At the mid-point of the 2016 NFL season we’re getting a much clearer picture of the league’s contenders and pretenders. The action in NFL Week 9 added a bit of extra clarity with some key divisional battles on the slate.
Some teams are starting to pick up steam after slow starts, such as the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re seeing teams that started hot taking turns for the worst, like the Minnesota Vikings.
As with everything in life, NFL Week 9 offered plenty of winners and losers. These are our top 10 from this weekend’s action.
Winner: Dak shines, Cowboys roll in Zeke’s return to Ohio
Ezekiel Elliott is used to having huge games in the state of Ohio. It was just last year that the Dallas Cowboys rookie racked up 23 rushing scores playing for the Buckeyes in Columbus.
On the road with his new team Sunday, about two hours north of Ohio Stadium, Elliott had a big game going up against the Cleveland Browns. Finishing with 92 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries, he continues to make the most out of every opportunity Dallas’ amazing offensive line gives him.
Elliott wasn’t the only spectacular Cowboys rookie on the field Sunday, though. As we’ve seen most of the season, Dak Prescott was nearly flawless in Dallas’ 35-10 road win. Finishing with 247 yards on 21-of-27 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions, he rebounded nicely after struggling in Week 8.
The Cowboys are clearly the top team in the NFC right now. With a record of 7-1 (and winners of seven in a row) they are the only team in the conference that has been consistently strong from week to week.
And the scary part is that the offense could get even better if Dez Bryant becomes more of a factor down the field. Also, don’t discount how darn good the Cowboys’ underrated defense has been.
With this in mind any talk of Tony Romo coming back when he’s healthy can just go away for now. Heck, even Jerry Jones has conceded this is pretty much Dak’s offense until he starts actually playing like a rookie — something that hasn’t happened much at all in 2016.
Loser: Steelers falling apart at the seams
The Pittsburgh Steelers authored a comedy of errors Sunday in Maryland against their AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens.
In a game he clearly should not have been competing in, Ben Roethlisberger was atrocious for most of this contest. His final numbers (264 yards with one touchdown and one interception) belie just how inept he was passing the ball during the lion’s share of the game. Throwing behind, short and long throughout, Big Ben was clearly not himself as he attempted to gut out another injury.
But as ugly as Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ passing attack was, it was hardly the only thing wrong on this day.
Pittsburgh’s defense did an admirable job of making Joe Flacco uncomfortable and held the Ravens’ rushing attack in check. But all it takes sometimes is one lapse to make a huge difference. That’s what we saw take place when Flacco connected with Mike Wallace on a simple slant that turned into a 95-yard touchdown towards the end of the first quarter (watch here).
The Steelers couldn’t run the ball, either. Le’Veon Bell was held to just 32 yards on 14 carries, and Pittsburgh finished with just 36 yards total on the ground.
Then, at the end of the game, Roethlisberger willed his offense to score twice, pulling to within one score. That’s when kicker Chris Boswell performed what was the worst onside kick attempt you’ll ever witness (watch here). On top of a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown by the Ravens, Pittsburgh’s special teams unit was a train wreck.
Losing to Baltimore helped the Ravens snap a four-game losing streak. Now the Steelers are in the midst of a three-game skid themselves and have the Dallas Cowboys steamrolling into Heinz Field next weekend.
Winner: Young Phins learning how to win
For the third weekend in a row, Adam Gase walked to the post-game podium a winner after watching his Miami Dolphins pull out a hard-fought victory against the New York Jets. After sporting a 1-4 record to open the season, with Miami’s offense seemingly in a state of confusion, such an outcome didn’t seem possible a month ago.
Kudos to Miami’s offensive line for its effort against one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts Sunday. Jay Ajayi went off for 111 yards and a touchdown on just 24 carries. His average of 4.6 yards per carry against a defense that had previously been allowing 3.5 yards per attempt shows just how dominant his offensive linemen were while creating lanes for him to plow through.
It was Ajayi’s third straight 100-plus yard game after he became just the third man in NFL history to gain at least 200 in consecutive games prior to this one.
Miami’s defense was disruptive going up against Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co. There is plenty to improve upon, especially considering Matt Forte gained 92 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries. However, the two intercepted passes by Jordan Phillips and Bobby McCain allowed the Dolphins to win the turnover battle 2-0, and Fitzpatrick took some big hits in addition to the three sacks he endured.
The Jets nearly came back to win this one after being down for much of the game. Fitzpatrick connected with Jalin Marshall on a touchdown late in the fourth quarter following a botched punt exchange by Miami.
But that’s when Kenyan Drake exploded for a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown to give the Dolphins a 27-23 lead (watch here). The Jets couldn’t recover from that stunning development and lost by the same score.
