Who wants to rule the NFL?
As we approach December, the league is experiencing an unusual dearth of superpowers. This absence of a true upper class has created a bloated middle class that makes each week completely unpredictable. Consider this: Week 11 brought us yet another outright win for a double-digit underdog (Texans over Titans), while the top three teams in last week’s NFL Power Rankings all suffered losses.
It’s possible the final seven weeks bring stability … but it’s equally possible this is just a different year. If so, let’s go for the ride. Embrace the chaos. Live in the madness.
Watch the NFL Power Rankings show with Dan and Matt “Money” Smith every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET on NFL Network.
Take a bow, Colt McCoy. The veteran quarterback put on a clinic in his third start in place of Kyler Murray, throwing for 328 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Cardinals to a 23-13 victory over the fading Seahawks at Lumen Field. The win prompted an existential crisis in Seattle (bonus!) and positioned Arizona alone atop the NFC as it hits a perfectly timed bye week. Murray (ankle) and DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) now get two more weeks to heal up before a favorable Week 13 matchup against the Bears. McCoy, meanwhile, probably bought himself another three years of lucrative backup work through his performance this month. Good gig.
The Packers defense that surged to begin the month was nowhere to be seen against the Vikings. Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson turned U.S. Bank Stadium into a personal playground, and even a brilliant second half from Aaron Rodgers was unable to stave off a last-second defeat. The Green Bay defense had blown coverages and costly penalties and was unable to make Minnesota pay when Cousins threw the ball up for grabs. Then there were the injuries: Versatile offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins was lost to a season-ending torn ACL, while Rodgers sounded concerned in his postgame press conference talking about his aggravated toe injury. The Packers remain in fine shape, but they’ll need to grind their way to the finish line.
The Bucs were back on their game on Monday night, moving with clinical efficiency on offense and making splash plays on defense en route to an easy win over the Giants that snapped a two-game losing skid. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski all went over 65 yards receiving, while Tom Brady crossed 300 yards through the air for the fifth time in 10 games this season. Brady spent the final minutes of the blowout on the Bucs’ sideline as Blaine Gabbert finished things out — the ultimate victory formation. The competition jumps up a notch next Sunday with a road matchup against the red-hot Colts.
We thought we were getting an epic shootout between Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott. Instead, it was Chris Jones and the rising Chiefs defense that played the starring role in a 19-9 victory over the NFC East leaders. Jones was a wrecking ball, piling up 3.5 sacks, with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Jones got help in the back end from Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed, who each registered crucial interceptions of Prescott. The Chiefs’ offense managed just 3 points in its final 10 possessions, but the best teams can win a game on either side of the ball. The Chiefs look like a team ready to restore order in the chaotic AFC.
On the first play from scrimmage, Dak Prescott spotted an open Michael Gallup streaking down the right sideline … and missed his wideout by 5 yards on an overthrow. It would be the Cowboys’ best chance for an explosive play in a humbling 19-9 loss to the Chiefs. Prescott struggled on the big stage, and the Dallas offensive line failed to protect the team’s most prized asset. By game’s end, Prescott had thrown two interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked five times. An excellent performance by the defense should have put the team in position to make a huge statement at Arrowhead. Instead, Dallas shrunk in the spotlight, fueling speculation we’re watching another Cowboys team that’s more sizzle than steak.
Mac Jones has been an upgrade over Cam Newton, but the 2021 Patriots’ biggest difference is a defense that has surged during the team’s five-game winning streak. In that stretch, New England has given up just 10 points per game, with 12 interceptions against just four touchdown passes. The 2021 version of Matt Ryan was a sitting duck against New England’s relentless pass rush, which turned Atlanta’s offensive linemen into sentient turnstiles on the way to four sacks and 12 QB hits. Matt Judon stands tall as the leader of this group: The ace free-agent signing is up to 10.5 sacks in what’s been an All-Pro worthy season. The Pats matched their 2020 win total by Thanksgiving and have found themselves in first place as a result.
The alarm bell has been sounded in Western New York — and rightfully so. The Colts came to town and made themselves at home on Sunday, dominating the Bills in all three phases of a 41-15 blowout victory. Jonathan Taylor scored five touchdowns and gained 185 of Indy’s 264 rushing yards, the most surrendered by a Buffalo defense in three years. Josh Allen and the offense weren’t much better: The quarterback threw two interceptions and fumbled once as the Bills’ attack continued to look average when the Jets aren’t prominently involved. Now a second-place team, Buffalo will be under the microscope on Thanksgiving night in New Orleans.
