some things are repeating. Even a brilliant Justin Herbert performance wasn’t enough against the Lions. The defensive showing was even worse than what the Bolts displayed during the pounding Miami laid on them in Week 1 at home. Speaking of, the Chargers are suddenly 2-3 in Inglewood, with the two victories coming against the Bears and Raiders. The four remaining road games are winnable. The four home games all could be tough ones, including a prime-time matchup against the Ravens and the regular-season finale against the Chiefs. The 4-5 Chargers have five teams to pass in the playoff standings, and they’re only 2-3 so far vs. AFC foes. They’re not dead yet, but they’ve got to get going very soon.
After four respectable but heartbreaking losses in a row, the Buccaneers ended the streak and kept themselves in the NFC South race. Truthfully, losing on Sunday wouldn’t have put them out of it. That’s just the way the South is — again. For all the jokes about that division, the Bucs loom as a sneaky-good team to me. They’re not great, and they’re not a realistic title contender, but they could shock someone in the right setting. That’s what the defense’s performance told me against Tennessee, anyway. Tampa made a ton of plays in the backfield, stopped Derrick Henry in his tracks, held twice in the red zone and topped it all off with a late pick. Baker Mayfield seemed to be pressing in other games, but I didn’t sense that in this one. When the defense plays at this level, it really seems to calm the offensive approach a bit.
I’m going to start with an apology. Vance Joseph, I’m sorry. I underestimated you and your defense. In my defense, things were looking a little rough early. But boy, since the first Kansas City game, the effort’s been pretty terrific, even with the late TD drive allowed Monday. Lemme also shout out Russell Wilson, who hasn’t always had it easy (or made it easy for himself) in Denver. But Monday was strong, as the 34-year-old delivered some clutch throws at winning time — including a few clever flip passes under duress — to sting the Bills’ defense on the two late scoring drives. There were two three-and-outs and a fumble in the second half, so the offense remains an unfinished project. But even two botched extra points somehow didn’t prevent a second straight statement victory over a quality foe.
Antonio Pierce followed his smashing debut in Week 9 with an emotional Week 10 victory spearheaded by one of the interim coach’s favorite players. No, not the great Maxx Crosby, who was held sack-less but did get some shots in on Jets QB Zach Wilson. Robert Spillane was the player NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was buzzing about, sharing how Pierce planned to build around Spillane. Even as smart and as tough as Spillane is, that sentiment caught me off guard. But what first sounded like coachspeak soon echoed like scripture. Spillane was everywhere — and he capped off the night with a game-changing interception in the final minutes. Now the Raiders are 2-0 with their new coach and back in contention at 5-5. Wild stuff.
The criticism Zach Wilson received for his late interception against the Raiders was warranted. It was a poor decision and throw, and it ended the Jets’ best chance to take the lead late. The lack of offensive progress has been disappointing, but Wilson has made strides, even if the red-zone struggles and late-game mistakes are a big part of his story. He is taking fewer sacks, cutting back on turnovers, using his legs more and starting to gain confidence with big throws. He helped deliver the Eagles’ only loss. Wilson also played well against the Chiefs, with only the late giveaway (sound familiar?) marring his performance. Another problem is that the Jets aren’t disciplined around Wilson. C.J. Uzomah had two penalties in Sunday’s loss, including one that called back a TD, and the Jets had eight total (seven on offense). That part gets put to the side too often.
Near the start of both halves, Sam Howell twice did this Mahomesian thing where he scrambled to his left, sort of inviting the defenders to converge on him, before flipping the ball to Brian Robinson for long gains. The first went for a 51-yard TD, the second gained 48 yards. They might have something there. Howell’s had a few rough games but mostly has stood tall in the face of adversity, leading two game-tying drives in Sunday’s fourth quarter, albeit in another loss. Clearly, the talk about benching Howell at one point was utterly silly. Right now, he and some of the skill-position players are the best thing Washington has going for itself. The question now is whether this coaching staff is doing enough to convince new owner Josh Harris to keep the group in place — and consequently, whether Howell will get to continue working in this system or be forced to learn a new one.
Arthur Smith appears to be in a very awkward spot right now with his quarterbacks. He said he didn’t want “to play musical chairs” with them and, I assume, face the accompanying weekly questions. It’s possible that Taylor Heinicke‘s hamstring injury and poor play Sunday (coming off a so-so game against the Vikings) made Smith’s decision for him. At the very least, it opens up the door for a switch back to Desmond Ridder, who looked more poised in relief on Sunday, leading a go-ahead drive before Arizona won it in the final moments. The Falcons gave Bijan Robinson plenty of touches, and he was great. But what happened to the defense? Kyler Murray carved it up late. One step forward, two back — a common theme for this season in Atlanta.