Suddenly, it’s not crazy to think the Dolphins (now 4-4) might go on a run and make the playoffs. This is especially true when you consider the Dolphins’ upcoming schedule, which features just one game against a team that currently has a winning record.
Loser: Vikings lose three straight, appear destined to tailspin
It would be nice if we could say we didn’t see this coming.
The Minnesota Vikings were the only undefeated team in the NFL just a few weeks back. But there were still valid concerns about the long-term sustainability of the offense. After all, the Vikings watched Phil Loadholt retire, released center John Sullivan, sent Matt Kalil and Andre Smith to IR and now Alex Boone is out with a concussion.
On top of that, one of the biggest keys to starting with a 5-0 record was that Minnesota’s defense was scoring touchdowns.
Since then, the offensive line has continued to break down, and Sam Bradford has been taking some serious abuse. He did so again Sunday at home against the Detroit Lions, taking some big hits and at one point needing a concussion evaluation.
Still, he managed to play quite efficiently, completing 31-of-40 passes (including one he caught himself for five yards) for 273 yards and a touchdown. But without much happening down the field and without a running game, Minnesota’s offense is just paddling upriver.
While the offense struggles to put points on the board, the once dominant Vikings defense has come back down to reality a bit. Still playing well, the defense isn’t scoring regularly (hardly surprising) and has been on the field a bit too much because of the offense’s inability to sustain drives.
Still, despite all this, Minnesota was faced with an opportunity to win in overtime Sunday at home.
Unfortunately, the defense just couldn’t stop Matthew Stafford and Co. from marching down the field on an 11-play drive that spanned 87 yards in the first overtime scoring opportunity for both teams. It culminated with a tremendous Golden Tate touchdown that he capped with an emphatic flip into the end zone (watch here).
Now in the middle of a three-game losing streak, having just lost offensive coordinator Norv Turner in the process, it’s hard to say if Minnesota has what it takes to turn this ship around.
Mike Zimmer is a tremendous coach, and we’re not foolish enough to say definitively he cannot fix what’s broken. But after enduring what this team has gone through already this year, it sadly feels like the worst is yet to come.
Winner: Streaky Giants rediscover aerial artistry
It’s been a while since the New York Giants played to their potential as an explosive offense. Eli Manning has been off, throwing five touchdowns and four interceptions in his last six games. Odell Beckham Jr. has been more pouty diva than superstar receiver for much of the season, though he did come alive a couple weekends ago against Baltimore.
Both Beckham Jr. and Manning showed up in a big way against Philadelphia this weekend, leading the Giants to their third straight win.
Interestingly, the offense flowed better in this game without Victor Cruz, who left after suffering an ankle injury. In his stead, rookie Roger Lewis played well, catching one of Manning’s four touchdown passes. Fellow rookie Sterling Shepard caught another Manning scoring pass.
Beckham Jr. didn’t explode with a huge game yardage-wise but hauled in two touchdowns. In the process, he made some history by becoming the first player since 1967 with 30 receiving touchdowns in his first 35 games (h/t Ryan Van Bibber of SBNation).
Manning did manage to throw a couple of interceptions, but so did his rookie counterpart, Carson Wentz. The Eagles offense as a whole was simply in a state of disarray for most of this game thanks to an inspired effort by Big Blue’s front seven.
New York’s offense has the potential to become one of the most dangerous in the NFL from week to week. We got a taste of what it can accomplish in Week 9 against a very good Philadelphia defense.
Loser: 49ers defense sets a dubious record
No team in the history of the NFL had given up at least 100 yards to a single runner in seven consecutive games. No team until the 2016 San Francisco 49ers, that is.
When Mark Ingram eclipsed the 100-yard barrier in Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium, he became the seventh person in seven consecutive games to hit that mark.
Look, the 49ers got a record today. pic.twitter.com/yHFkHYh76E
— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) November 6, 2016
Ingram finished with 158 yards on just 15 carries with one touchdown — a 75-yard rumble that set the tone for the Saints (watch here). New Orleans finished with 248 total yards on the ground and an astounding 571 total yards in the 41-23 blowout win over the 49ers.
That the 49ers set an all-time NFL record like this pretty remarkable, especially considering the team very recently featured one of the top run-stuffing defenses in the NFL on an annual basis.
It’s even more remarkable that it’s happening in this day and age when putting up ridiculous passing stats is the norm.
Now with seven straight losses, San Francisco is arguably the worst team in the NFL. Even though the Cleveland Browns have the league’s worst record, you’d be hard pressed to convince us the 49ers are better.
