This may have been the wildest Sunday of the 2021 NFL season. And given the parity we have seen so far this year, that’s saying something.
The early slate saw some tight finishes and huge upsets, none bigger than the previously one-win Houston Texans toppling the AFC’s No. 1 seeded Tennessee Titans. The Buffalo Bills losing at home to the Indianapolis Colts also shook up the balance of power in the conference, but in the afternoon window, the Kansas City Chiefs showed glimpses of their previous levels of excellence. And while the Chiefs did take down one of the NFL’s best in the Cowboys, it’s important to put their recent success in context.
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Here are the winners and losers from Week 11 in the NFL.
The Chiefs (with caveats)
To be clear, this wasn’t the track meet, offensive explosion we saw two seasons ago when the Chiefs ascended to the Lombardi Trophy. But the Kansas City Chiefs, with their 19-9 victory against the Dallas Cowboys, appear to have recaptured their swagger, as defensive tackle Chris Jones pointed out after the game.
The Cowboys came into the game with the NFL’s top scoring offense, which was averaging 31.6 points per game. Kansas City kept them out of the end zone altogether. Now, the caveats. Dallas was shorthanded with receivers Amari Cooper (COVID-19) inactive and CeeDee Lamb sustaining a concussion in the second quarter. Left tackle Tyron Smith (ankle) also didn’t play. This comes two weeks after Kansas City beat the Packers with Aaron Rodgers sitting out because he tested positive for COVID-19. So, yes, the Chiefs have had some unreasonably lucky breaks. And they’ll need to show they can do this against full-strength opponents. But nonetheless, and even with quarterback Dak Prescott struggling and Cowboys targets dropping four passes, the Kansas City defensive line is healthy and Chris Jones and Frank Clark will be a problem down the stretch.
No Kyler (and DeAndre), no problem
It’s not just their record, the best in the NFL. The Arizona Cardinals are the best team in football right now. Their 23-13 victory against the Seattle Seahawks improved Arizona to 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting in place of the injured Kyle Murray (ankle). And with the Packers’ loss, Arizona (9-2) has the NFL’s best record and moved back into the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Cardinals also went 2-1 without star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury deserves a ton of credit for creating game plans that played into McCoy’s strengths. Against Seattle, short passes and play action kept the Seahawks off balance. But Arizona’s defense has carried a bigger load in the absence of Murray and Hopkins, and this team showed it has more balance than just a potent offense. With the Cardinals now going into their bye, they will get healthier. And, because they showed they can win without their best players, they’ll be stronger for it.
Winners of three of their last four, the Philadelphia Eagles are suddenly clawing their way back into playoff contention. The latest was a 40-29 victory against the Saints. And although Philadelphia allowed New Orleans to score 15 unanswered to start the fourth quarter, this team is showing that it could blossom into a surprise in the second half of the season.
Over the last month, quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a revelation, finding his rhythm as a dual-threat weapon. And the success, really, has come from his effectiveness in rushing the ball. Going back to Oct. 24, a Week 7 game against the Raiders, Hurts has completed 59.8% of his throws for 826 yards with five touchdowns versus one interception. He has also rushed 61 times for 318 yards with three scores – all of which came against the Saints.
“Jalen is a special player that forces defenses to play different,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said after the game.
He’s not wrong. And if Hurts continues to flash his versatility, not only could the Eagles simply be a tough out, they might make their way into wild-card contention.
Ron Rivera, Taylor Heinicke, Joey Slye
This game had degrees of revenge all over the field and sideline. But it wasn’t Panthers quarterback Cam Newton making his first start since he re-signed with Carolina a few weeks ago to come out on top, it was Newton’s former coach, Ron Rivera, who led Washington to a 27-21 victory in Charlotte.
Heinicke (16-of-22 passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns) was Carolina’s backup in 2018 and had one start then when Newton was shut down because of a shoulder injury. Placekicker Joey Slye, whom the Panthers released in August, hit all three of his extra points and both of his field goals. And while Newton played a solid game (235 total yards, three total scores), Rivera spent nine seasons with the Panthers and was able to craft a game plan that limited Carolina to just two-of-nine conversions on third downs. Also, don’t forget Washington (4-6) offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who was Carolina’s quarterbacks coach in 2018-19, when Newton and Rivera were both with the Panthers, and Sam Mills III, Carolina’s long-time defensive line coach, now with Washington.
