The NFC’s surprise teams of 2017 made it known on Sunday that they’re not simply content with being early-season darlings. They’re here to stay. Entering this fall, most figured that the Seahawks and Cowboys would be in the thick of the playoff race, and over the past month both have rounded into form, even if Seattle’s 17-14 loss to Washington this week was bad even by the team’s usually baffling regular-season standards. The rise of the Eagles, Rams, and Saints to contender status has snuck up on people, though. And the Week 9 beatdowns handed out by all three served as reminders of how they got to this point and why they aren’t going away.
No other team in the league has exhausted every available resource to gain an edge over its competition to the extent that Philadelphia has during the past few months. The Eagles entered this offseason with restricted cap space after handing out new deals to Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Lane Johnson (and signing some big-ticket free agents, like safety Rodney McLeod and right guard Brandon Brooks) over the past two years, yet somehow they managed to revamp entire position groups at wide receiver and cornerback while swinging a handful of low-risk trades for players on rookie deals. The collective impact of those moves was felt on Sunday in their 51-23 stomping of the Broncos.
Alshon Jeffery, signed to a one-year, $9.5 million deal this offseason, hauled in two touchdown passes, including a one-on-one win over Aqib Talib that made the All-Pro corner pay for peering into the backfield on play-action. Patrick Robinson, a 30-year-old cornerback on his fourth team who signed with Philly for just $775,000 this spring, perfectly read a Demaryius Thomas route to make his third interception in what has been a career season. Defensive end Chris Long, who was lured to the Eagles in March by the chance to play alongside possibly the league’s most talented group of pass rushers, notched a sack. And running back Jay Ajayi, playing his first game with Philadelphia after being acquired in a deadline deal with Miami for a 2018 fourth-round pick, ripped off a 46-yard touchdown and finished with 77 rushing yards on just eight carries. Philadelphia’s front office has spent the past eight months hammering the margins of its roster; the result looks like the most complete team in football.
Still, the Eagles’ chances always rested with Carson Wentz. The second-year quarterback has answered the bell in every game this season, and Sunday he again looked like an MVP front-runner. Wentz slung four touchdown passes in Week 9, upping his total to 23 on the season—the most by a quarterback 25 or younger through nine games since Dan Marino in 1984. And the same traits that have made Wentz so effective all season were on display against Denver. He showed both the arm strength and the accuracy to consistently fit balls into tiny windows; some of the throws he delivered to Jeffery would’ve been picked or tipped had they drifted an inch in any direction. Wentz also continues to look remarkably comfortable throwing on the run, something he’s done frequently in the Eagles’ play-action-heavy offense. Head coach Doug Pederson has orchestrated a scheme that does a lot of work through design and can rip off 197 rushing yards (on an average of 5.3 yards per carry) against the league’s most formidable run defense. It’s Wentz, though, who steers the wagon, and the North Dakota State product couldn’t look more comfortable operating within that structure.
The Rams are also riding a breakthrough campaign from a second-year passer to a probable playoff berth. And there was something beautiful about the symmetry between the outings turned in Sunday by Wentz and 2016 draft mate Jared Goff. The first two overall picks from that class both threw four touchdown passes while leading their teams to 51 points. And while Goff’s showing didn’t come against the vaunted Broncos defense, the Rams’ 51-17 shellacking of the Giants was further proof that Goff and Co. are for real. Los Angeles dismantled an opponent that seems to be coming apart at the seams, forcing three turnovers, blocking a punt, turning a third-and-33 screen pass into a touchdown, and completing a 67-yard score to Sammy Watkins. Much like Wentz against Denver, Goff didn’t have the most efficient afternoon in terms of completion percentage (he went 14-of-22 passing; Wentz finished 15-of-27), but the throws he hit were downright devastating. Goff’s 311 yards made him just the 14th NFL quarterback since the merger to throw for that many on 14 or fewer completions. Only three others had done it this century. Don’t say the Giants aren’t making history.