Winner: Frank Gore and Antonio Gates turn back the clock
Frank Gore (33) and Antonio Gates (36) are ancient by NFL standards. Between them, they had already played 24 years in the NFL before this season began.
Yet somehow, both are still making a positive impact for their respective teams. We saw this in living color Sunday.
Gore wasn’t given a ton of room to roam when the Indianapolis Colts took on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field Sunday. But as usual, the Inconvenient Truth found a way to tunnel through tiny cracks that would stop most backs dead in their tracks. Finishing with 60 yards and two touchdowns on the ground he also caught both passes directed his way for 11 yards.
It wasn’t pretty, but Gore’s touchdowns were the difference in the game for Indy.
Old man Gates was a key contributor for the San Diego Chargers at home against the Tennessee Titans as well. He caught five passes for 75 yards and one of Philip Rivers’ two touchdown passes. The Chargers ended up winning by eight points.
While many young players are making a splash right now, Gore and Gates continue to shine well into their twilight years. They’re a pleasure to watch, and we’ll be sad to see them go whenever that does happen.
Loser: Carson Wentz appears to be hitting rookie wall
Through the first three weeks of the 2016 NFL season, there wasn’t a hotter quarterback around the league than Carson Wentz. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft started out hot and got better in each of those first three games.
Then the Philadelphia Eagles had an extremely early bye in Week 4.
Since returning to action, Wentz hasn’t been nearly as careful with the football and has been making some typical rookie mistakes.
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 7, 2016
Sunday on the road against the New York Giants, Wentz had his worst day as a pro, failing to throw a touchdown while throwing two bad interceptions.
Here’s a look at the first, which was one he’ll most definitely be upset about for a while.
The first of two Carson Wentz interceptions so far:https://t.co/LyPJxUOg6u
— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) November 6, 2016
The worst aspect is that his two interceptions came on consecutive drives — the first two of the game for Philly — and both led directly to touchdowns for the Giants.
It was just an ugly game for the rookie, who appears to be overthinking things midway through the season instead of playing without a care in the world.
Winner: As defense rounds into form, Raiders continue to mature on the fly
This weekend marked a tremendous opportunity for the Oakland Raiders to prove they really do belong in the conversation as an NFL elite. Hosting the Denver Broncos in prime time on Sunday Night Football, they capitalized fully on their chance to shine with a big-time performance from players on both sides of the ball.
What was interesting is that the Raiders didn’t force the passing game against one of the NFL’s premier passing defenses. Derek Carr only threw the ball 31 times, passing for 184 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions
Instead of passing like crazy as we’ve seen Oakland do much of the time of late, the Raiders ran the ball down Denver’s throat. Latavius Murray was the workhorse, toting the rock 20 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns, spearheading a rushing attack that tallied 223 yards on the ground.
This change in philosophy highlighted some good coaching. Instead of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave continued to use his running game against a Denver defensive front that is better suited to play with a lead than it is to play from behind.
And play from behind it did. All. Night. Long.
Denver’s offense wasn’t able to do a whole heck of a lot against an improving Raiders defense that is much better now than it was even a few weeks back. Trevor Siemian played pretty darn well under the circumstances, passing for 283 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. But without a running game to complement the pass (just 33 total rushing yards), the Broncos couldn’t keep up with Oakland’s scoring pace.
This was a methodical win for the Raiders, who implemented a smart game plan and then executed it to perfection. Now at 7-2 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC West, Oakland is in control of its own destiny the rest of the way.
Loser: Jacksonville’s offense running in reverse
In what is a consistent trend for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Blake Bortles and his offense stunk up the joint on the road Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
As has become tradition for Bortles, he threw an early interception that set up the opposition with an easy scoring opportunity. And this one was a humdinger, folks.
Here's an interception by Blake Bortles that makes you wonder if he'll ever rebound from this disastrous season. https://t.co/y2KqNxUG2X
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) November 7, 2016
Kansas City went on to score three points to take an early 10-0 lead. As we’ve seen in most games this year, Bortles mixed in some good with the bad, leading two scoring drives and finishing with a couple touchdowns and 251 yards passing.
But his mistakes, they’re just awful.
Bortles wasn’t the only person on Jacksonville’s offense to mess up Sunday, however.
Chris Ivory, Bryan Walters and T.J. Yeldon all coughed up the ball, resulting in three recovered fumbles for Kansas City’s defense.
Now at 2-6 on the season, the Jaguars are absolutely reeling. There is not a single reason to believe Bortles is going to turn his season around, and head coach Gus Bradley (career record of 14-42) has never given us any reason to trust he knows how to help the franchise become a winner.