Week 11 takeaways: Ravens' D up, Pats', Eagles' offenses down

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Twelve NFL games were played on Sunday. The team with the better record won 11 of them, with the born-again Atlanta Falcons proving the only exception. This was not a week to inspire a book of revelations; rather, it provided further clarity for stories that have been building. With that in mind, here are seven takeaways from Week 11:

1) The Ravens' defense is a problem for the AFC. It's obvious by now that the Ravens' offense is the toughest group to prepare for in football. (More on that below in the MVP Watch.) But if the Ravens' defense continues its incredible transformation, it will be safe to say the same about preparing for that unit.

Defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale was creative in manufacturing pressure early in the year, but the dramatic overhaul in personnel in the front seven did not take hold immediately. You can't replace Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley (who departed via free agency this offseason) overnight, and the players needed time to understand what Martindale wanted -- just as he needed time to find the right players. This was always going to be a difficult team to run against, with Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce clogging the middle. But the improved communication in the back end since trade acquisition Marcus Peters arrived, and the changes in personnel, have been dramatic. Four of the Ravens' 11 starters in Sunday's in Week 4 when they gave up a 40-burger to the Browns. Ten of the 26 total defensive players on the roster didn't play their first game with the team until at least Week 5, per The Athletic.

Other longtime veterans, like former cornerback Brandon Carr, who is now playing free safety, are taking on different roles. Jimmy Smith's snaps are limited because of Peters' presence, ideally keeping the veteran Smith fresh. The Ravens can afford to take risks with creative blitzes up front because of their experienced secondary, and because of a No. 1 scoring offense that limits turnovers and routinely goes on long drives. Since Week 7, Football Outsiders ranks the Ravens as the best offense and the best defense in the NFL.

If there's anything thing to worry about for Ravens fans, it's that the team is peaking now. This is the definition of a good problem. They'd be the favorites if the AFC playoffs started today, but a lot can change over the next six weeks.

2) There were no post-bye magic solutions for the Patriots' and Eagles' offenses. I'm not sure what I expected Bill Belichick and Doug Pederson to accomplish during their teams' Week 10 bye, but I didn't expect a game that featured 10 straight punts in the second half, as the Patriots' 17-10 win over the Eagles did Sunday. The Patriots' running game is still dead on arrival. Tom Brady is still being forced to give up on plays early because of pressure. The Eagles' passing attack still has no vertical element, and their endless stream of injuries at tackle continued, with Lane Johnson and Jason Peters getting hurt on Sunday. The Eagles' defense has played better over the last three games, but it can't carry this team quite like the Patriots' defense can.

The Patriots' playoff positioning at 9-1 dims the concern greatly. There is hope that replacing one of the league's worst left tackles (Marshall Newhouse) with 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn (who is expected to return from injured reserve next week) will pay immediate dividends. Sunday's road victory was also a big one for a Patriots team in the midst of a five-game stretch against opponents with winning records, beginning with the Ravens in Week 9 and ending with the Chiefs in Week 14. I believe New England needs to go 3-2 during that stretch to ensure a 10th straight playoff bye. After losing to Baltimore, they're 1-1, and the No. 1 seed is absolutely up for grabs, with the Ravens capable of running the table.

Tom Brady is frustrated that he's playing for the worst Patriots offense since 2001, with the team openly playing to its defense. There's still time to show progress, but they only looked more overmatched after the bye. When the Patriots require a pass from Julian Edelman to score a red-zone touchdown and a pass back to Tom Brady to attempt a vertical shot, it's clear Josh McDaniels is still searching for answers to the question: What does this offense do well?

3) The Rams' offense was different. Whether the Rams' offense is truly better won't be answered for a few weeks, but Sean McVay certainly tried a few new things in a key win over the Bears. It was enough, with the Rams' defense dominating another game against a lackluster opposing attack.

The most obvious change for the Rams came up front. Jared Goff had great protection all night against a good defense, in part because of the team's increase in play-action passing and max-protect schemes. Running back Todd Gurley found some big holes to run through early in the game, even if the Rams were overwhelmed in short-yardage situations. The Rams hit on a few vertical passes, although one 51-yard shot was called back due to an illegal formation penalty. A game that started with turnovers from Goff and Gurley and which included a stretch of five straight punts by Los Angeles can't be viewed as an unbridled success, but it was a step in the right direction. This is the best Rams defense of the McVay era, so I'm not ruling them out in the NFC race just yet, especially if they get receivers Robert Woods (who missed Sunday with a personal issue) and Brandin Cooks (who's been out since suffering a concussion in Week 8) back on the field. Then again ...

4) This is the wrong year to go 10-6 in the NFC. The Vikings' great escape against Denver and the 49ers' last-minute win against the Cardinals only further highlighted how tricky it will be to get one of the NFC's two wild-card spots, which the Vikings (8-3) and the Seahawks (8-2) are currently in line for. But both teams probably view 11-5 as the floor for their final record, meaning a 10-6 NFC wild-card hopeful will likely need tiebreaker assistance to get into the playoffs. And it's not like there is a deep pool of possible teams that could make a run.

Carolina's convincing loss Sunday dropped the Panthers to 5-5, a sobering reminder that quarterback Kyle Allen might have to overachieve to help this team even finish at .500. The Bears (4-6) are all but done. The Eagles (5-5) and the Cowboys (6-5) are probably battling for the one playoff spot afforded by the NFC East. With five NFC teams (the 9-1 49ers, Seahawks, 8-2 Packers, 8-3 Vikings and 8-2 Saints) all in contention for home-field advantage, there isn't a lot of room for lesser wild-card hopefuls. The 6-4 Rams will have to pull off some upsets against the Ravens, Seahawks and 49ers to even have a chance.

