The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 10: What to panic about -- and what not to

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 10 to Week 11.

Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick are fond of saying that the NFL season doesn't start until after Thanksgiving. For the upstart Los Angeles Rams and the rest of the teams that make up this crowded NFC playoff picture, that schedule is getting moved up a week this season.

The upcoming Week 11 clash between the Rams and Vikings -- two surprise 7-2 teams -- kickstarts a frantic stretch for Rams coach Sean McVay's crew, which will face the other four best teams in the NFC in a span of five weeks: at Minnesota in Week 11, vs. New Orleans in Week 12, vs. Philadelphia in Week 14 and at Seattle in Week 15. An organization whose onfield product has mostly been ignored or gawked at nationally since the middle of the last decade will be at the very center of the NFL universe for the next five weeks.

It's not that these Rams haven't been tested -- they have wins in Dallas and Jacksonville. But they're stepping up in class for the most high-profile Rams games since Mike Martz was the coach, Lovie Smith was the defensive coordinator and Georgia Frontiere was the team's owner. It's been a while.

The Rams score in bunches against sagging teams, embarrassing the Cardinals, Giants and Texans over the last three games by a combined score of 117-24. The defense, led by a burgeoning Defensive Player of the Year campaign from Aaron Donald and a ballhawking secondary, is getting that Wade Phillips boost. Now it's time to find out if this is just a great regular-season story or a team that could be playing in Minneapolis for a second time in February.

After a deeply unlucky regular season thus far, at least the Football Gods are showing mercy with the closing-stretch schedule in the NFC. The Rams' gauntlet is extreme but not atypical for this year's best teams. Consider these upcoming slates:

-- New Orleans Saints: The team's Week 12 showdown in Los Angeles -- which the NFL should absolutely flex to prime time (#FlexNOLA) -- starts a three-game stretch that includes games against the Panthers and Falcons. New Orleans has only a half-game lead over the the surging Panthers and two games left against Atlanta, meaning the NFC South is far from decided. As great as this reborn Saints defense has been, it hasn't been tested by a true offensive powerhouse since the Patriots in Week 2.

-- Seattle Seahawks: Over the next six weeks, the NFC's best team of the decade faces Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Rams at home while traveling to Jacksonville and Dallas. Following the season-ending ruptured Achilles suffered by cornerback Richard Sherman, no outcome for this Seahawks season would be truly surprising. Russell Wilson could carry them on the way to an MVP award, or they could slip right out of a deep NFC playoff picture because of this schedule.

-- Philadelphia Eagles: Will their season finale against the Cowboys even matter for seeding or the division title? Not if the Eagles prove to be road warriors with games in Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles before that.

-- Minnesota Vikings: After hosting the Rams on Sunday, the Vikings face three consecutive road games against NFC teams in the playoff mix, including their Thanksgiving game in Detroit and trips to Atlanta and Carolina.

In short, this fascinating NFC season is just about to start, with Weeks 11-14 particularly crowded with conference-shifting matchups. You don't even have to wait for Thanksgiving.

Now let's take a look back at which developments from Week 10 are cause for concern and which are no big deal:

Don't panic

1) The Titans' lack of pizzazz. My wise colleague Marc Sessler said on our Week 10 recap episode of "The Around the NFL Podcast" that he couldn't remember a team on a four-game winning streak that excited him less than the 2017 Titans. It's a fair criticism. The fighting Mularkeys trailed at home late on "Monday Night Football" against the Colts. They beat the Browns, Ravens and Bengals by a combined 10 points. They are 6-3 but rank below average in Football Outsiders' DVOA, and it feels like the team has underachieved because its bedrock running game tastes vanilla.

But there were great signs of progress on Sunday. Marcus Mariota's healed hamstring opened up the offense, with the quarterback rushing for 51 yards. The team held the ball for over 40 minutes and had 27 first downs. DeMarco Murray hasn't looked right all season, but their running game was better than it had been since Week 3. The defense has been far better over the last month, albeit against shaky competition. If not for a few fluky plays, the Titans would have won in a rout.

Tennessee is in an enviable position, with a strong record and room for improvement. Consider it a good thing that expectations have been raised so much for an organization that won only five games between 2014 and '15.

2) Leonard Fournette's disappearing act. The Jaguars racked up the most yards in a two-game stretch in franchise history during the two games the No. 4 overall pick was out. Fournette returned to average under 2 yards per carry against the Chargers while watching most of the fourth quarter from the sideline. Fantasy owners shouldn't freak out, though: His usage rate and snap count were consistent with what they've been over the entire year.

Jacksonville's staff learned once again Sunday about the dangers of putting too much on Blake Bortles. After an 11-play touchdown drive that only included Bortles passes, the team's fourth-year quarterback melted down against the Chargers down the stretch. This followed up 11 straight solid quarters of Bortles climbing a hill of dependability before tumbling down the other side. The Jaguars somehow won despite Bortles throwing two picks, while trailing, in the final two minutes of regulation. (NFL Research confirmed this has never happened for a winning team before, with data going back to 2000.)

