In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at how the Chiefs are getting their groove back ...
This was the performance the Kansas City Chiefs had been waiting for this season. This was the moment when they could point to all their critics and crow about what this team really is capable of becoming. They aren't complaining today about the fact that it took 10 weeks for it to happen. The only thing that matters is that it did happen, and that this team is in position to keep building on it.
There have been plenty of reasons to wonder in previous weeks if the Chiefs would even make the playoffs, with this particular writer joining that skepticism early. Kansas City's 41-14 win over the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday night changed that narrative in a hurry. The Chiefs finally put together a complete game, with their offense, defense and special teams making huge contributions. The end result was a win that, coupled with chaos around the AFC West, left them sitting atop their division after starting the day in last place.
There were two important takeaways in this contest. The first, as quarterback Patrick Mahomes noted, was that "the whole team kind of got that swag back" after weeks of largely joyless football. The other was that the Chiefs' offense finally played up to its expectations again after accounting for all of 36 points in Kansas City's previous three games. Mahomes went off in a big way, throwing for 406 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions.
What was especially encouraging was that Mahomes generated those numbers without pressing too much. He played within the offense, took what the Raiders gave him, relied on easy throws when they were available (running back Darrel Williams had a team-high nine receptions for 101 yards and a spectacular leaping touchdown) and then used that strategy to set up opportunities to more established weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. This is what the K.C. offense needed to do for weeks. It's apparent that Mahomes is becoming more comfortable playing in this new reality, where defenses are going to limit his big plays and challenge him to be patient.
It will be difficult for the Chiefs to go on the kind of late-season run they enjoyed in 2019, when they surged down the stretch into a first-round bye, helping the franchise capture its first Super Bowl in 50 years. Kansas City was the AFC's No. 2 seed that year (behind Baltimore), but after last season's playoff expansion, only the No. 1 seed gets automatic passage to the Divisional Round. And there are too many teams ahead of the Chiefs in the race for that top slot, including three who've already beaten them (Tennessee, Buffalo and Baltimore). On the other hand, Kansas City is very much in play for a sixth straight division title. Andy Reid's squad produced its best football on the same day that every other team in the division wilted in a big way.
So we'll see what happens when the Chiefs, who improved to 6-4 on Sunday, host Dallas (7-2) on Sunday afternoon in what should be the best game of the week. Mahomes made it clear that this team is no longer concerned with all the success of the past three seasons, that this bunch is attempting to be its "own version" of the Kansas City Chiefs. If that is the case, then the Chiefs just took a huge step in the right direction. As Sunday's win proved, they've learned you get farther by embracing who you are instead of chasing what people think you're supposed to be.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Cam Newton's second stint in Carolina will be a huge hit: You never want to make too much out of any victory, let alone a blowout win over a team that was missing its starting quarterback. You also can't dispute the fact that the Panthers looked like a completely different team when strolling into Arizona and beat up on the Cardinals to the tune of a 34-10 final score. Carolina is getting right in a lot of places, and the most important is at quarterback, with the return of Newton to the franchise. This isn't an attempt to sell Newton as a savior. The 32-year-old, who exited amid acrimony after the 2019 season, still has his flaws at this stage of his career. What he does bring is a huge dose of energy to a team that had lost five of its previous six games. Think about this: The Panthers scored more points on Sunday than they did in their last three contests combined. They were likely becoming painfully more aware with each passing week that Sam Darnold wasn't going to write the great comeback story they hoped he would in that town. So now they've turned to Newton, the most iconic player in franchise history, and he's showing up at just the right time. Running back Christian McCaffrey is rounding back into a form. A defense that was the talk of the NFL earlier this season is starting to play at that same level again. This offense has far more weapons around Newton than he had during his one erratic season with the New England Patriots. Newton may have only thrown four passes and carried the ball three times on Sunday -- while P.J Walker went 22-for-29 for 167 yards -- but you know he's starting the rest of the season. Newton pumped plenty of life into this team by producing two touchdowns, and his combination of charisma and experience can't be discounted. The Panthers have been up and down and back up again. They'd also be the seventh seed in the playoffs in the postseason started today.
2) The Packers' defense is elite: There's no way anybody would've predicted Green Bay would have a dominant defense while two star players -- cornerback Jaire Alexander and pass rusher Za'Darius Smith -- were sidelined with injuries. However, that's exactly what the Packers have put on the field this season. They shut out the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in a 17-0 win. They lost to Kansas City a week earlier by a score of 13-7. That same unit also delivered a huge effort in a 24-21 win over Arizona, as it forced three turnovers, including a game-clinching interception by cornerback and emergency starter Rasul Douglas. The major concern about the Packers' defense earlier this year was its effectiveness in the red zone, given that Green Bay surrendered 15 touchdowns in its first 15 opportunities against opposing offenses. The Packers have been far stingier since that point. More importantly, they've shown plenty of heart. They're still waiting for both Alexander (shoulder injury) and Smith (back surgery) to return, but it doesn't appear to matter what this unit faces. They've performed admirably against the likes of Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, and they've done it while being seriously undermanned. In fact, Green Bay only has allowed 15.8 points since a 38-3 loss to New Orleans in the season opener. Aaron Rodgers may be the biggest story in that town -- because of his offseason feud with the front office, the controversy surrounding his COVID-19 vaccination status and his future after this season -- but this defense is easily No. 2. It might well be the reason this team finds its way into the Super Bowl after two straight losses in the NFC Championship Game.
