As per normal in this wildest of NFL seasons, many minutes spent talking about the offenses of the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs meant it was the defenses that took centre stage in Week 11.
I think we could be forgiven for talking about the likes of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in the Sky Sports studio, but it was Kansas City's defenders who shone the brightest in Sunday's 19-9 win at Arrowhead Stadium.
Dallas came into the contest leading the NFL in yards per game (433.9) and points per game (31.6) but they were stifled from start to finish by a ferocious and fired up Kansas City defense that is heading in the right direction at exactly the right time of the year.
The Chiefs sacked Prescott five times with Chris Jones leading the way with three and a half takedowns. They also picked off Dallas' MVP-chasing quarterback twice, held the Cowboys to just 82 rushing yards and flew to the football to break up multiple passes downfield.
It was a dominant display that headlined what has been steady improvement from Steve Spagnuolo's group. Over the past four weeks – all wins – the Chiefs have given up just 11.8 points per game and held every opponent under 20 points. Kansas City were giving up an average of 29 points per game during the first seven weeks of the season.
Now, we will need to see if that defensive form holds. The defense-led wins came against a New York Giants team missing the likes of Saquon Barkley and Kadarius Toney, the Green Bay Packers minus Aaron Rodgers, the Las Vegas Raiders who were dealing with multiple issues and the Cowboys, who were without left tackle Tyron Smith and star receiver Amari Cooper. They also lost CeeDee Lamb at halftime after he hit his head on the ground following a poorly-thrown Prescott pass that was picked off in the end zone.
Kansas City played well at all three levels of the defense and that is to be applauded and monitored closely because they can get back to the very top of the pile in a wide-open AFC. But I also think the defensive dominance distracted from what was another so-so performance from the Chiefs offense.
Patrick Mahomes threw for 260 yards, was sacked three times and intercepted once. He did not throw a touchdown pass, although the Chiefs found the end zone twice and that was more than enough to see off Dallas.
I happen to think both these teams have the pedigree and firepower to go deep into the playoffs. Dallas are going to be okay – they just need to do what a lot of squads have to do at this time of the year… hang in there for dear life until the injuries clear up and a healthy line-up can return for the postseason.
Jonathan Taylor… It's time to move the star rusher from the Indianapolis Colts into the MVP conversation. And why not? There is not a single player in the league hotter than Jonathan Taylor and all the quarterbacks who should be in the mix are up and down. Quarterbacks have taken home this prestigious prize for the past eight seasons but running backs have won a few times down the years, the most recent being Adrian Peterson in 2012 – a year when he rushed for 2,097 yards and scored 13 total touchdowns. Taylor racked up 204 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns during Sunday's 41-15 thrashing of the Bills in Buffalo. He already has 1,444 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns with six games remaining. Blessed with great vision, movement skills and explosive speed, Taylor is the complete package and the driving force of a revitalised Colts team. And that makes him the MVP front-runner in my book.
Philadelphia's rushing attack… The Eagles have crept back into the NFC playoff race with three wins from their last four games. As has been the case for much of the past month, Philadelphia's 40-29 victory over the New Orleans Saints was built on the foundation of a strong running game. The Eagles ran the ball 50 times for 242 yards and three scores and had three players gain more than 60 yards on the ground. Jalen Hurts put up relatively pedestrian numbers as a thrower (147 yards, no touchdowns, no picks) but was unstoppable on the ground as he carried 18 times for 69 yards and three touchdowns. He is the NFL's best running quarterback outside of Lamar Jackson. The Eagles have now topped 200 yards rushing in three games this season – and in each of those contests they have not had a 100-yard rusher, pointing to strength in depth in the backfield. Philly have averaged 217.5 rushing yards per game in the past month and a win at the New York Giants next week will see them climb back to .500 at 6-6. They are very much alive in the NFC postseason picture.
