Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 11 to Week 12.
The offensive revolution televised throughout this wild 2018 season reached its apex Monday night on a dewy Los Angeles night, showing any late arrivals to the party how much the NFL has changed. The Rams' 54-51 win over the Chiefs was our State of the Union.
This was the type of night the league could only dream of when enacting rule change after rule change favoring the offense. Andy Reid and Sean McVay continued to blend college concepts with NFL talent, throwing away so many crusty coaching cliches like establishing the run in an ultra-aggressive display of passing bravado.
It's not that defense has no place in this new world order. Anyone complaining about the lack of defense Monday night must have missed the eight sacks, seven punts, seven turnovers and three defensive scores. There were monster games by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Chiefs defensive end Justin Houston and Rams surprise star linebacker Samson Ebukam, who scored more touchdowns than Todd Gurley and Kareem Hunt combined.
Expectations for what good defense looks like in this new era, however, should be adjusted. The few cranks moaning about how football used to be ignore that football has always been about evolution and adjustment, that the highest scoring game in NFL history is still a 72-41 rout of the Giants by the Redskinsin 1966.
The Rams' narrow victory qualifies as the league's third-highest-scoring game ever, a mark that might not stand for long if NFL owners overseeing defensive-minded squads espousing field position and time of possession start looking more intelligently for the next Sean McVay or Andy Reid. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy this season with Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Jared Goff leading the way because the sport's metamorphosis is enlivening, because there's no telling where it goes from here.
Before taking an updated look at the MVP race and a trip around the rest of the league below, let's hit on six more takeaways from Monday night's instant classic.
Jared Goff is incredible at shaking off his bad plays: Despite the final score, there were moments Monday night when the Rams' offense appeared shook. Sean McVay had burned all three timeouts with 4:56 still left in the game. Four of the Rams' six possessions in the fourth quarter (not counting their kneel-down) gained a total of 1 yard, with three punts and a fumble. The Chiefs' pass rush actually did a good job disrupting Goff's rhythm by hitting him seven times and sacking him five times, leading to two fumbles and a handful of uncharacteristic misses.
Yet when the Rams got the ball with 2:47 left and no timeouts, touchdown or bust, Goff delivered with no trouble, like it was the first quarter of some preseason game, if Goff bothered to play in the preseason. Goff's 40-yard game-winner to Gerald Everett was a beauty, but I was even more impressed by Goff delivering a third-and-9 strike earlier in the drive just one snap after the QB nearly threw the game away on a pass defended by Orlando Scandrick. Still just 24 years old, Goff appears to have the short-term memory of a shutdown cornerback.
Sean McVay was going to go down swinging: McVay has occasionally taken his foot off the gas pedal this season, running on some third-and-long plays with a big lead. That's partly why I liked McVay's decision to throw the ball three straight times on the Rams' final possession before punting. McVay knew that one first down won the game, so he tried to get that first down the same way he called plays the whole night. He's going to live or die with his passing game. One of the passes fell incomplete, saving the Chiefs a timeout and causing Twitter outrage that Gurley wasn't involved, but running the ball there would have been accepting a punt. Speaking of which ...
In the new NFL, the running game is a complementary piece: It's possible for both of the following things to be true: Todd Gurley is an exceptional player and Todd Gurley is not an MVP candidate. Monday night's game highlighted how the passing game is used to set up the run in the Rams' and Chiefs' offenses, not the other way around. Since neither team could establish control of the game for long, the running games weren't used much.
The Chiefs have enough defensive playmakers: This might be a hard lesson for Chiefs fans to swallow after giving up 54 points, but Kansas City's defensive front had more playmakers than the opposition Monday night. The same will be true most weeks. With Justin Houston back in top form -- he made a number of plays against Rams stalwart tackle Andrew Whitworth -- the Chiefs have an incredibly disruptive trio upfront in Houston, Chris Jones and Dee Ford.
In this new NFL, the Chiefs don't need to hold their opponents under 25. They just need to make a handful of game-changing plays and they did so Monday night. Forcing two turnovers and four punts against the Rams should be enough to win. The numbers and final score got skewed because both defenses scored and the Chiefs' offense turned the ball over five times, allowing the Rams to log 15 possessions.
