Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 10 to Week 11.
The exotic smashmouth jokes are dead, buried in Twitter heaven. The September criticism of Mike Mularkey feels like a dusty relic of a distant age, when Mike Zimmer was a shoo-in for Coach of the Year. The Titans are an offensive juggernaut, and it's time to recognize.
Sunday's 35-point first-half explosion against Green Bay has a familiar foundation: first-round picks on the offensive line. Like the smashmouth Cowboys in the NFC, the Titans invested heavily to produce a line as good as this one. As noted visionary Chris Wesseling wrote this offseason, the Cowboys and Titans zigged while the rest of the NFL zagged. They bet on size to counteract all those "dime" defenses filled with six defensive backs or roving, lightweight linebackers prized for their range. Oakland raided similar big uglies in free agency over the last few years to set up a 7-2 record. The Cowboys, Titans and Raiders rank as Pro Football Focus' top three run-blocking teams for the season.
A commitment to the running game is what enables Tennessee running back DeMarco Murray to find wide-open vistas to run through for 75-yard touchdowns. It is what enables Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliottto pick up 3.9 yards per rush before contact (according to ESPN) in 21 carries against a top-notch Steelers defensive line. Nothing looks more effortless in 2016's NFL than Elliott getting to the edge, a credit to his speed and Dallas' blocking.
The Titans have scored 35 points or more in three straight games for the first time in team history, with six straight games at 26 points or more. Marcus Mariota's confidence and ability to hit the bull's-eye grows by the week. Tennessee's 5-5 record aside, we now expect the Titans to join Dallas and Oakland in a power football postseason party.
Narratives that were busted
1)Seahawks rookie C.J. Prosise is not just a third-down back. He will never be confused with Jerome Bettis, but Prosise kept the Patriots' defense honest Sunday night with effective runs between the tackles. That helped to set up Seattle's frequent formations wherein Prosise shifted wide before the snap, then made New England's linebackers appear to be in slow motion after the snap.
The Seahawks don't want Prosise to touch the ball 24 times -- which he did Sunday to the tune of 153 yards from scrimmage -- every week, but his development is a huge added ingredient for an evolving offense set to soar down the stretch. (More on Russell Wilson's vastly underrated season in the QB Index later this week.)
2) Everything is not fine with the Patriots' defense. If the trade of Jamie Collins was intended to wake up the squad, the performance against the Seahawks was the equivalent of hitting the snooze button. Jabaal Sheard was benched for Trey Flowers, another sign that Bill Belichick is searching for a pass rush. Chris Long has been very quiet of late. That's helped expose a secondary where there is a big drop-off from Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty to everyone else.
Sunday's loss is of the type that traditionally helps Belichick reset his message with an eye on peaking in December. This defense needs something to change.
3) Knock Ryan Tannehill for his ability to dissect defenses or the stop-and-start lack of progress over five seasons. Don't knock him for his toughness. Tannehill has consistently shown a knack for delivering passes before taking big hits, and that skill was on full display in Sunday's win over the Chargers. Tannehill went from serving as a supporting player during Miami's winning streak to being a primary factor for the victory in San Diego, in large part due to his improved deep ball. This season has included more big mistakes and more highlight-reel plays from Tannehill than we've seen since his rookie campaign.
4) Who says this is a passing league? The Chiefscompleted a 17-point comeback against the Panthers despite compiling just 165 passing yards and no offensive touchdowns. The Rams have failed to score touchdowns in three games this season, winningtwo of them. The Texans are 6-3 while starting an albatross at quarterback.
Brock Osweiler, Houston's ominous question mark, didn't top triple digits in passing yards in a road victory in Jacksonville. Over the last three games, the Texans have posted a higher yards-per-carry mark (4.79) than Osweiler's yards-per-throw mark (4.29). That's the type of split you might expect to see on the 1953 Baltimore Colts. Watching Texans games is like turning back the clock.
Most painful loss I saw all year
The Panthers' season fell apart at the tail end of a 20-play drive on an afternoon where everything was working. Carolina's rejuvenated defensive line made Alex Smith look utterly inept. Cam Newton was dynamite on third downs, especially as a runner, keeping the ball away from the Chiefs. The Panthers, doubling Kansas City in total yardage, entered the red zone late in the third quarter, seemingly on the way to a three-score lead.
Three negative plays later, including a sack by Newton's old Auburn teammate Dee Ford, the Panthers were punting. Before Cam's killer pick-six in the fourth quarter, the Panthers had a 99.2 percent chance to win according to ProFootballReference.com. Chiefs defenders Eric Berry, Marcus Peters and Ford all deserve huge credit for making big plays in Kansas City's second 17-point comeback of the year. The Chiefs are probability busters.