Unlike the Eagles, the Rams’ task this offseason wasn’t to smooth out the edges of the roster while hoping their quarterback would take a massive step forward. L.A. needed wholesale changes, both to the roster and the infrastructure that could facilitate Goff’s development. Its reconstruction efforts have been successful in every imaginable way. The impact of head coach Sean McVay’s tutelage and the benefits bestowed by an entirely revamped receiving corps have been oft cited as driving forces behind the Rams’ 6-2 start, but key changes along the offensive line (namely the additions of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan) have also been instrumental to the team’s emergence. Goff’s first touchdown pass Sunday, an 8-yard strike to tight end Tyler Higbee on a third-and-2 in the first quarter, had little to do with clever design or receiving talent. With ample time to bounce around in the pocket even as the play broke down, Goff was able to find Higbee just across the goal line as the 6-foot-6 257-pounder snuck into open space.
The Saints did some offensive line tinkering of their own this spring, drafting Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the no. 32 overall pick they got from the Patriots in the deal that sent wide receiver Brandin Cooks to New England. The Ramczyk pick has proved invaluable following injuries to both Terron Armstead and Zach Strief on the outside. With or without Ramczyk, though, the Saints offense was never going to be the problem. It’s the defense that’s held New Orleans back in recent years, and that’s why the team’s other first-round pick has stolen the show so far.
Before this season, the Saints defense had been locked in the DVOA basement for three straight years: from 2014 through last season, it finished 31st, 32nd, and 31st, respectively, in that category, according to Football Outsiders.. After two dreadful games to open this season, it felt like New Orleans would only ever find competency on that side of the ball after blowing everything up and starting anew, from the coaching staff on down the line. Since then, the Saints have managed to field a defense that’s been league average (16th in DVOA before shutting down the Buccaneers on Sunday) and only seems to be getting better, and they’ve done it in large part by hitting on a pair of rookies in the secondary. Safety Marcus Williams, the 42nd overall pick in the 2017 draft, has been a plug-and-play starter all season and would likely be the most celebrated rookie on any other defense in football. He just happens to play alongside Marshon Lattimore, the 11th overall pick, who helped limit Mike Evans to one catch for 13 yards in Week 9’s 30-10 win over Tampa Bay. Lattimore already looks like one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and on a deep shot to Evans up the left side during Sunday’s fourth quarter, he stayed in the receiver’s pocket all the way down the field, read his eyes as the ball approached, and reached his hand out at the last second to knock it away. Lattimore has been the master of his domain at all times, and his presence—combined with that of Williams, the development of 2016 draft picks Von Bell and Sheldon Rankins, and the free-agent signing of end Alex Okafor—have turned the Saints defense completely around.
Considering what Drew Brees now has to work with on that offense (Alvin Kamara is a joy), that’s more than enough to make the Saints a threat in the NFC. The paths to contention for the Saints, Eagles, and Rams weren’t easy to decipher before the season, but they’ve grown increasingly clear by the week. Good teams blow out bad ones, and all three left no doubt on Sunday that their results from the first half of this fall haven’t been a fluke.
The Rams aren’t merely a cute story. The Saints defense isn’t a façade. And the Eagles aren’t 2017’s jackrabbit team. All three have designs on making deep postseason runs, and all three have the pieces to make that happen.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Cowboys look like a playoff team following their third straight win, but Ezekiel Elliott’s potential suspension could change that. With Sunday’s 28-17 victory over the Chiefs, the Cowboys just keep clicking. On the heels of two huge performances from Elliott and the offense, the Dallas defense—now close to full strength with Sean Lee, David Irving, and Anthony Hitchens back in the fold—showed up in a big way against an excellent Chiefs team that scored only one touchdown that wasn’t an embarrassing last-second screen pass. After a shaky start to this fall, the Cowboys have begun to look like the logical team to challenge the Panthers and Seahawks for one of the NFC’s wild-card spots.
Elliott’s six-game suspension seems like it could go into effect at any time, though, and while the second-year back had a subpar outing against Kansas City, he still carried 27 times and figures to be a focal point for the Cowboys as long as he’s on the field. The play of Dak Prescott, a stellar offensive line, and a rapidly improving defense could be enough to keep Dallas afloat amid a weak group of second-tier NFC teams even without Elliott, but his efforts against San Francisco and Washington showed the on-field element that he brings to this offense. It took about six weeks for the best version of the Cowboys to emerge; that version may not be around for very long.
2. The Seahawks refuse to be consistent, and it’s frustrating as hell. Kicker Blair Walsh missing three field goals (of 44, 39, and 49 yards, respectively) in what was ultimately a three-point game didn’t help Seattle, but he wasn’t the only reason that the Seahawks lost 17-14. Russell Wilson delivered an uneven performance in the rain (he went 9-of-20 passing in the first half and finished with two interceptions), and his team failed to beat an opponent that was missing four of its starters on the offensive line.