Justin Herbert… That was some performance by the Los Angeles Chargers' young quarterback on Sunday Night Football. He threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and also showed his tremendous athleticism by rushing for 90 yards. But what was most impressive to me was how Herbert didn't blink in the face of adversity. The second-year passer helped the Chargers build a 27-10 lead late in the third and a 34-20 advantage midway through the fourth. But after a blocked punt and tipped pass interception contributed to the Steelers scoring the next 17 points to lead 37-34 with 3:24 remaining, Herbert simply strapped on his helmet and got back to work. His game-winning strike to Mike Williams covered 53 yards and was just one of many throws from LA's superstar that were A-list all the way!
Offenses I built up last week… In Week 10's 'Who's Hot' section, I included the offenses of the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. I've already spoken about the offensive problems of the first two teams, so let's focus on Buffalo here. Josh Allen took too many chances with the football as this game started to slip away from the Bills and he ended up getting intercepted twice. It could have been more on a poor day. I understand this game got out of hand, but Matt Breida was Buffalo's busiest running back with five carries. Sunday was not the first time the Bills have ignored the men in their backfield. The Bills were on home soil, in familiar weather conditions (albeit poor ones) and could only muster 307 total yards and 22 minutes of time of possession. That was a worrying display that showed some desperation creeping into Allen's game.
Russell Wilson… In his two games back since returning from a finger injury, Russell Wilson looks like he came back too soon. Seattle's Hall of Fame-bound quarterback looks anything but. After being shut out in Green Bay, Wilson could only lead the Seahawks to 13 points in a 23-13 home loss to Arizona. He did not throw a touchdown pass as Seattle fell to 3-7 on a difficult season. Wilson looks indecisive and late on some throws, but he has also been poorly protected as he was sacked four times on Sunday night. The NFC is wide open but it feels like a run bordering on the miraculous is going to be needed to get the Seahawks an invite to the postseason party. I think we're seeing the final days of both Wilson and Pete Carroll in Seattle.
Thanksgiving Day teams… I'll have four bottles of wine to wash down my Thanksgiving Day dinner on Thursday night, please. All six teams playing on the most American of national holidays lost in Week 11 but I'm still hoping we'll have a good night watching the Chicago Bears visit the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys host the Las Vegas Raiders and the Buffalo Bills heading to New Orleans to take on the Saints. I'll be looking for immediate and positive responses, especially in the latter two games as all four teams there are still in the playoff picture. Dan Campbell appears to have the Lions playing hard, at least, and let's hope Justin Fields is fit enough to play because the Bears' rookie is fun to watch.
The Fast Five
- The Arizona Cardinals sat quarterback Kyler Murray and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the third game in a row on Sunday, but they still marched to an impressive 10-point road win in Seattle. The Cards have gone 2-1 without their two star offensive performers and those victories can be attributed to the form of backup quarterback Colt McCoy and an aggressive defense. McCoy threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns to help Arizona to an NFL-best 9-2 record. With Zach Ertz getting up to speed at tight end, the Cardinals are going to be dangerous once their stars come back to the fore.
- The Minnesota Vikings leaned heavily on their offensive stars in winning a 34-31 shootout with the Green Bay Packers in Week 11. And if that remains the formula for the remainder of 2021, this hot and cold team is very much alive at 5-5. The Packers stifled Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, but they could not handle Kirk Cousins as he threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Dalvin Cook had 115 scrimmage yards, a touchdown and a two-pointer, while Adam Thielen caught eight passes for 82 yards and a score. But the star who shone the brightest was second-year receiver Justin Jefferson. He was unplayable as he caught eight for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
- The Cleveland Browns got back to winning ways on Sunday, but it was hardly a cause for celebration. In moving to 6-5 on the year, the Browns recorded an ugly 13-10 home win over the lowly Lions. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is banged up and it is being reflected in a poor run of form. He threw for just 176 yards in Week 11 and was picked off twice. Mayfield stormed off the field at the end of the game and refused to speak with the media. That's hardly going to ease the pressure, Baker. When you speak to the media you are, in essence, communicating with the fans. And it's not a good look if the franchise quarterback doesn't want to speak to either.
- I think the story of his football life is told every time Taylor Heinicke throws downfield or puts his body on the line with a gutsy run. He was jettisoned and out of the game this time last year, but Washington's quarterback now plays with the freedom and joy of knowing he has been given another shot to live out his dream. Heinicke threw for 206 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 27-21 win over Carolina, adding 29 yards on six carries. Washington have now won back-to-back games to move to 4-6. With Seattle up next, the Football Team can climb back into this thing, especially with Heinicke providing timely emotional sparks.
