In all my years either covering the NFL or, for a period of time, working for the league; a large number of promotional catchphrases have been rolled out. For example, the 2021 campaign has been dubbed 'The Biggest Season Ever.
Out of many, there has been one marketing slogan that has stuck with me for many a year and it warned us all to 'Expect the Unexpected.' That rung true once again on Sunday night as upsets were being pulled off all around the league on a dramatic Week 9 Sunday.
Seven days after a night for the backup quarterbacks, it was the turn of the written off clubs to rise up.
Denver marched to a 30-0 lead with six minutes remaining before the Dallas Cowboys scored twice late on to make things respectable. Even then, the Broncos 30-16 victory looked jarring. This was a Cowboys team that had only lost once all season long and was welcoming quarterback Dak Prescott back from injury.
Vic Fangio's defense had the upper hand from the moment they stuffed Ezekiel Elliott on an early fourth-and-one play. This was no fluke. Denver out-gained Dallas 407 yards to 290 and they held Prescott to 232 passing yards and a rating of 73.9, sacking him twice and coming up with an interception.
There were other surprising results as the evening unfolded. The New York Giants edged past the Las Vegas Raiders, the Atlanta Falcons beat the New Orleans Saints on a late Younghoe Koo field goal and I'm not sure many of us saw the Derrick Henry-absent Tennessee Titans rolling to a comfortable 28-16 win over the Rams in Los Angeles.
But the biggest shock of the night, for me, came in Jacksonville where the hometown Jaguars won a battle of field goals 9-6 against the previously high-flying Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo came into this contest as the number one scoring team in the NFL, racking up an average of 31.7 points per game. The Jags, on the other hand, were ranked 28th in points allowed; giving up 29 per outing.
Buffalo's Josh Allen headed into Week 9 off the back of five straight games in which he compiled a passer rating of 100 or above. But the other Josh Allen – Jacksonville's defensive end – had other ideas. In a battle to be the best Josh Allen in the NFL, Josh Allen recorded a sack of Josh Allen, intercepted Josh Allen and recovered a Josh Allen fumble.
Josh Allen had a career day. Josh Allen was amazing. Josh Allen also played pretty poorly and had a day to forget. Confused? Me too… let's move on!
Cleveland's Defense… Cleveland set the tone early in Sunday's 41-16 dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals as Denzel Ward stepped in front of a would-be touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase and took it 99 yards the other way for a score. The Browns made it their business to shut down the Burrow-to-Chase connection that had tormented defenses for the first seven weeks of this season. Burrow threw for just 282 yards, no touchdowns and was picked twice; both coming when targeting Chase, who was well covered all night long by the likes of Ward, Greg Newsome and John Johnson, also fumbled after a catch and was held to six catches for 49 yards. Cleveland's defensive front was also feisty, getting to Burrow and dropping him five times. Myles Garrett continues to play like a beast and his 1 ½ sacks now gives him an NFL-high 12 on the year. The Browns have endured some ups and downs this year but mark Sunday down as a good day at the office.
Jonathan Taylor… We shouldn't let the fact he played last Thursday night distract us. Few players in the NFL are in as great a form as the Indianapolis Colts running back, who rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns in Week 9's 45-30 thrashing of the New York Jets. Taylor is explosive and as good as they come at the running back position. And he is in historic form. Taylor became the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson in his NFL MVP season of 2006 to record six straight 100-yard scrimmage and one rushing touchdown days in the same campaign. If the Colts can keep riding Taylor, they are going to be in the AFC wild card race down the stretch.
Justin Herbert… I was watching the Los Angeles Chargers' young quarterback very closely as he took on the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. Herbert was effectively shut down by the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots in his previous two outings – both losses. The response was terrific as Herbert hit on 32 of 38 attempts for 356 yards. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another score and put the Chargers back on top of the AFC West and right in the middle of the AFC playoff race.
Sam Darnold… Carolina's quarterback is coming apart at the seams and Sunday was a reminder that he simply cannot match up against Bill Belichick and his wily defensive schemes. Darnold threw for just 172 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions in an ugly 24-6 loss. Darnold posted a quarterback rating of 26.3. I've been playing around with the passer rating formula in an attempt to see just how bad this outing was. Put it this way, if I had played quarterback for Carolina last night and thrown a total of 157 passes with 152 of them going straight into the ground and five more being intercepted, I would have the same rating of 26.3. Darnold has now been held to a passer rating under 70 in five straight games and Carolina have lost five of six. They are worse off than when Teddy Bridgewater was at the helm in 2020.
Jordan Love… All through his rookie campaign of 2020, we heard how Jordan Love was nowhere close to being ready to assume the role of full-time starter with the Green Bay Packers. That remains the case halfway through the 2021 campaign given what we saw on Sunday night as Love subbed for Aaron Rodgers. The young passer was simply not up to the task of handling the blitzes thrown his way by Steve Spagnuolo, completing 19 of 34 passes for 190 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Sunday's loss in Kansas City showed me that the Packers are going to contend the rest of the way – their defense played really well – and that Rodgers has plenty of leverage should he wish to negotiate a new deal to remain in Green Bay for 2022 and beyond. Based on Sunday, Packers fans need to hope that number 12 sticks around.
Kansas City's Offense… I think I might have actually come away from Sunday's win for Kansas City feeling better about the Packers, in the long term, than the Chiefs. The struggles are real for Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid's offense. They scored just one touchdown at home against a young quarterback in a game where they were gifted some excellent field position. Mahomes attempted 37 passes but those accounted for just 166 yards and he had a quarterback rating of 74.8. Importantly, there were no killer turnovers this week and that was key in a 13-7 win. But the explosive plays are gone and nothing looks easy right now. Neither Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill has enjoyed a 100-yard receiving day in the last five games, the running game support is sporadic and this does not look like a team built for a deep playoff run.