It feels like Will Levis‘ fine debut happened months ago. To be fair to the rookie quarterback, much of Sunday’s disappointing offensive showing had nothing to do with Levis himself; the Titans just aren’t a well-oiled group right now on that side of the ball. Pass protection and inconsistent run-blocking remain major issues. The loss to Tampa was ugly up front, and Mike Vrabel might not have many viable solutions. The red-zone execution has been bad all season, and Tennessee went 0-for-2 on Sunday despite getting inside the 10-yard line on two separate drives. The Titans have survived previous such cold snaps because the defense and special teams have been able to clean up after the offense. Not on Sunday. The blame fell mostly on an inexistent pass rush and a secondary that allowed Bucs receivers to roam with impunity.
The most disappointing part about Jordan Love‘s season has been the connection with his No. 1 receiver — or, at least, the player we assumed would be his WR1. Christian Watson got hot last season and entered summer as the presumed alpha, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for three games. Since Watson’s return, we’ve seen the second-year pro haul in at least one catch of significant yardage in every game, but the chemistry with Love just hasn’t been there. Watson had a pair of nice grabs Sunday, but he also had a brutal third-down drop, and Love was picked off twice while throwing in Watson’s direction. It took Watson time to synchronize with Aaron Rodgers, as well, but the Packers put themselves in this situation now, where many are looking for Love to show he’s the guy this season — leaving little time to mesh with Watson more gradually.
Matthew Stafford is set to get back in the mix against Seattle on Sunday, but with the Rams at 3-6 after losing four of their last five games, will that be enough for L.A. to make any kind of serious run at the playoffs? Well, we’ve seen the Rams without Stafford, so there’s reason to think his return will be a big upgrade, especially when two of the team’s most reliable producers, WRs Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua, are dependent on the quarterback. Kyren Williams, meanwhile, was making hay before he was hurt — and he could get on the field again in Week 12 against the same Arizona team he gashed for 158 yards on 20 carries in Week 6. That’s better than the 2.6 rushing yards the Rams averaged in their Week 9 loss at Green Bay. The defense has had its hands full all season, though, and the Rams are 1-3 at home, so if there’s going to be improvement from within, it can’t all just come via injury returnees.
To Matt Eberflus’ credit, he’s coaxed better football out of his team — especially the defense he’s now running — over the past month-plus following an 0-4 start. Eberflus went 2-2 with Tyson Bagent filling in for Justin Fields, the kind of thing that might have landed him on Coach of the Year lists, had the first four games of 2023 gone better. Now comes the trick: winning with Fields. The third-year pro is trending in the right direction and could start against the Lions on Sunday, but Eberflus must figure out why the team is 4-17 on his watch with the starting quarterback starting. There’s also a catch: Chicago’s remaining schedule is tough, starting with roadies at Detroit and Minnesota before the Week 13 bye. Eberflus and Fields must find a way to flourish together down the stretch.
There’s only so much buzz and hope a team can generate after a 1-8 start, but Kyler Murray had no issues with that. His return required some patience from all of us, but we were rewarded with a taste of pre-injury Murray in Sunday’s victory: a dazzling, imperfect playmaker who can steal a defense’s soul. That’s about as tough a game as the Falcons have had defensively this season. There was rust, especially on third downs, but Murray looked to be in good form and ready to take over for the remainder of the season. If Murray looks great, and it means the Cardinals win a few games down the stretch and cost themselves draft positioning, so be it. Getting Murray back into prime form trumps a few draft slots every day, including — and especially — on Sundays.
The cracks in the Patriots’ armor had been showing for a few years now, and some ugly and awkward incidents late last season appeared to portend the confluence of issues in 2023. The team released promising young CB Jack Jones amid strange circumstances. Mac Jones was benched late in the Germany loss, replaced by Bailey Zappe, who made a peculiar decision on the game-ending fake-spike pick. Two active wide receivers, Ty Montgomery and Jalen Reagor, played a combined one offensive snap against the Colts. The Pats crawled into the bye, jet-lagged and star-crossed, and it’s hard to imagine a fairytale ending here. What will New England look like down the stretch? Will it be any different?
They have seven more games, plus the bye week, to get through the season, and they’re pretty much backed into starting Tommy DeVito this week at the Commanders — and maybe beyond. Sunday’s pasting by the Cowboys came with the added sting of sideline bickering involving multiple offensive players, including Saquon Barkley. This is going to be Brian Daboll’s toughest challenge as the Giants coach so far, harder even than turning them into a contender and winning a playoff game last season. Washington and New England are two favorable opponents right now, all things considered, and the bye could help release more tension. But at the moment, after Xavier McKinney openly questioned the defensive coaches, it feels like stronger storms could hit at any time.
Last Thursday against the Bears was technically the low point for Bryce Young and the Panthers offensively — at least in terms of yards and first downs — which is a bit surprising because it felt so similar to previous Carolina games, save for the one Andy Dalton started. We know this team needs more playmakers. It’s clear the offensive line is not yet a finished product, or close to that. The run game has been sporadic. So there is plenty to consider in terms of upgrades in the offseason, including coaches. Everyone raved about Frank Reich’s staff hires last winter. Ideally, Young shows steady improvement over the next couple months — but if he doesn’t, you can bet there will be major changes around him.