Patrick Mahomes is the new NFL personified: Mahomes would like to have a few throws back from Monday's game and he needs to work on his ball security, but he was still the most electric player on a field full of them. Mahomes showed off his entire skill set, from his incredible touch and body control to his ability to see the field to his strike to Tyreek Hill that traveled 60 yards in the air. It's scary to think how much better Mahomes, who's started just 12 games, can get because he's already one of the most dynamic quarterbacks the league has ever seen.
The race for home-field advantage in both conferences just got more complicated:Saints fans should be disappointed in Monday's result. New Orleans has one loss like the Rams, but the Saints have a trickier schedule down the stretch with three games left against winning teams: one against the Steelers and two versus the Panthers. The Rams only face one team with a winning record the rest of the way, a Sunday night trip to Chicago.
In the AFC, Kansas City's defeat provides a lot more hope for the Steelers, Patriots, Chargers and even Texans that they can pass the Chiefs in the standings. Those five teams are only one game apart in the loss column. This result, in short, adds a lot more intrigue to the rest of the season in both conferences, especially in forthcoming AFC matchups like Chargers-Steelers, Patriots-Steelers and Chargers-Chiefs.
1) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: I thought Brees' performance against the Eagles was his best of the season and lesser football minds like NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah agree.
3) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: Two strip-sacks on the biggest stage imaginable should practically lock up the Defensive Player of the Year award.
4) Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams:I'm not sure how a No. 1 overall pick quarterback of a 10-1 team is underrated, but it sure feels like Goff is underrated.
5) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints: 82 catches on 91 targets is one of the most staggering stats I've ever seen, especially if you watch the types of catches Thomas makes on a weekly basis.
Things we know after Week 11
Lamar Jackson is like no one we've ever seen: I don't know if the Ravens can run Jackson 27 times again, but watching them try this approach at quarterback has immediately become one of my favorite storylines of the 2018 season. In a copycat league, it's refreshing to see an offense this different, highlighting such a unique skill set.
Most of the discussion after the Ravens' win over the Bengals, including some crusty comments from Marvin Lewis, centered on Jackson's staying power instead of amazement about what he and his teammates accomplished. In an NFL where third-and-1 has stupidly turned into a passing down, the Ravens repeatedly turned third-and-5 into a running down with their quarterback. It worked.
Jackson's burst is breathtaking and the offensive line was clearly having a great time. Watching Jackson's college tape, I thought he should be the best running quarterback to enter the league since Michael Vick, and Sunday's game only supported that notion. It's worth noting that Jackson also averaged 7.9 yards per attempt throwing the ball, making key conversions on a second-and-17 and two third-and-long strikes on the team's go-ahead scoring drive.
The wide receiver crew must buy in to this approach. Michael Crabtree and John Brown combined for just two catches, while Willie Snead blew up at the coaching staff after a few called red-zone runs. But those are problems for Ravens staffers and fans to worry about. As a non-invested observer, I am fascinated to watch what Jackson does against an inviting slate of upcoming defenses, starting with the Raiders in Week 12. Everyone except Joe Flacco should just enjoy this ride.
The Falcons are wasting a vintage year from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones: Atlanta's latest heartbreaking loss at home was a reminder that football isn't all about the quarterback. Ryan played one of his best games in one of his best seasons and gave the Falcons a decisive edge over the Cowboys at the position, but Dallas' line play on both sides of the ball carried the day. Ryan and Julio have been forced to overcome a poor offensive line, poorer crunch-time defense and a one-dimensional attack that doesn't trust the running game in crucial situations.
In a typical Cowboys game that limited possessions -- the Falcons had eight -- the difference was rookie Calvin Ridley's drop that turned into an interception. It's been that kind of year for Ryan, who has seen his defense give up a last-minute score to blow three different games this year. It seems doubly cruel for all these games to happen in front of the tortured Atlanta faithful, who have to worry about a Thanksgiving trip to New Orleans and a potential Saints return visit to Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
The Saints don't need Brandon Marshall: Kicking the tires on Dez Bryant was worth a shot, but it's harder to see where Marshall fits on this Saints offense. Sunday's explosion by rookie Tre'Quan Smith, who made some contested catches reminiscent of Marques Colston, continues a growing trend of supporting Saints players getting into the mix. Fellow rookie Keith Kirkwood, a Drew Brees favorite, has five catches for 78 yards over the last two weeks. Tight end Dan Arnold has combined for four catches and 50 yards in that span.