- The formula is firmly in place for the San Francisco 49ers. For the second week in a row, the Niners were victorious. And, once again, the ball was pretty much taken out of Jimmy Garoppolo's hands and given to the running backs. For the second week in a row, the 49ers ran the ball more than 40 times. They carried 42 times for 171 yards and one touchdown in a 30-10 beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars. San Francisco ran 33 of the game's first 37 plays and never looked back. A reduced passing role is actually helping Jimmy G. For the second game in succession, he was efficient in completing 16 of 22 for 176 yards, two scores and no picks. At 5-5, add the Niners to the list of 'they're very much alive' teams in the NFC.
Fact of the Week
The New England Patriots are now top of the AFC East with a 7-4 record after Thursday's 25-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Pats have now won five games in a row by an average scoreline of 35-10. During their winning streak, New England have allowed just 10 points per game. They have intercepted 12 passes while allowing only four touchdown throws.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Aaron Veale (@aaronveale7) Micah Parsons will be… The NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 but he should also receive serious consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year prize as well. He is not only one of the best young players in the NFL, he's already one of the league's best players. Period! Parsons was a star at Arrowhead in Week 11, recording two sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble while drawing special praise from Patrick Mahomes. What stuns me with Parsons is the versatility and the ability to make plays all over the field. Dallas heap a lot on his young shoulders and he responds. Heading into Week 11, Parsons was the only defender in the NFL to rush the passer on more than 100 snaps and drop into coverage on more than 100 snaps. I cannot wait to see how the career of this young star unfolds.
From @clivepack The Super Bowl will be between… the AFC champion and the NFC champion. That's all I know right now. I have a feeling the AFC is still going to come down to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. The Bills have been my pick to win it all since I wrote my annual preview magazine in the summer. But that home loss to the Colts has me worried. I think the Chiefs can get on a run on the AFC side of the draw, but look out for dangerous dream-wreckers such as the Colts and Chargers. The NFC is just as hard to predict. The Bucs, Rams and Packers all have the pedigree to go on runs, but it is time we gave the Arizona Cardinals some serious respect. If you pushed me right now, I would lean towards Dallas or Tampa to get healthy and figure things out. You can genuinely make a Super Bowl case for about 10 teams at the moment and you would not get an argument from me. It's all up for grabs and no one can be trusted to go on the sort of run required to reach the Super Bowl.
From James McDougal (@JamesMcDougal) There have been so many upsets in the last few weeks because… as much as we sometimes poke fun at struggling teams like the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and New York Jets, the talent levels are spread so much across the league that even the lowliest of teams can rise up on their day. Even the Lions almost won in Pittsburgh two Sundays ago. Parity is exactly what the NFL has been seeking through the salary cap and the NFL Draft. This season is playing out just about as well as the league could have possibly imagined. It's a far cry from the late 1980s and early 1990s when the San Francisco 49ers were winning Super Bowls with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young backing up Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. To put that into today's NFL standards, that was a bit like Aaron Rodgers backing up Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes! Coaching also matters on a week-to-week basis, as do injuries. Put that all into the mix and you have a recipe for the kind of surprising Sundays we have seen all season long.
If you missed the first 90 seconds of our Sky Sports pre-game show on Sunday, you would have missed me tempting fate as I read out the night's fixtures. At the bottom of the first page, I noted that Houston had lost eight in a row and were facing a Titans team that had won seven in a row. I quickly corrected myself and joked that I had already written the Texans off and given the win to Tennessee, who had actually won six in succession heading into Sunday. So, of course, the Texans went out and played the game of their season behind the bravery of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. I need to make two apologies here. Sorry to the Houston Texans for handing you a loss before you had even stepped onto the field. And sorry to the Titans for tempting fate and putting the mockers on your winning run. Houston's 22-13 win was a reminder of the very thing I was just talking about. The lowest of teams can rise up to take down the biggest contenders in the game.