The NFL’s powerhouse teams are beginning to assert their dominance over the rest of the league now that we’re well into the second half of the season. The league’s power structure has certainly become more defined in recent weeks as the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders.
One of the most dominant teams in the league happens to also be one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2016. The Dallas Cowboys had quite the test on Sunday at home against the Baltimore Ravens and passed with flying colors.
Arguably the NFL’s worst team, the Cleveland Browns remained winless in an ugly affair against the Pittsburgh Steelers and lost another quarterback in the process.
We’re taking a look at these teams and more as we break down the biggest winners and losers from the action in NFL Week 11.
Winner: Dak says, “what pressure?”
If ever there was a week that we could have potentially seen Dak Prescott struggle, it was this one. After all, Tony Romo was finally suited up on the sidelines, hovering, if you will. On top of that, the Baltimore Ravens were in town sporting the NFL’s top-ranked overall defense.
None of that mattered.
Prescott put together one of the more outstanding games we’ve seen all year to lead the Cowboys to their ninth straight win, 27-17. He finished with 301 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
But here’s what just makes your jaw drop: Prescott started the game slowly, as did the entire Dallas offense. Then, in an instant, Prescott flipped the script. He finished the game by completing 20 of his final 21 attempts. Against the NFL’s fourth-best pass defense.
Before the game, Jason Garrett made it clear that the rookie wouldn’t be dealing with a short leash, even with Romo waiting in the wings (more on that here). But to this point, Prescott hasn’t really done a darn thing all year long that would make anyone think he’s not the best quarterback for Dallas this year. Period.
Personally, I’ve never in my lifetime of watching NFL football seen a rookie play with as much poise, as much natural ease and as much downright command of an offense than what we’re seeing from Prescott this year. More so than Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III or even Dan Marino, Prescott has performed at a level that is hard to believe a rookie could achieve.
While he still has plenty to work on in the coming years, what we’re seeing from the fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State almost every week is no less impressive than what we see on Tom Brady’s best days.
Loser: Bengals all but out of playoff race
There are six weeks left in the NFL’s regular season, but the Cincinnati Bengals are already pretty much out of the playoff race.
After losing to the Bills in Week 11, the Bengals have still won just three games all year. One of the reasons Cincinnati struggled Sunday was the loss of A.J. Green, who is now dealing with what’s being reported as a significant hamstring tear.
This type of injury could potentially keep Green out for the year, which is something the Bengals already fear may be the case.
Already paper thin at the receiver position, Cincinnati’s offense has struggled to put up points against the better teams around the league.
The #Bengals struggles against good defenses this year.
*Broncos: 17 pts
*Cowboys: 14 pts
*Patriots: 17 pts
*Giants: 20 pts
*Bills: 12 pts pic.twitter.com/0xv2R6pk7j
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 20, 2016
Because the NFC North is currently being led by Baltimore, which has a 5-5 record, it’s possible that Cincinnati could somehow get into the playoffs. But the offense would need to turn things around quickly — something that seems highly unlikely at this point given the recent trend on top of Green’s injury.
We’ll know a lot more about the Bengals the next two weeks. They’ll be on the road next weekend to play against the Ravens before coming back home to face the Philadelphia Eagles. The way things have gone, it’s not hard to imagine Marvin Jones’ team losing both of those games.
Winner: Big Blue rolling with five straight wins
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the New York Giants have now strung together five straight wins after taking down the Chicago Bears at home Sunday, 22-16.
The Bears, it must be noted, just aren’t very good. That said, the Giants avoided turning the ball over, Eli Manning played an efficient game distributing the ball to his playmakers, Rashad Jennings did a great job running the ball and the defense came up with a key interception to close out the game.
Now with seven wins on the season, Big Blue has moved into third place in the NFC behind only the Cowboys and Seahawks. It’s a remarkable turnaround after the Giants’ three-game losing streak that set them up below .500 after five games.
We always knew the Giants had a chance to develop into something special this year, given the talent on offense. Now they have really begun to click. As noted by Manning after the game, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"We can't get comfortable. We have to keep getting better. There's still lots of room for improvement." – Eli Manning #CHIvsNYG
— New York Giants (@Giants) November 20, 2016
It’s going to be interesting to see how the rest of the season pans out under rookie head coach Ben McAdoo.
Loser: Browns back to Josh McCown as Cody Kessler goes down in 11th straight loss
The Cleveland Browns had already trotted six different quarterbacks this year before Sunday’s game against AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Cody Kessler was one of them. So was Josh McCown.