The AFC East champion Buffalo Bills
The Patriots, who were at home enjoying their Thursday night victory against the Falcons, might as well be winners, too. With Buffalo’s disastrous 41-15 loss against the Colts, the Bills fell out of first place in the AFC East and New England slid in there. The Bills (6-4) have lost their offensive identity and so much of that is because they cannot achieve balance. The Bills ran for only 91 yards against Indianapolis, although much of that came with the game already decided.
And while some of that was because Buffalo fell into an early deficit and was forced to pass, this is a recurring problem that the Bills need to solve. In their three most recent losses, the Bills have averaged just 81.7 rushing yards per game in their losses. That has taken the pop out of the play-action passing game and has put a lot more pressure on quarterback Josh Allen. The Buffalo defense, which led the NFL in most major categories, got gashed for 264 Colts rushing yards and five Jonathan Taylor touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving). Now, the Bills – who entered Sunday as the No. 2 seed in the AFC – are sliding down the field and sit in the seventh seed in the AFC, the last one to qualify for the postseason.
Steelers’ standing in the AFC North
Every team in the AFC North won Sunday except the Pittsburgh Steelers. A 41-37 loss against the Chargers will sting, especially because Pittsburgh scored 27 points in the fourth quarter to battle back, only to have its defense implode and let L.A. quarterback Justin Herbert find a wide open Mike Williams for the 51-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown.
But because the Ravens, Browns and Bengals all won their games, the Steelers (5-4-1) dropped to third in the division, in which every squad is above .500. Even though Pittsburgh was undermanned Sunday, especially on defense, it had no answer for Austin Ekeler inside the red zone and Justin Herbert all over the field. Pittsburgh fell out of the AFC playoff picture and is firmly in the logjam of teams vying for the wild-card spots. The next two games come against division opponents in the Bengals and Ravens, and if Pittsburgh wants to stay in contention, it cannot afford to have defensive lapses like it did against the Chargers.
(Former) No. 1 seeds
Both the Titans and Packers entered Sunday holding onto the top seeds in their respective conferences. By the end of the night, Tennessee (8-3) still held the spot, but lost some valuable positioning with maybe the biggest upset of the season, a 22-13 loss against the previously one-win Texans. The loss snapped a six-game winning streak, the most recent five of them coming against 2020 playoff squads. The rushing game without Derrick Henry has been inconsistent, but the bigger problem against Houston was quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s four interceptions.
In the NFC, it was the Packers (8-3) who started the day atop their conference but suffered a letdown. The 34-31 loss against the division-rival Vikings ended a stretch of solid defensive performances going back to Week 4. Over that span, Green Bay had allowed just 12.1 points per game. Yet, Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins carved up the Packers defense, especially when targeting receiver Justin Jefferson. Green Bay dropped one spot as the Cardinals climbed into first in the NFC, which, on its surface, wouldn’t seem to be such a blow. But in a compressed NFC, the margin of error is razor thin.
Matt Nagy’s time as Chicago’s head coach
A frequent visitor to this side of the winners and losers, Bears coach Matt Nagy is showing time and time again that a change is needed in Chicago. In a 16-13 loss against the banged-up Baltimore Ravens, Nagy’s Bears wasted a golden opportunity to bust out of a slump when Lamar Jackson (illness) was a surprise inactive before the game. Nagy’s tenure has been characterized by poor in-game decisions, questionable clock management, offensive game plans that lack creativity, unforced errors.
No sequence from Sunday’s game encapsulated Nagy’s failures better than a fourth-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter. Nagy called the punt team out; fans booed. He called a timeout. His headset appeared to malfunction and there was chaos getting the call in. He brought the offense onto the field and the call was a wildcat snap from an empty backfield and no receivers that gave away the rush. It was stopped short, but it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. There was an offensive holding.
That was the first play for Chicago (3-7) coming out of a second half timeout. The second was a fourth-and-6 that resulted in a false start. The third was a two-point conversion that failed. Nagy’s team’s lack discipline, have lost five in a row and – worst of all – he doesn’t develop his players.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 11 winners, losers: Kansas City Chiefs recapture swagger