The Seahawks did sack Kirk Cousins six times—including one, by Bobby Wagner, that caused a safety—but Washington was able to sustain enough drives to hang around. Seattle seems to have a few head-scratching losses every year, but this one feels especially bizarre given the way the offense lit up the scoreboard in last week’s 41-38 win over the Texans.
3. The Eagles already had a dominant running game; adding Jay Ajayi makes it unfair. The loss of left tackle Jason Peters to an ACL tear earlier this season would be a big blow to any offense, but Philly proved on Sunday that it still has more than enough up front to churn out yards on the ground. Take Ajayi’s 46-yard touchdown run, for example:
The #Eagles need to keep feeding Jay Ajayi the ball. Dude can run... #DENvsPHI. Pin-pull outside zone to the left out of shotgun. pic.twitter.com/NLMYVFrtlp— Samuel Gold (@SamuelRGold) November 5, 2017
The Eagles love to use center Jason Kelce as a puller because he works as well in space as any interior offensive lineman in the NFL. Kelce’s mobility on this sort of pin-and-pull block creates natural angles for the guy next to him, who in this case is left guard Stefen Wisniewski. On the other side is 2016 free-agent signing and all-around badass Brandon Brooks. Check out how casually Brooks works to the backside linebacker on the second level. That’s damn smooth for a 335-pound guard, who easily tracks to linebacker Brandon Marshall and helps clear the way for Ajayi to go to the house.
The reason Brooks can take such a quick path to the second level is because he doesn’t need to touch the defensive tackle to his right. That duty falls to right tackle Lane Johnson, who’s able to reach that player without so much as a punch. This run is a perfect example of the way that linemen help one another out in subtle but meaningful ways. Even without Peters, Philly has a group of immensely talented blockers who make the players next to them better. Dropping Ajayi into that mix is just plain scary.
4. The Falcons keep finding new ways to disappoint. As it raced to a quick 10-0 lead over Carolina and racked up more than 100 passing yards in the first quarter, Atlanta looked as if it had finally found its offensive footing. But Sunday turned into yet another stop-and-go afternoon for Matt Ryan and Co., who mustered only two touchdowns in a 20-17 loss. The Falcons discover new ways to sabotage their chances every week. This time, Julio Jones had a brutal fourth-down drop in the end zone with 8:14 remaining in regulation.
No defense in football had allowed more plays per drive entering Week 9 than Atlanta (6.76), and that problem reared its head again in Carolina. The Panthers pieced together two straight third-quarter drives that lasted nine plays or more. With Carolina and New Orleans both recording their sixth wins on Sunday, the 4-4 Falcons’ playoff hopes are starting to slip away.
5. The Chiefs’ faux potato-sack race is the midseason leader for the NFL’s best group touchdown celebration. Kansas City’s response to Travis Kelce’s 2-yard score in the third quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys was everything that fans could want:
FIRST: Watch @Tkelce haul in the TD.— NFL (@NFL) November 5, 2017
NEXT: Watch him win the @chiefs potato sack race
Incredible. #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/blqHMNZUBN
The setup happened quickly, the number of guys in the gag (three) was perfect, and there was just the right amount of deception involved. The Chiefs players crouched into a sprinter’s stance along the sideline for just long enough to make you think, “Wait, what is going on?” And of course, the answer was the dumbest, funniest thing possible. The whole production really gets a boost from how well the other two guys besides Kelce sell the fall. They go all out in service of the bit, and it makes all the difference.