Nothing should really be considered stunning in the NFL this season, but there weren’t many people who predicted the Titans’ impressive winning streak would be snapped at home at the hands of the Texans. Ryan Tannehill threw four interceptions in the 22-13 setback and increasingly appeared like a man alone on an island once A.J. Brown joined Julio Jones and Derrick Henry on the list of unavailable offensive stars. Tennessee has shown no hints of mounting a sustainable offense since Henry went on the shelf after foot surgery three weeks ago. This all feels like terrible timing for a game against the red-hot Patriots, but Mike Vrabel’s Titans have a habit of overcoming the odds.
If the Rams are the type of team that gains motivation from the doubts of others, well, last week’s bye might have been a very productive week. Los Angeles was bullied by more physical teams in blowout losses to the Titans and 49ers, framing a narrative that the Rams might not have the necessary toughness to become champions. This all feels like overcooked nonsense, but Sean McVay’s team needs to go out and show it won’t be pushed around. Meanwhile, Odell Beckham Jr.‘s presence went from luxury to necessity after the season-ending injury to Robert Woods. Beckham hasn’t performed like a star in years — Los Angeles is now in the uncomfortable position of needing the mercurial wide receiver to successfully crank back the clock.
The Vikings are the most unpredictable and — maybe — most dangerous team in the NFC. Kirk Cousins threw three more touchdown passes, including two to the unstoppable Justin Jefferson, in a 34-31 win over the Packers that served as notice to the rest of the league: When the Vikings are humming like they are right now, they can beat anyone. It came down to a final-second field goal by Greg Joseph, because, well, that’s the only way the team seems to know how to play. It appears to be taking a toll on the head coach: “Sundays are not fun,” said the lovably cantankerous Mike Zimmer. “You know how they say Sunday is fun day? It’s not … at all.”
The Chargers were ready to Charger in a profound way … until Justin Herbert stepped in. The brilliant second-year quarterback saved the day with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams that thwarted a furious Steelers rally and allowed the Bolts to escape with a 41-37 win on Sunday Night Football. The fourth quarter unfolded in ways both unique and deeply familiar if you’re a Chargers fan; it felt as if a meltdown in front of 40,000 Steelers fans invading Southern California was preordained. But Herbert is different. He makes the Chargers different. He accounted for 472 total yards and three touchdowns — and, even more impressively, showed unshakable cool when the world was on fire. He’s a franchise quarterback in every way.
On the most exhilarating day in what’s become an increasingly interesting Colts season, Jonathan Taylor announced himself as an MVP contender. The dynamic running back was brilliant in the freezing rain of Buffalo, accounting for 204 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-15 statement win over the supposed conference superpower from Western New York. Taylor now leads all running backs in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he’s gone over 100 total yards in eight consecutive games. He’s the best Colts running back since peak Edgerrin James; he might be the best running back in the NFL, period. After surviving a 1-4 start, the Colts look like one of the most dangerous teams in the unpredictable AFC.
Where would the Browns be without Nick Chubb? The star running back returned from a one-game COVID-19-related absence and ran for 130 yards with a receiving touchdown in a 13-10 win over the hapless Lions. Now, the drama: Baker Mayfield struggled through four quarters, walked off the field immediately upon the game’s conclusion, then left the stadium without speaking to reporters. Mayfield is banged up and not playing well, but his postgame behavior only draws more attention to his struggles. With the playoffs in sight, could Kevin Stefanski flirt with the idea of turning to Case Keenum down the stretch? Sunday night’s matchup against the Ravens will be critical on multiple levels.
The Bengals emerged from their bye and collected the most important win of their season. The 32-13 victory over Las Vegas wasn’t exactly a work of art, but Cincinnati stifled the fading Raiders on defense and did enough on offense to snap a two-game losing streak. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase got back on the same page with a touchdown connection, but the star of the game might have been rookie kicker Evan McPherson, who drilled three field goals from beyond 50 yards in a Tuckerian performance by the fifth-round pick. We’ll need to see more from the Bengals to feel confident they’re ready for a playoff push in the wide-open AFC, but this was a start.