5) The Falcons could steamroll through the NFC South. Since halftime of their Week 8 game, when they put up 20 points in a loss to Seattle, the Falcons have outscored their opponents in that stretch (including the Seahawks, the Saints in a Week 10 win and the Panthers in a Week 11 triumph) by a combined score of 75-15. They haven't given up a touchdown in those 10 quarters. The switch of assistant Raheem Morris (whose coaching background is in defense) from receivers coach to secondary coach and third-down defensive play-caller earlier this month can't explain everything, although it sure seems to have helped.

The energy and tackling by Dan Quinn's group has proved contagious. The Falcons have 11 sacks in two games after having only seven in the first eight weeks. The return of cornerback Desmond Trufant, who's been out since Week 5 with a toe injury, on Sunday made a huge difference. Teams change during the season, and this was always a talented, underperforming group. Few plays in football are as pretty as a Matt Ryan rainbow under pressure, and the QB hit on a number of them to Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in Carolina.

After convincing road wins over the Saints and Panthers, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Falcons won five NFC South games in five weeks, with three straight home games coming up against the Bucs, Saints and Panthers. The Saints-Falcons game on Thanksgiving night in Atlanta looks especially dangerous for a Saints team trying to earn the NFC's No. 1 seed again.

The good news for Dan Quinn is that his team is fun to watch again, and he's not ending 2019 on a disastrous note. The bad news is that even eight straight wins probably wouldn't guarantee he's coming back as head coach next season.

6) Sunday's Panthers result was a reminder to take all Cam Newton reports with a grain of salt. Ron Rivera has done a terrific job coaching the Panthers this decade, but his defense is mediocre for a second straight year. He's never been able to solve Matt Ryan, who threw for 311 yards in Carolina's second straight loss. It's unclear if Rivera or GM Marty Hurney will be back next season, with owner David Tepper, who bought the team in 2018 with Rivera and Hurney already in place, still not having hired his guys. That's why I don't put much stock into Cam Newton speculation until January. How can we know if Newton -- who is on injured reserve with a foot injury and has not played since Week 2 -- has a chance to stay in Carolina as the quarterback if we don't know who is making that decision?

7) Sunday's results set up a big stretch run, starting in Week 12. This has been an NFL season of the haves and the have-nots. The stratification has led to a deep group of teams struggling to get to five wins, but it also results in so many of the power teams facing off down the stretch.

The 49ers alone still have the Packers, Ravens, Saints and Seahawks on the schedule. The three NFC West hopefuls (San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles) have a round robin left against each other. The Chiefs and Patriots play in Week 14, a week after the Vikings head to Seattle. The Texans could be leading the AFC South when they host the Patriots in Week 13, and the NFC East may come down to Week 16, when the Cowboys head to Philadelphia.

Before any of that happens, however, we have a potentially massive Week 12, which offers a chance for contenders to separate from each other. Packers-49ers will impact the races in the NFC North and West, and for the NFC's playoff byes. The Colts have a chance to sweep the Texans and take charge of the AFC South on Thursday Night Football. The Eagles have a soft December on paper, but they risk going under .500 if they can't wake up against the Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams risk losing contact in their division and wild-card race if they can't beat the Ravens on Monday Night Football. If the Cowboys could beat the Patriots on the road on Sunday, they'd be in decent shape to win the NFC East before even playing the Eagles again. The Saints would all but clinch the NFC South with a home win over the Panthers, although I'm handing them the division now anyway. You're welcome, Sean Payton.

After a relatively quiet Week 11 that went mostly according to plan, the big Week 12 slate feels like the unofficial start of the stretch run.

MVP Watch

1) Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks

2) Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

3) Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys

4) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

5) Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

I wrote last week that Wilson had a sizable lead with seven weeks to go in a race that usually sorts itself out after Thanksgiving. Lamar Jackson continuing to stack performances like the one he had Sunday against the Texans, however, is exactly the recipe for making this a two-man competition.

There's nothing quite like the Ravens' offense when it gets rolling downhill. Baltimore can go from posting a scoreless first quarter to Jackson sitting out the final 9:56 of the game, and it's all because of Lamar's ability to make his teammates better and his opponents worse. The Ravens escaping long-yardage situations like third-and-16 Sunday, in addition to all of Jackson's runs to the sideline where he isn't tackled at all, further destroys preseason tropes about how much he can run and what the Ravens will do when they aren't ahead in the down. There's a significant gap in these rankings between the top two and the rest of the field.

UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

Every week, the Saints' opponent knows that Thomas is the team's only true threat at receiver. Every week, Thomas piles up an outrageous stat line, like he did Sunday in Tampa, with eight catches, 114 yards and a touchdown. Thomas's record-setting pace -- he's up to 94 catches and 1,141 yards in 10 games -- is doubly impressive because he's part of a deeply diminished Saints passing attack. Despite his incredibly high volume, Thomas is somehow more efficient than ever, averaging a career-high 10 yards per target. No wideout has a higher catch percentage, and he's third in the NFL in share of total air yards. The Saints' passing attack would be lost without him.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Ravens pass rusher Matthew Judon is doing his best to live up to the legacy of Ravens edge rushers who parlay a huge contract year into a huge free-agency deal. He lived in the Texans' backfield Sunday. After a few quiet games to start his Rams career, I loved watching cornerback Jalen Ramsey ending multiple drives with physical play on Sunday night.

Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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