Over the first half of this NFL season, the teams that garnered the most attention were the ones capable of putting up points in a hurry. Dak Prescott’s and Ezekiel Elliott’s star turns in Dallas, the Raiders’ resurgence, Tom Brady’s revenge tour, and Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign have been the dominant story lines in a season lacking many others. With Oakland on a bye in Week 10 and the Cowboys rallying to beat Pittsburgh in the most exciting game of the year, a few of those narratives held true on Sunday. While plenty of headlines will focus on that offensive flash, the more notable development this week was that the league’s best defenses — from Philadelphia to Seattle — reigned supreme.
Let’s start with the early slate. The three most notable wins of Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET games belonged to the Eagles, Broncos, and Chiefs. All three leaned on their defenses to create pivotal plays in critical moments.
Philadelphia entered Sunday ranked no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which was befuddling to some. With rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense careering off a cliff after its hot start, it seemed difficult to reconcile how a team this starved for points could be the best in the NFL by any metric. Part of the answer is that the Eagles have the most special teams production in football by a wide margin; part of it is that Philly’s defense deserves an immense amount of credit. This group has some flaws in its secondary (before making a game-sealing interception against the Falcons, cornerback Leodis McKelvin was burned by Taylor Gabriel for a 76-yard touchdown, the third big play McKelvin has allowed in the past two weeks), but coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit has talent at all three levels, and that was on display in Philadelphia’s impressive 24–15 win over Atlanta. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was a force as a pass rusher, and several other members of the Eagles’ front four got to Matt Ryan. Connor Barwin’s second-quarter sack ruined a Falcons trip to the red zone and forced them to attempt a field goal.
Atlanta came into Sunday with the hottest offense in the NFL. The Falcons ranked first in offensive DVOA and first in points per game, and had shown an ability to produce against even the premier defenses in the league. Both through the air and on the ground, though, the Eagles slowed them in a way no opponent has all fall. Wide receiver Julio Jones still got his — he made 10 catches for 135 yards, and would’ve had an even bigger day if not for a crucial late-game drop — but Philly largely managed to stifle a group that hadn’t been frustrated at any point so far in 2016. With wins by Washington and Dallas — and the Giants set to play on Monday night — head coach Doug Pederson’s 5–4 team still sits in last place in the NFC East. Yet following a performance like Sunday’s, it’s easy to peg the Eagles as the most potent defensive threat in the conference’s crowded wild-card race.
While their outings weren’t nearly as dominant, the Broncos and Chiefs’ defenses also showed why they should keep their teams in contention as the playoffs inch closer. The blueprint for attacking Denver this season has become clear, especially after losses to the Raiders and the Falcons. The Broncos are weakest in the middle of their defense, and the Saints made a concerted effort Sunday to use their running backs to create mismatches with Denver’s linebackers. That approach — combined with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees being ridiculous — allowed the Saints offense to enjoy a strong second half. But Denver’s defense rose to the occasion when it mattered most in a 25–23 win.
New Orleans rookie receiver Michael Thomas fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, each time as the result of a fantastic play by Broncos defenders. The first, at the 13:42 mark with the Saints nearing midfield, involved cornerback Bradley Roby chasing Thomas down from behind and punching the ball away. The second, with New Orleans deep in its own territory and 3:15 remaining, required Denver lineman Jared Crick to sprint 7 yards downfield after a short completion and level Thomas.
The two turnovers led to 10 Denver points, but even those swings would have been for naught if it weren’t for Justin Simmons’s late heroics. After a beautiful — and seemingly game-winning — touchdown pass from Brees to Brandin Cooks with 1:22 left, Simmons leaped over the line of scrimmage on the extra-point attempt and blocked the kick. After scooping up the ball, rookie cornerback Will Parks sprinted down the sideline and into the end zone, earning two points and securing the victory. At first glance, it looked as if he had stepped out of bounds. After a review, the play was upheld. The difference between Denver being 7–3 and 6–4 is Parks’s pristinely white shoes.
Just a couple of minutes before that outcome-changing block in New Orleans, Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters made a similarly vital play in Carolina. On an afternoon in which Kansas City’s offense failed to get much of anything going, the Chiefs defense rode two massive plays — including Peters’s theft of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the final minute — to an improbable 20–17 win over the Panthers.