The Browns have wanted to see what Kessler can do this year as they determine what to do heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, he’s now suffered two concussions, the second coming in Sunday’s game on a play outside the pocket. Lawrence Timmons blasted him immediately after he got rid of the pass at the end of the third quarter.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) November 20, 2016
#Browns Hue said "possibility" Cody Kessler will have to be shut down after 2nd concussion
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) November 20, 2016
It’s hard to imagine any college quarterback has much interest right now in being drafted by the Browns. After losing two key starters on the offensive line this past spring, Cleveland’s offensive line has been getting overrun on a weekly basis, and quarterbacks are dropping like flies. Terrelle Pryor, disgusted with the state of affairs, called out his teammates after the game for failing to protect their quarterbacks (more on that here).
The ineptitude up front by the Browns’ offense was also seen Sunday in the team’s rushing numbers. Cleveland finished with just 33 yards on the game running the ball, gaining just 2.5 yards per carry.
Pittsburgh cruised to victory, despite Ben Roethlisberger having a very tepid game. Le’Veon Bell carried the Steelers’ offense, running the ball 28 times for 146 yards and a touchdown and adding another 55 yards on eight receptions.
Now at 0-11, looking at yet another quarterback on the injury report, perhaps we’ll see Robert Griffin III running the offense again this year, after all. He’s set to begin practicing this week after recovering from a fractured shoulder. He better have his head on a swivel if he gets the call once more to lead the offense for the worst team in the NFL.
Winner: Bills and Vikings both break multiple-game losing streaks
Heading into Week 11, the Buffalo Bills had lost three games in a row. The Minnesota Vikings were on a four-game skid. It was getting ugly for both clubs.
Thankfully, both were able to stop the bleeding on Sunday.
Buffalo dominated defensively on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, winning 16-12. Neither offense was sharp in this game, despite lots of ball movement. Buffalo forced Andy Dalton into a couple of interceptions which led to three points in the first half for the Bills.
The Bills forced five straight punts in the second half, shutting out the Bengals in the process after halftime. It was a dominant show of force the likes we haven’t seen from Buffalo in weeks.
We covered how Minnesota won when discussing Arizona’s problems. But it’s also worth pointing out that Sam Bradford is developing some nice rapport with Patterson and little-known third-year receiver Adam Thielen, who caught the only touchdown pass for the Vikings.
Both teams have plenty of questions that need to be answered. Minnesota’s offense is still an anemic mess, and Buffalo’s offense has stalled as well. We’ll know a lot more about both teams next week. But for now, just getting the monkey off their backs must feel wonderful.
Loser: Carson Palmer, special teams mistakes sink the Cardinals
In a game the Arizona Cardinals absolutely needed to win, they stunk up the joint on the road against the Minnesota Vikings.
Carson Palmer threw two ugly interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown (watch here). His two turnovers led directly to 10 points for the Vikings, but they weren’t the only glaring mistakes in the game for Arizona.
Already down by three to open the second half, the Cardinals’ special teams unit showed up in a not-so-special way. On the half’s opening kickoff the coverage unit did not space the field well, allowing Cordarrelle Patterson to romp untouched for a 104-yard touchdown (watch here).
Head coach Bruce Arians was visibly fuming as the final seconds of the game ticked off the clock after Arizona’s offense failed to gain any traction at all with the game on the line.
The mistakes by Palmer and the special teams unit wasted what was a tremendous effort by running back David Johnson and the team’s defense. Johnson finished with 160 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, and Arizona’s defense allowed just 217 yards of offense.
Heading into the home stretch with just four wins to their credit, the Cardinals are in danger of being irrelevant as a potential playoff contender.
Winner: Seahawks starting to get into a groove
In what is becoming an increasingly alarming trend for the rest of the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks are starting to find their groove.
The Cowboys are clearly the crème de la crème of the NFC. But right now you would be hard pressed to argue that any other team in the conference can hold a candle to Seattle.
Though the defense had given up a fair amount of points to the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills the past two games, it was absolutely dominant at home Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Rookie Carson Wentz threw for 218 yards and two touchdowns, but he needed 45 attempts to reach that total and he threw two interceptions, one of which led directly to a touchdown for Seattle’s offense.