The 49ers are on the rise. Jimmy Garoppolo threw two touchdown passes for the third consecutive game, and Kyle Shanahan’s creative use of do-it-all star Deebo Samuel produced another touchdown in a 30-10 win over the Jaguars. San Francisco has now won back-to-back games in decisive fashion, setting up a huge Week 12 showdown with the surging Vikings. The Niners remain deadly in the red zone: Their 77.8 percent TD conversion mark leads the NFL by a significant margin. Ironically, San Fran’s most memorable drive on Sunday — a 20-play, 13-minute marathon — ended with a piddly field goal. “I wanted to go for it bad,” Shanahan said. According to ESPN, it was the longest drive in 20 years.
Jalen Hurts is playing himself into the Eagles’ future. The second-year quarterback accounted for three touchdowns on Sunday — all of them on the ground — in a 40-29 win over the Saints at the Linc. After the game, Nick Sirianni spoke glowingly of Hurts’ multidimensional abilities. “Jalen is a special player who forces defenses to play different,” the coach said. The victory was also one of personal significance to Sirianni, who finally has his first win at home in five tries as coach. The Eagles have turned into a great cold-weather team: They run the ball extremely well and beat up the opposition in the trenches. There’s more work to be done, but they profile as a player in the NFC wild-card race.
The Saints are now winless in three straight games since Jameis Winston‘s exit with a season-ending knee injury, and injuries across the roster have turned Sean Payton’s team ordinary and vulnerable. New Orleans played without running back Alvin Kamara and tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk on Sunday, paying the price in an ugly 40-29 loss to the Eagles. Trevor Siemian threw two gross interceptions — one returned for a score — and did most of his producing after the game was out of hand. Could Payton turn the starting job over to Taysom Hill? The team needs a spark, something Hill has been known to provide.
An undermanned Steelers team showed serious fight on Sunday night. Down 27-10 in the fourth quarter of a quasi-home game in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh staged a furious rally to take the lead before faltering in the final minutes of a 41-37 loss to the Chargers. The game slipped away on a busted coverage that allowed Mike Williams to score the go-ahead 53-yard touchdown with 2:09 to play. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth correctly asserted that Williams never gets that opportunity if star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (COVID-19) is on the field. The Steelers desperately need to get healthy on defense if they hope to sneak back into the playoffs. Make-or-break divisional matchups against the Bengals and Ravens await.
Cam Newton played well in his return to Bank of America Stadium, but it was his former backup who stole the show. Taylor Heinicke lit up the Carolina defense for three touchdown passes and the Panthers’ offense sputtered for much of the second half in a 27-21 loss, Carolina’s fourth consecutive setback at home. Newton ran for a touchdown and threw for two scores, but Carolina’s defense was unable to make key stops on a pair of Washington field-goal drives in the final five minutes. The Panthers will look to get back to .500 with a Week 12 matchup against the surging Dolphins.
Washington Football Team
Washington doesn’t have the most talented quarterback in the league, but Taylor Heinicke plays the position like the whole world is against him. Heinicke was emotional and fearless in a 27-21 win over the Panthers, throwing three touchdown passes to outshine Cam Newton in the former MVP’s return to Bank of America Stadium. Heinicke made big throws all afternoon, sending a message to the same Panthers team that deemed him expendable on cutdown day two years earlier. Washington can check into the NFC playoff race in earnest with a win over the Seahawks on Monday night.
They’ve done it again. After sucking in fans with a strong start to the season, the Raiders are in a spiral that continued with Sunday’s dispiriting 32-13 loss to the Bengals at Allegiant Stadium. The three-game slide can be traced back to an offense that hasn’t been the same since returning from the Week 8 bye. Vegas was 1-for-7 on third-down conversions and managed just 278 total yards against a Cincinnati defense that had been hemorrhaging yards and points in recent weeks. The absence of Henry Ruggs III is impossible to overlook, but the struggles extend beyond one player. A Thanksgiving matchup against the Cowboys has a make-or-break feel to it for the Silver and Black. Said Derek Carr after Sunday’s loss: “No one’s coming to save us, so we better figure it out.”
It’s déjà vu all over again for Teddy Bridgewater. The veteran quarterback will come out the bye and enter the final stretch of another regular season attempting to convince his team that he’s more than a one-year patch. He wasn’t able to do that last year with the Panthers, and he’ll have to show more over the final seven games to convince the Broncos he should be part of their 2022 plans. Bridgewater is liked and well-respected in his locker room and around league circles, but the free agent-to-be might be looking for his fifth team next spring if he can’t deliver a surge in play that ignites a Denver playoff run.