Best performance in a losing effort
The Saints did so many things well, against Denver but it's hard to overcome four turnovers and a blocked extra point returned for a score. The Saints' defense kept the team alive during Drew Brees' first-half struggles, an occurrence as rare as a bad meal in New Orleans. They sacked Trevor Siemian six times, hitting him 11 times overall. Cameron Jordan is playing as well as any defender in football and his performance against Denver was a masterpiece. The Saints' defense is no longer the worst in football. At this pace, they could escape the bottom five. That gives the team a chance at a wild card if it can steal some road games like the one on Thursday night.
Worst performance in a winning effort
There are no bad wins in the NFL. But if they did exist, a win that necessitated hitting a late field goal at home to beat the 49erswould be the worst possible win. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for as many yards (55) as Cardinals back David Johnson on Sunday. The Week 9 bye did not fix Arizona's penchant for making big mistakes or the underachieving offense. The Cardinals are right in the thick of a muddy NFC playoff race at 4-4-1, yet they sound like a team that is on the brink.
"It's over if you don't win it at home. It really is," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said after the game. "Now it's where it needs to be."
Best performance in a bye week
Sunday's action should have been enough to get Lions coach Jim Caldwell off the couch to celebrate. The Vikings have lost four straight, and their defense can no longer close out games (as the Lionsknow well). The Packers have lost three straight and can't compete with AFC South teams. Even the Bears, a team that looked frisky before its Week 9 bye, lost 36-10 in Tampa. We are entering Week 11 with the Lions tied for first place in the NFC North and boasting the quarterback playing the best in the division. It's morning in Detroit.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1)Titans general manager Jon Robinson's draft-day trade up for right tackle Jack Conklin set the tone for the team's season. Conklin and his bookend buddy, left tackle Taylor Lewan, are the keys to DeMarco Murray's budding Comeback Player of the Year campaign. (At least, when Lewan isn't getting himself kicked out of games.) Robinson would be on a short list for Executive of the Year.
Tennessee's offensive dominance has Robinson's handprints all over it. His trade for Murray in March was unpopular, but it has proven to be a low-cost steal. (Murray cost virtually nothing in trade terms and he took a pay-cut.) Using the bounty of picks he acquired in the trade of the No. 1 overall pick, Robinson also selected solid rookie contributors like running back Derrick Henry, safety Kevin Byard and receiver Tajae Sharpe. Free-agent pickup Rishard Matthews has come on lately as the team's most reliable receiver.
None of these moves were made in a vacuum. Robinson had an overall vision to make this team tougher, and all his moves in the offseason supported it.
2) Philadelphia's defense held Atlanta to 11 first downs and 303 yards on Sunday, both season lows for the Falcons. (Atlanta's previous low for first downs was 19.) The game was a reminder that Philadelphia's defense, led by another big Fletcher Cox performance, still ranks among the league's best. The Falcons and Eagles are two battle-tested squads with difficult schedules, but they have the tools to beat any NFC foe on any given Sunday. The Eagles are very difficult to handle when their running game is humming, like it was against Atlanta (208 yards, 5.5 yards per carry).
Winston was billed as a pure pocket passer, but many of his best plays this season have come outside the pocket, with the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner making it up as he goes along. (This appears to be Bucs coach Dirk Koetter's game-management philosophy, too.) Winston's roller-coaster second season in Tampa has steadied since Week 5, with Winston posting 11 TDs against two INTs over his last five games. He can't make a career out of these wild scrambles, but it's a nice tool to add to his arsenal so early in his development.
4)Sammie Coates' fall from grace in Pittsburgh was swift and too typical of the Steelers' recent draft picks. On pace for more than 1,300 receiving yards through five games, the 2015 third-round pick played two offensive snaps Sunday against Dallas. Cobi Hamilton, recently on the practice squad, replaced Coates and was targeted once in 68 offensive snaps. The Steelers are receiving precious little out of their 2015 draft class, with Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson both hurt. Pittsburgh is starting to look like some of the previous Cowboys squads under Jerry Jones that could not field a capable middle class of players to support its superstars.
5)Odell Beckham Jr. said it well after the Giants' latest close win: They have a playoff defense. Repeatedly put in bad spots Monday night because of special teams and Eli Manning's interceptions, the Giants' defense held the Bengals to only 264 yards and 12 first downs. Safety Landon Collins and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul are playing great, but give credit to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo for his effective and creative blitzes. Having a cornerback like Janoris Jenkins in the back end gives Spags options.