Speaking of the offense, the Seahawks’ running game came alive against an outstanding Philadelphia defensive front. C.J. Prosise, who’s going to be out a while with a scapula injury, led the attack that totaled a season-high 152 yards. Prosise and Thomas Rawls, recently returned to the lineup after being injured, combined for 133 yards on 18 carries.
We don’t expect Prosise’s injury to slow down the running game much. Rawls, when healthy, can carry the load and is confident he’s up to the task this year.
#Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls says he's ready to carry the backfield. "I train myself to take on these loads. … that's all I know is go."
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) November 21, 2016
Russell Wilson was sharp, throwing for 272 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. The touchdown pass went to Jimmy Graham, who is starting to become a bigger factor in the passing game.
Wilson also caught a touchdown pass from the arm of Doug Baldwin on a well executed trick play (watch here).
After going into Gillette Stadium and taking down the Pats, then coming back home and demolishing the Eagles, it’s clear the Seahawks are beginning their typical late-season playoff push. This team just seems to have a bit of magic about it, and the sense of momentum is present in large quantities.
With a three-game lead in the NFC West, it’s hard to imagine they won’t be there in the end as a top contender in the NFC.
Loser: Blake Bortles keeps throwing games away
In what was supposed to be a key year of development for third-year quarterback Blake Bortles, 2016 has resembled the eighth circle of hell for the young gunslinger.
Heading into Week 11’s game against the Detroit Lions, Bortles had already thrown 11 interceptions, most of which were extremely costly to his team. In fact, he’s thrown at least one touchdown in every game this year but two.
Bortles threw two more on Sunday against Detroit, including a pick-six to Rafael Bush, whose return will be replayed on highlight reels for years to come (watch here).
The pick-six was Bortles’ second in as many weeks. It was also his 10th since entering the league three years ago. Not surprisingly, he has more since that time than any other quarterback in the NFL.
The seven points gained by Detroit on that touchdown by Bush represented the exact point differential in the game. This is a trend that is all too common. The Jaguars have many areas in which they are struggling. But a quarterback that continues to turn the ball over compounds them all.
Now with a record of 2-8, Jacksonville is securing yet another high draft pick in 2017 and has and more questions than answers. This, in a season in which tremendous growth was expected.
Winner: Washington has its answer at running back
One of the biggest questions facing Washington this season was where would they find production offensively on the ground.
With Alfred Morris leaving via free agency to join the Dallas Cowboys, there wasn’t that established veteran on the roster to take the reins. Then the preseason came and we watched the Redskins struggle mightily to get anything at all going in the run game.
This trend continued through the first few weeks of the season, with Matt Jones not doing much until Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns. Fumbles remained a problem for Jones, so when he was banged up with a knee injury heading into the London game against Cincinnati it was easy to move on when rookie Robert Kelley looked great his first two starts.
Following up on his big game last weekend, Kelley went off against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, rushing for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He has improved in each of his first three starts, gaining confidence and comfort running behind Washington’s burly offensive line.
Robert Kelley is gaining some momentum toting the rock. #HTTR
*Week 9: 87 yards, 1 TD
*Week 10: 97 yards
*Week 11: 137 yards, 3 TD pic.twitter.com/XdTlaglm6m
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 21, 2016
With a consistent rushing attack at his disposal, quarterback Kirk Cousins has been brilliant, throwing five touchdowns and only one interception since having Kelley take over as starting running back.
The Redskins now boast a 6-3-1 record and are firmly entrenched in the NFC playoff race. If Kelley remains a big factor offensively, they’ll have a great chance of getting into the postseason tournament this year.
Loser: Kickers of the league unite…in the worst possible way
Sunday was not fun day for many of the kickers around the league. Missed extra points were the flavor of the day, a particularly bitter one at that.
Two kickers, Robbie Gould of the New York Giants (and formerly of the Chicago Bears) and Mike Nugent of the Cincinnati Bengals, missed two extra points. Seven other kickers missed one.
Unfortunately, Kai Forbath was one of them. He was brought in this past week after the Minnesota Vikings had finally had enough of Blair Walsh’s mistakes and cut him after he missed four extra points this season.
I thought it was touching, all of the NFL kickers who missed extra points today as a show of solidarity with Blair Walsh.
— Jim Souhan (@SouhanStrib) November 20, 2016
The big takeaway here is that the NFL’s decision to move the extra point back to the distance of 33 yards this year has most definitely made the desired impact. Before the change, extra points had become veritable gimmes. Now, kickers are having to earn those points, which has led to many a tense moment this year.