3) Patriots putting the AFC on notice: New England was going nowhere a month ago. The Pats were mired at 2-4, the offense was listless and head coach Bill Belichick appeared to be leading a team that was heading towards its second straight season without a playoff appearance. Today, the Patriots are one of the hottest groups in the AFC, winners of four straight and very much in the conversation to be a real player when the postseason ensues in January. There's a lot to like about this team at the moment. Quarterback Mac Jones continues to be the efficient game manager Belichick needs him to be as a rookie, completing 19 of 23 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday's 45-7 win over Cleveland. More importantly, the defense has become a top-five unit, allowing only 17.7 points per game this year. There was a lot made about how critical it was for Belichick to add more weapons to a dismal offense during the offseason. The smartest move was filling his defense with more versatile playmakers. Not only is the defense being aided by free-agent acquisitions like Matthew Judon, but it's also received a boost from the return of familiar faces like Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy. You literally can't watch what's happening in New England and not be impressed. The Patriots have won their last four games by a combined score of 150-50, and they're sitting a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills in the battle for first place in the AFC East. Unlike the NFC, there are few dominant teams in the AFC. Judging from what New England has shown lately, it has a great chance to grow into one.
It was surprising to see Beckham land with the Rams last week after being released by Cleveland, largely because there didn't seem to be many targets waiting for him in Los Angeles. Oh, how things can change in a hurry. The narrative surrounding Beckham changed the second the Rams lost Robert Woods, their second-leading receiver, to a torn ACL over the weekend. Los Angeles suddenly needs Beckham to be a real difference-maker in an offense that features Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson, as well. If OBJ wanted out of Cleveland because he couldn't get the ball enough, that shouldn't be a problem in Los Angeles moving forward.
Dillon's placement here isn't because of on-field dominance; the second-year pro is here because the Packers are going to need him playing at a really high level for the time being. His backfield partner, Aaron Jones, sustained a mild MCL sprain in Sunday's win over Seattle, and that means the Packers could be without one of their most dynamic playmakers for one to two weeks. As brilliant as Aaron Rodgers can be, this offense has thrived in recent years because of its balance. Dillon -- who was the star against the Seahawks, with a season-high 21 carries, 128 total yards and two touchdowns -- just became an even more critical key to this team's success.
This third-year defensive end is becoming the face of a Titans defense that grows stronger with each passing week. The numbers he's amassed in the last two weeks alone have been eye-popping: five sacks, five tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. The Tennessee defense was practically a punchline when this season began. It's become a major reason for this team's sudden rise to the top of the AFC, as a disruptive pass rush is more than compensating for an offense that is currently without two of its stars (running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver Julio Jones).
Never thought we'd see the day when this dude would be on this particular list, but it's deserved. The Bucs have lost two straight, with Brady playing his worst football of the season. He just followed a three-turnover performance in a loss to New Orleans with a two-interception effort in a defeat to Washington. Last year, the Bucs came out of the bye smoking and never lost again. This year, Brady produced 220 passing yards against the league's 30th-ranked pass defense after a week off. No wonder folks are getting irritable around that franchise.
It's rare to talk about Baltimore's defense being a problem, but that's been the major issue all year. Yes, the Ravens have been ravaged by injuries, including those that ended the seasons of linebacker L.J. Fort, safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Marcus Peters. This team also has been plagued by a slew of communication issues and busted coverages at the worst possible moments (as was the case when Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson got free for a 64-yard catch-and-run that set up the game-clinching touchdown in Baltimore's 22-10 loss to Miami last Thursday). Put it this way: Three different quarterbacks have enjoyed 400-yard passing days against this team so far. That doesn't bode well for the near future, even with Lamar Jackson playing at an MVP level.
The obvious downside of the Washington Football Team's best win of 2021 -- a 29-19 victory over Tampa Bay -- was the loss of their second-year star defensive end. The torn ACL that just ended Young's season is one more blow in a season full of disappointment. The Football Team likely wasn't going to have the kind of late-season run that landed them in the postseason last year. Losing Young, the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is yet another reminder of how deflating this year has been.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is tied for the lead league in rushing yards (937), but how does he compare to the other top backs in the league?
PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN AFC TEAM: "That's a tough call. He's been the most dependable to this point. He's got a lot of things you want in a player at that position -- size, power, speed, balance, vision, and he fits their zone scheme perfectly. He's a full-package runner who also can catch it from the backfield. But there are other guys who I'd still say are ahead of him. (Tennessee's) Derrick Henry is the best. After that, (Giants running back) Saquon Barkley is unique, so he's the most gifted, in my mind, even with all the injuries over the past two years. You look at what he did in the first two seasons, and he's got to be the guy when he's right. I'm not sure I'd put a healthy Taylor over (Cleveland's) Nick Chubb, (Cincinnati's) Joe Mixon, Saquon, (Carolina's) Christian McCaffrey, (Minnesota's) Dalvin Cook or (New Orleans') Alvin Kamara. If I'm game-planning, those guys worry more. But there's no question Taylor is on the short list now. He has very few weaknesses to his game, and he's had elite production at every level of his career."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 11 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Cowboys over Titans.