6. Kansas City’s makeshift Hail Mary to close out the first half in Dallas was a fascinating blend of design, individual ability, and defensive miscues. The calculations that went into the Chiefs’ decision to throw a screen pass of sorts to Tyreek Hill as a last-ditch effort for points at the end of the second quarter make sense. Putting the ball in the hands of the best athlete on the roster likely gave Kansas City a superior chance to score than throwing a jump ball to a bunch of undersized receivers would have. Still, Hill’s 57-yard touchdown scamper required a major defensive breakdown on the Cowboys’ end:
The Prevent Defense can't prevent Tyreek Hill from getting in the end zone. pic.twitter.com/JRTJ7Aj2j0— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 5, 2017
If you watch Anthony Brown (no. 30), he never actually makes an effort to get anywhere close to the play, negating one of the seven players Dallas had lined up near the goal line. Byron Jones (no. 31) gets taken out by a Kelce block downfield, and Jeff Heath (no. 38) is sealed off by Demetrius Harris. The real hero, though, is second-year receiver Demarcus Robinson (no. 14). Robinson manages to block Xavier Woods (no. 25) and Jourdan Lewis (no. 27) in succession, essentially leaving Hill to beat Anthony Hitchens (no. 59) one-on-one as he approaches the end zone. This score was made possible in part because of the Cowboys’ incompetence, but Kansas City also deserves credit. The Chiefs knew that they wanted to get the ball to Hill in space, and they put themselves in a spot to make it happen.
7. Sunday showed the two disparate approaches that teams take to reorganizing their offensive lines after a major injury—and the impact that each can have. Once the Eagles lost left tackle Jason Peters to a season-ending ACL tear a few weeks ago, there was speculation that the offense could move standout right tackle Lane Johnson to the other side in order to get their best healthy lineman in the most important spot up front. Instead, the Eagles chose to keep Johnson on the right side, thus allowing swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to replace Peters. Philly’s thinking was that it would downgrade at two positions (both right and left tackle) by moving Johnson to the left, all while disrupting the continuity that Johnson and Brandon Brooks have on the right side. Stability was the Eagles’ determining factor, and the team has found success giving Vaitai help with tight ends and running backs on the left side.
Meanwhile, with left tackle Joe Staley sidelined by an orbital fracture, the 49ers chose to move right tackle Trent Brown to the left and replace him with undrafted free agent Erik Magnuson. Let’s just say that didn’t go well. The Cardinals recorded 16 quarterback hits and sacked quarterback C.J. Beathard five times in Sunday’s 20-10 win. Not all of that damage was the fault of the line—Beathard’s “no regard for consequences” style also played a part—but the discrepancy was telling. This was another example of how even one injury along the line can have a cascading effect depending on how teams handle it.
8. Watching Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage start games in the same time slot Sunday felt like being strapped down and shown a horror film streamed directly from a Texans fan’s consciousness. Everything about the Osweiler-Savage frightfest felt engineered to produce maximum terror. Both quarterbacks finished the day with 19 completions while attempting at least 38 passes. Osweiler managed only 208 passing yards; Savage hit just 219. This was like watching a real-life version of that pointing Spider-Man meme, only Spider-Man’s superpowers in this case were being tall and knowing how to correctly apply eye black.
Now that Deshaun Watson is out for the season, the football watching public’s worst nightmare is a league populated entirely by former and current Texans quarterbacks. Getting Savage (for Houston) and Osweiler (for Denver) simulcast in Week 9 was far too close for comfort.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Tyron Smith’s impossible reach block on this inside zone run for the Cowboys.
I know, I know—this only resulted in a 7-yard gain. But hear me out. At its best, the Cowboys’ offensive line is dominant because its individual stars make blocks that many other guys in the league wouldn’t even be asked to attempt. Smith’s back problems have occasionally acted up this season, but he remains an unbelievable athlete who can make defensive linemen look silly. On this play, he manages to reach Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey (no. 97) even though he starts the play aligned over right guard Jonathan Cooper (no. 64). The quickness, precision, and strength it takes to get all the way inside Bailey and twist him around in place is hard to comprehend. Somehow, Smith makes it look easy.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Rams’ all-too-easy touchdown to Sammy Watkins.
SIXTY. SEVEN. YARDS.@JaredGoff16 finds @sammywatkins for 6️⃣! pic.twitter.com/8nppBn2Rz0— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) November 5, 2017
By threatening to go outside with just a single step, Watkins is able to instead run past Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie before blowing right by safety Landon Collins—whose eyes were on the play fake—up the middle of the field for the score. Jared Goff checked to this play before the snap based on the coverage he anticipated from the way the Giants lined up, and the hard play fake and altered launch point outside the pocket left Watkins wide open.
11. This week in NFL players, they're absolutely nothing like us:
Are you kidding, @A_kamara6?!— NFL (@NFL) November 5, 2017
What. A. Play. #GoSaints pic.twitter.com/zYpfE0e3Iq
Alvin Kamara is just silly.