The Fast Five…
- This is not a good confession to make just days away from being asked to file another Power Rankings column, but I have no idea who the best team in the NFL is right now. I'm not sure I'll get much of an answer for quite some time. It is the most wide-open race I can recall. In the AFC alone there are 11 teams with a winning record. And over in the NFC, the likes of Green Bay, Dallas, the Rams, Tampa Bay and Arizona take turns in looking like the best outfit. It is a race of historic proportions.
- Placing Arizona last in that collection of NFC front-runners was for neat segue purposes and not meant as a sign of disrespect. I was massively impressed with Arizona's comfortable 31-17 win over San Francisco – a game played without Cardinals stars in quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Colt McCoy subbed efficiently and was helped by a running game that totalled 163 yards and a revitalised and dangerous James Conner, who touched the ball 26 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns, taking his tally to an NFL-high 11 scores on the season. Nothing is certain in today's NFL but these Cardinals appear deep, resilient and built to last.
- Look out Buffalo, the New England Patriots are coming! The Pats have now won three in a row and four of their last five, with their only defeat coming against the Dallas Cowboys in overtime. The basis of New England's run of form has been the running attack and a stout defense that comes up with plans to befuddle opposing quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis. But rookie quarterback Mac Jones is playing better and better as this season unfolds and tight end Hunter Henry is becoming a valuable red zone target with five touchdown catches in his last six games. Add Belichick's scheming to a roster growing in confidence and the Patriots are going to be very relevant in the coming months.
- The trade deadline may have passed and no one new is coming through the door any time soon, but Tua Tagovailoa's long-term cause in Miami is not being helped when he misses games through injury, as he did during Sunday's hard-to-watch 17-9 win over Houston. It just reinforces that message to management that the Tua era has never really been able to get going in South Florida. Maybe none of it matters. It certainly appears that the Dolphins' brass has made the decision to move on as they have indiscreetly courted Deshaun Watson for quite a few months now. Whether it is Watson or another option in 2022 remains to be seen, but it won't be Tua. That I feel quite confident about.
- The Tennessee Titans are just a tough, well-coached football team that can handle some adversity. And that is why they sit on top of the AFC rankings with a 7-2 record after a stunning victory on Sunday Night Football. With Derrick Henry out, the Titans rushed for 69 yards with no back gaining more than 29. Ryan Tannehill rarely got going in the passing game as he threw for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Yet the Titans beat the NFC-powerhouse Rams by 12 on the road. Jeffery Simmons (3 sacks) and Denico Autry (1 ½ sacks) caused mayhem up front and the secondary pounced with two game-changing picks of Matthew Stafford on back-to-back drives. This was one of the most impressive wins in the NFL this season. Good teams find ways to win games. The Titans are a good team… and then some!
Fact of the Week
The Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs all entered Week 9 without a winning record and defeated teams who were in first place in their respective divisions. That's the first time that has happened with that many teams on the same day across the NFL since December 18, 2011.
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 Andy (@andyat80) When Jason and Neil get together on a Sunday… we're going to have a good time! Like, a really good time! It was so much fun working in the Sky Sports NFL studios with Jason Bell in Week 9. I've long been a fan of J-Bell's work on the BBC and he brought everything I expected and more to our studios at Sky. I'm biased because Jason is a good friend but he is funny, energetic and an outstanding analyst. He was showing me so much to look out for during games and plays and I hope everyone enjoyed seeing him on our screens for a longer period of time. And the hours didn't wear my man out! We talked ball for eight hours of live TV and kept that chat going all the way through the car park before we went our separate ways to hit the road and catch some sleep. We're going to keep this thing rolling, so stay tuned. I already cannot wait for Sunday to come around.
From Jamie Garwood (@JamieGarwood) The number one seed in the AFC… will be impossible to predict for quite some time to come. I know that is a cop out of an answer, but you try predicting the top dog in a conference that features 11 teams with winning records at this midseason mark. That is the highest number of clubs with a winning record through Week 9 since the conferences were established following the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. All four teams have winning marks in the AFC North and it's the same in the AFC West. Buffalo's lead in the AFC East is down to half a game and the Titans are staking a claim to be top dog at 7-2. If forced into a pick, I would stick with my Super Bowl selection of Buffalo… but this is unlike anything I have ever seen and is going to be the ultimate race for glory.
From Lee Davies (@leedavies86) You know it's been a bad day at the office when…_ you catch the Arizona Cardinals without Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt and you still lose 31-17 in your own building in a game that was only made closer by the 10 points you scored in garbage time. You have to wonder if general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are feeling the heat in the midst of this 3-5 season. As soon as he is fully healthy, the reins to this offense might as well be passed over to rookie quarterback Trey Lance. We know what Jimmy Garoppolo has to offer and who he is… might as well see if the kid can play in what is shaping up as a lost season. Heaping further pressure on Shanahan will be that the failures are coming in front of his own fans. The Niners are 0-4 at home this season so if you factor in the pandemic and games being played behind closed doors, San Francisco have not won a contest in front of their own fans since the 2019 season NFC Championship Game on January 19, 2020.
There is never a dull moment when you're a fan of the Minnesota Vikings. Now, I cannot guarantee that it's always going to be good. But I can tell you that life will never be dull. The Vikings lost 34-31 in overtime to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, dropping their season record to 3-5. Minnesota have now been involved in seven contests decided by one score. They have a 2-5 record in those games. They have their strengths and their weaknesses, their ups and their downs. The Vikings are the perfect and often-frustrating example of the fine margins that exist when it comes to winning and losing in the NFL. No wonder head coach Mike Zimmer always seems to be in a bad mood.