After this setback for Bortles, it's clear that, while the Jaguars need to do a better job finding room for Fournette (via the offensive line and play-calling), Fournette is going to be the centerpiece of this offense, through good times and bad.

3) Sammy Watkins slipping into a supporting role. Receiver Sammy Watkins was frustrated in early October about his small role on the Rams' offense. He has only seven catches on 14 targets in his four games since making comments to that effect, yet he's singing a different tune.

"I have Rob [Woods] and Cooper Kupp. Everything is not on me," he said Sunday via the Orange County Register. "I've got the line. I'm surrounded by so many guys on this team that can make plays."

Watkins still talks like a guy who sees himself as a true No. 1 receiver, but his stay in Los Angeles could change that perception. He's the fourth leading receiver on the team, with Woods making more big plays and now 250 yards ahead of Watkins on the season. Being a role player won't be good for Watkins' free agency value this offseason, but it's just fine for the Rams.

4) Devonta Freeman's uncertain status. If Falcons running back Devonta Freeman misses the Week 11 installment of "Monday Night Football" after suffering a concussion, it will end the second-longest active starting streak among running backs at 30 games. (The incomparable Frank Gore is first ... at 102 straight starts.)

It's a disappointing blow for the Falcons offense, which played efficiently while beating Dallas. Tevin Coleman did a nice job, however, filling in as the primary back and keeping the offense on schedule with chain-moving runs. He is more than capable of filling the role of primary back for a week or more, even with a tough matchup this week in Seattle.

Some panic is acceptable

1) The Bills' run defense. It's not just how much the Saints ran on the Bills on Sunday, it's where they ran. On play after play, New Orleans gashed Buffalo right up the gut of their defense. By the time Saints fullback Zach Line rumbled for 9 yards up the middle during a streak of 24 straight Saints runs, the hyped (ahem) Bills defense of 2017 had been essentially laid to rest on the field.

It was as if the Bills were awestruck by the Saints' firepower during their 298-yard rushing performance. The Saints had their offensive line fully healthy for nearly the first time all season. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are the most dynamic 1-2 punch in the league. Kamara broke two tackles to turn a routine third-and-long swing pass into a fourth-and-1 that coach Sean Payton aggressively went for. Ingram blasted over defenders on the ensuing short-yardage run for a 25-yard gain down to the 5-yard line.

No matter how much credit the Saints deserve, however, the Bills' defense giving up 81 points and 492 rushing yards in a two-week span is demoralizing because a tough-minded defense was the bedrock of its identity. That these performances came directly after Bufalo traded away defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who had an excellent game as a run-stuffer in Jacksonville on Sunday, makes them more painful.

2) The Chargers' special teams woes. One of the keys for any new coaching hire: What kind of staff can he put together? Chargers coach Anthony Lynn got plenty of credit for retaining offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and hiring defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, but the hire of special teams coordinator George Stewart might have sunk this Los Angeles season. Stewart hasn't coached special teams since 1999, and it has showed. The team was ranked dead last in special teams DVOA before giving up a fake punt touchdown Sunday (on a play that Jacksonville had run before), and before a poor punting day that included multiple bone-headed penalties. There will be many ways to examine the autopsy of this disappointing Chargers campaign, but the Bolts would probably be 6-3 instead of 3-6 if they'd had even average special teams.

It's a shame, because the Chargers are wasting a truly special season from Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa as a pass-rushing duo, who would both be among my top 10 defensive players in football. They outplayed the vaunted Jaguars pass rush Sunday. While the Chargers offense was far from great, it outplayed the Jaguars' offense. The special teams made the difference in the Chargers' loss.

3) Washington's precarious position. In a muddled NFL season, the Redskins are the rare team that has played better than its record. They have overachieved, especially on defense, and have been hit with poor luck with injuries and during games. Now 4-5, Washington is heading to New Orleans on Sunday. The schedule eases up considerably after that, but this feels like a last-stand type of game for a Redskins team that just hasn't been able to find a running game.

4) Miami's season. The Dolphins were the shakiest 4-2 team in football three weeks ago and are now the shakiest 4-5 team after allowing 45 points on Monday night to the Panthers. It shouldn't surprise anyone, probably including Dolphins coach Adam Gase, if they finish as the league's shakiest 6-10 team. Gase called this the "worst offense in the league" and now the defense can't get a stop either. They were ranked 31st in overall DVOA before their 24-point loss Monday.

Cam Newton and the Panthers' coaching staff deserve credit for making Newton's rushing ability the centerpiece of its offense again over the last two weeks, and 495 team rushing yards has been the result. Miami's lack of tackling and inability to get off blocks will be difficult to stomach in the film room. After a season and a half with Gase, this Dolphins team is still looking for some part of the team to build around, to be excited about beyond Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh's golden years. Monday night showed how much this team needs.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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