The Chiefs won ugly to improve to 7–2, but this season — and recent history — has shown that winning ugly can be an effective recipe come playoff time. Denver rode the league’s best defense to a Super Bowl win last season. When the league’s best offense and the league’s best defense played for the championship to cap the 2013 season, Seattle’s defense prevailed. Speaking of the Seahawks, they got some magic out of Russell Wilson in their 31–24 win over the Patriots on Sunday night, but all year their defense — ranked sixth in DVOA coming into the game — has carried them. This proved to be no exception: Pete Carroll’s team and its league-best red-zone defense stuffed the Pats on the 1-yard line to close out the game, a stunning reversal of what happened at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, and Co. stepped up in prime time once again.
And even the Cowboys, the owners of one of the league’s most exciting offenses, have sustained success with a defense that’s vastly outperforming expectations. Despite lacking tons of big names, it entered this weekend ranked 14th in defensive DVOA. The Steelers put up plenty of points against Dallas, but the Cowboys made just enough plays to triumph.
The league’s best offenses are all likely to be around during the postseason, but Week 10 served as a reminder that teams built around defense have legitimate paths to the playoffs. Teams like Kansas City, Philadelphia, Denver, and Seattle are rarely going to make winning look pretty, but each has enough defensive firepower to be a threat in January.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The NFL needed that Steelers-Cowboys game. We’ll have to wait on the official TV ratings, but in terms of pure entertainment value, Dallas’s last-minute 35–30 victory over Pittsburgh was about as good as football gets. This was two of the league’s most talented offenses trading blows down the stretch. Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell accounted for 603 yards of total offense and seven of the game’s eight touchdowns. Sign me up for that.
In Pittsburgh’s case, there’s little consolation in rediscovering offensive potency while going toe-to-toe with a one-loss Cowboys squad. Despite all of their talent, the Steelers are 4–5 and starting to lose vital ground in the playoff picture. With the Broncos’ win over the Saints, Pittsburgh now sits two games back in the loss column in the wild-card race. It’s hard to imagine how this group could be left on the outside looking in come the postseason, but that’s getting closer to becoming reality.
For Dallas, this was the most notable win to date in what’s turned into a magical season. The legends of both Prescott and Elliott only continue to grow, as the Cowboys are the only one-loss team remaining in the NFL. At this point, Elliott seems like a guarantee to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and, if we’re handing out hardware, it’s time to acknowledge that Jason Garrett deserves to be the Coach of the Year favorite. Dallas has the league’s most dangerous offense, and it’s gotten there with a rookie quarterback who was taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Even with Elliott and a ferocious offensive line, that’s no small feat. If Bill Belichick got credit for keeping the Patriots afloat during Tom Brady’s suspension, Garrett deserves even more for guiding Dallas to an 8–1 record with Prescott.
2. The Week 10 afternoon slate showcased the best running backs that the league has to offer. At a time when both real and fantasy football teams are desperate for quality backs, it was amazing to watch Bell, Elliott, the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon, the Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi, and the Cardinals’ David Johnson take center stage during the 4 p.m. ET games. It was a chance to observe the league’s most productive runners, save for the Titans’ DeMarco Murray (who had a monster day against the Packers) and the Bills’ LeSean McCoy, without the added distraction of another five or six games.
Elliott stole the show with his game-winning score, but each showed how valuable he can be for his respective offense. Both the Steelers and Cardinals scored touchdowns by using Bell and Johnson to create goal-line mismatches in the passing game, and Gordon continued his resurgent campaign by piling up 132 yards of total offense, including 62 through the air, in a 31–24 loss to Miami. Running backs have become increasingly replaceable, but good luck finding guys who can replicate what these four can do.
3. The design of Elliott’s 83-yard first-quarter touchdown catch was a thing of beauty. It bears repeating: Garrett and his staff also do an excellent job of putting their players in the best possible situations to succeed.
By putting receiver Lucky Whitehead in motion to the left and faking an end around, the Cowboys were able to lure both Steelers linebackers away from this screen. With that group of linemen out front, Elliott in open space, and the middle of the field vacated, scoring almost became too easy. Based on ability alone, this group is guaranteed to make plays. When the design of the offense is this good, it’s virtually unstoppable.
4. The Cowboys offense (rightfully) earns the headlines, but the Dallas defense has outdone itself. I alluded to this earlier, but Dallas was constructed to be an offensive juggernaut. No team in the league is spending more on its offense ($83.7 million in cap money and 54.7 percent of the salary cap), in part because the guaranteed money the Cowboys have allocated to Tony Romo, Bryant, Elliott, left tackle Tyron Smith, and center Travis Frederick all rank in the top 10 at their respective positions.