Seeing Marshall finally make an appearance on a playoff team would be a great story to cap an underrated career, but I'm not entirely convinced he'll still be around to be on the Saints' active playoff roster.
The Vikings' offense is worse than it was a year ago: Minnesota had the fifth-most efficient offense in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders; they were 14th this seasonbeforeSunday night's no-show in Chicago. I'd argue that Kirk Cousins has given them superior quarterback play to what Case Keenum provided last year, but nearly everything else about the Vikings' offense has taken a nosedive: offensive line play, the running game and play calling.
Mike Zimmer's formula only works if he has a truly elite defense -- and that side of the ball has also taken a step back this season. This Sunday night's matchup between the Vikings and Packers involves two teams still searching to find their way and running out of time to do so.
Things we don't know after Week 11
Alex Smith's future: I can't remember another No. 1 overall pick who felt like such an underdog, but that's what Smith became after the ugly start to his career in San Francisco. It took all of one nasty rookie season for most analysts and fans to give up on him. He trudged through five more years in San Francisco after that until Jim Harbaugh arrived, surviving a devastating shoulder surgery that forced him to miss 2008 and struggle to keep his job over guys like Trent Dilfer, Troy Smith and Shaun Hill.
This is not an obituary for Smith's career, but it's hard not to feel for him after the gruesome leg injury he suffered against the Texans. The Redskins owe Smith $15 million guaranteed next season, but his contract could force an unfortunate early decision on his future. Smith's 2020 salary is guaranteed if he's on the roster on the fifth day of the league year in March, so Washington may have to make a long-term decision about his future while he's still early in his recovery process.
In the meantime, the team will try to make the playoffs under Colt McCoy, with newly signed Mark Sanchez backing him up. Jay Gruden has kept McCoy on the roster five straight seasons for a moment like this and there's every reason to believe McCoy will handle it fine. He looked sharp and decisive after replacing Smith on Sunday. It's the rest of the Redskins' offense -- from the banged-up offensive line to the ramshackle wideout group -- that's a bigger concern. (Although I still wouldn't count out the Redskins in a deeply flawed division.)
If the Bears really have the NFL's best defense: Smarter football writers than myself say that the Bears have the best defense in the league and by a wide margin. Some analytics like DVOA have them at No. 1, as well. The larger question is whether the "best defense in the NFL" is a moniker any team should want because basically every "best defense in the NFL" has been exposed shortly after getting the tag over the last two years. (Remember the "No. 1 scoring defense" in Tennessee before it was gashed on Sunday?)
The Bears have faced one of the easiest slates of opposing offenses and that won't change in the next two weeks against the Lions and Giants. Chicago's group was only solid, not spectacular, when facing a top offense like the Patriots'. This group, from Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack to an underrated group of linebackers to Eddie Jackson's excellent work at safety, has playmakers at every level. But I'm eager to see how the Bears' defense handles the Rams in Week 14 because that's the type of offense-first team Chicago will have to deal with in order to win a Super Bowl this year. The great offenses this season feel historic. The top defenses, like Chicago's, remain a few steps behind.
If Jason Garrett's caution will cost the Cowboys a playoff spot: The Cowboys looked a little too happy to play for overtime in Atlanta before Falcons coach Dan Quinn saved the Cowboys some time by using a timeout with 1:38 left and then rushed three defenders on a third-and-5 from the Dallas 30-yard line that Dak Prescott expertly converted. Garrett also looked a little too happy to play for a field goal in the final seconds from over 40 yards out with a kicker who was struggling.
If the Texans have enough offense: The Texans have won seven straight games without the benefit of an improving offense. The team's 320 yards and one offensive touchdown Sunday in Washington was typical. This is a squad that has been opportunistic turning turnovers into points, but not consistent moving the ball. The team's run-blocking is undoubtedly better than its ability to protect Deshaun Watson.
Getting rookie slot receiver Keke Coutee back in the mix was big against the Redskins after he had missed the previous two games with a hamstring injury, but trade acquisition Demaryius Thomas didn't have a catch and was only targeted once. The Texans have faced only two teams that currently have a winning record (New England and Washington) and won't face another one this season, so they can keep winning. But Bill O'Brien certainly wants to see growth from his offense and it hasn't really happened for a team that has won two games in overtime and two others after opponents missed a potential game-winning kick.