Credit Brian Flores and the coaching staff for pulling the Dolphins out of a nosedive. The 24-17 victory over the Jets on Sunday at the Meadowlands was Miami’s third win in a row after the seven-game losing streak that ruined their season. Tua Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes, including a 65-yard scoring strike, in the latest meeting between downtrodden AFC East rivals. That lone play of more than 30 yards made up for an otherwise sleepy attack that managed just 4.9 yards per play on all other snaps against a wretched New York defense. Tua’s final six weeks represents the biggest subplot to track in Miami: He’ll need to light it up to pull the Dolphins out of the Deshaun Watson market. Does he have it in him?
The Giants finally got most of their playmakers back on the field at the same time on Monday night, but the same issues continued to plague the Jason Garrett-run offense in a 30-10 loss to the Bucs. New York moved the ball well at times, but repeatedly faltered in critical situations. When New York needed to make some plays to get back into the game in the second half, Daniel Jones threw a pair of interceptions to remove any semblance of tension from the affair. A prime-time road matchup against the defending champs is a tall order for any team, but the Giants desperately needed a performance that would jump-start their season. Didn’t happen.
UPDATE: The New York Giants fired offensive coordinator Jason Garrett on Tuesday, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported.
The Seahawks are off to their worst 10-game start of the Pete Carroll era (since 2010), and the veteran coach was at a loss for words following the 23-13 loss to the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals at Lumen Field. “I’m just not any good at this. I’m not prepared for this,” Carroll said of the struggles. “I’m struggling to do a good job of coaching when you get your butt kicked week in and week out.” Carroll sounded like a frustrated coach who knows his job security might be in doubt for the first time in his distinguished run in Seattle. The offense is broken and the Seahawks don’t currently have a first-round pick in 2022. This is the great unknown.
Hope for the 2021 season is officially in short supply after a 25-0 home loss to the Patriots in prime time. Over a humbling five-day span, the Falcons were outscored 68-3 in setbacks to the Pats and Cowboys — blowouts that reaffirmed Atlanta’s also-ran status and should prompt introspection about where this team is and what it wants to be moving forward. On that subject: The combination of a shoddy offensive line and an aging, increasingly immobile quarterback is killing the Falcons when they face opponents with a strong pass rush. Matt Ryan is a former MVP and the greatest passer in franchise history, but it’s looking more and more apparent a fresh start is needed for both sides.
The Texans are so much more watchable when Tyrod Taylor is on the field. The veteran quarterback piloted the Houston offense with some level of efficiency and scored twice on the ground in a 22-13 win over the Titans that counts as one of the biggest upsets of the year. The Texans intercepted four Ryan Tannehill passes and made big plays at several crucial junctures despite being out-gained 420-190 in total yards. Now, the bad news: The win, combined with another Lions loss, puts Houston 1.5 games behind Detroit in the “race” for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Sometimes you win and still lose.
The Jaguars showed signs of life in recent weeks, but the team didn’t have much of a pulse in a 30-10 home loss to the 49ers. The playmaker-deficient offense continues to put rookie Trevor Lawrence in difficult positions — especially against a fast-improving team like San Francisco. Lawrence’s hugely hyped debut season in the NFL hasn’t delivered the fireworks the Jags had hoped for: He has just eight touchdown passes in 356 attempts and his QBR of 35.0 places him 29th among qualified starters. The guy needs help.
The Jets are losing every week, but let’s focus on the positive: The 2021 draft class has a chance to be a real winner. Elijah Moore went off for 141 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins and is now living up to the training camp hype. Michael Carter is a keeper at running back and Alijah Vera-Tucker has been a quality starter at guard. Of course, the true measure of the class will come down to whether Zach Wilson is the real deal at quarterback. If Wilson returns from injury and has a promising finish to his rocky rookie year, we might remember this class as a Joe Douglas masterpiece that changed the direction of a previously lost franchise.
The Lions will take the field on Thanksgiving as a winless team for the third time in franchise history. Detroit fought hard in a 13-10 loss to the Browns, but extreme effort that ends in defeat is the type of Groundhog Day outcome that must wear on a locker room when it happens over three straight months. D’Andre Swift has been a bright spot, but it’s clear the Lions don’t have their future quarterback currently on the roster. Tim Boyle did very little in his opportunity to start in place of an injured Jared Goff, and David Blough’s third-string status is a damning indictment of his own place in the NFL firmament. Just win (one), baby.