Those are considerable bills, and they’ve meant that other areas of the Dallas roster have had to suffer monetarily. The Cowboys are 20th in cap money dedicated to defense, and even that number is a bit misleading, due to cornerback Brandon Carr’s inflated salary. No other Dallas defender is making more than $6.2 million this season (that’s linebacker Sean Lee); Lee and tackle Tyrone Crawford are the only defensive players to have signed sizable second deals with the franchise.
That makes the job that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has done in 2016 all the more remarkable. The Cowboys’ bleed-you-dry attack limits how much time the defense is on the field, which contributes to it having the league’s eighth-best scoring defense. But the Dallas group has been dramatically better than anyone could’ve expected, even by more complex metrics like DVOA. While the Steelers moved the ball efficiently Sunday, Marinelli’s unit managed enough big plays (especially in the red zone) to win. Prescott, Elliott, and the offense will dictate how far the Cowboys go, but there’s a reason this guy can get away with wearing sunglasses at night.
5. The Dolphins were built around their defensive line, and that strategy is starting to pay dividends. No team in the league is spending more on its defensive front than Miami ($40.8 million), and over the past few weeks it has begun to reap the rewards. The Dolphins finished Sunday’s 31–24 victory over San Diego with three sacks (two from a suddenly unstoppable Cameron Wake) and eight quarterback hits and spent much of the evening in the Chargers’ backfield. Miami came into this game ranked 10th in defensive DVOA; its performance against an explosive, Philip Rivers–led group was a reminder of how it’s gotten to that point.
With the ground game the Dolphins have developed (and the signs of life from QB Ryan Tannehill), this squad has the look of a team that could pounce on a playoff berth if any of the AFC West’s wild-card contenders hit a skid down the stretch.
6. The Ringer’s own Danny Kelly touched on this in depth, but the Titans’ 47–25 shellacking of Green Bay was the finest game of Marcus Mariota’s career. Mariota’s four-touchdown debut against Tampa Bay last season was the only other effort even in the same realm, and that one may have partially been a result of the rookie sneaking up on a defense that had no NFL tape to study. That wasn’t the case on Sunday, and the quarterback’s output (19-of-26 passing for 295 yards with four touchdowns) came against what had been a notably stout Packers defense. At 5–5, Tennessee remains alive in the putrid AFC South. Even if it doesn’t pull out an improbable division title, Titans fans must be thrilled seeing considerable growth from Mariota in his second season.
7. Jameis Winston made the play of the day (and maybe the season).
If (former Bears scapegoat) Chris Conte picking off a Jay Cutler pass and returning it for a touchdown in a 36–10 Buccaneers’ win wasn’t enough to convince me I’d stumbled into an alternate dimension, this play absolutely was.
8. Russell Wilson is still ridiculous. This fall hasn’t brought Wilson’s coronation as the preeminent quarterback in the league, as some were expecting during the preseason, but Sunday night’s game was a reminder that few QBs are better at their peak. Wilson was the best player on the field in the the Seahawks’ win over the Pats, going 25-of-37 for 348 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Every team in the NFC watched that performance in terror: It was a glimpse of the Seattle team they’ve come to know (and fear) in recent seasons.
9. The Saints’ front four was a bright spot in Sunday’s loss. Brees and the New Orleans offense remain one of the most dangerous outfits in the league, and they’re the reason the Saints are still in the playoff chase even after that loss to Denver dropped them to 4–5. The most encouraging part of New Orleans’s Week 10 outing, though, was the play of its usually vulnerable defense.
With first-round pick Sheldon Rankins now entrenched in the lineup after missing the first seven games with a broken fibula, the Saints are learning to play with their full stable of defensive linemen. The result this week was six sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Defensive end Cameron Jordan was an absolute monster, and Rankins and defensive tackle Nick Fairley recorded one sack apiece. If New Orleans can manage to hang around over the next seven weeks, getting this type of production out of its guys up front will make a huge difference.
10. Blake Bortles has reached new heights of improvised awfulness.
At this point, he’s just putting his own spin on throwing interceptions, as a concept. Tossing the ball directly to a lurking linebacker is too easy. Bortles has turned throwing picks into a terrible quarterback version of parkour. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: These two catches by Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, which came in the span of four plays.
How a team this talented is 4–4–1 and struggled to beat the lowly 49ers on Sunday remains a mystery.