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The Starting 11: Does Anyone Want to Win the AFC’s North and South Divisions?

While Blake Bortles is Blake Bortles–ing and the Texans refuse to take control of the division, the Steelers and Ravens showed that there may be a few Kings in the North. Plus: Todd Gurley helped his MVP chances, and Adam Thielen has taken the league by storm.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:

1. Based on Sunday’s results, it doesn’t appear that any team in the AFC South has much interest in winning the division. The Jaguars lost a road matchup against the Cowboys 40-7 in what might have been their worst game since rising to prominence at the start of the 2017 season. Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense sliced and diced the Jacksonville defense to the tune of 378 total yards and 40 points, and the Jags didn’t seem to have any answers for Cole Beasley, who repeatedly roasted them in the middle of the field and won multiple one-on-one matchups with Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye. Dallas had plenty of success on the ground with its varied blocking schemes up front, and the Cowboys’ staff did a fantastic job utilizing Prescott’s skill set with bootlegs, play-action throws, and designed quarterback runs. Against Seattle three weeks ago, this offense looked lost schematically, but credit goes to coordinator Scott Linehan and head coach Jason Garrett for making the changes their team—and quarterback—desperately needed.

The loss dropped the Jags to 3-3, even with both the Texans and Titans at the top of the division (the Colts, at 1-5, are the lone team in last place). Based on talent alone, Jacksonville is still the favorite to win the AFC South title, but the cracks in this team are starting to show. The level of defensive dominance the Jags exhibited last season is difficult to sustain from year to year, and the loss of slot cornerback Aaron Colvin in free agency has begun to have an impact. Without Colvin on Sunday, the Jags had to move Bouye to the slot to cover Beasley, sacrificing the overall integrity of their secondary. That may seem like a minor issue, but as Jacksonville’s offense struggles, any defensive falloff could be catastrophic. Blake Bortles has had an up-and-down (mostly down) season, and injuries on the offensive line have hurt the Jags’ pass protection (Bortles was sacked three times and hit seven times by an underrated Cowboys front that’s getting hot with players like Randy Gregory and David Irving back in the fold). I’d still pick Jacksonville to take the division, but this team’s status is a contender in the AFC looks tenuous at best.

Most of the optimism about the Jags’ chances in the AFC South comes from a lack of faith in the other three teams. The Texans needed a late-game Nathan Peterman sighting and the resulting two interceptions to ward off the Bills in a 20-13 win Sunday. Houston simply cannot field a functional offense with its combination of the league’s worst offensive line and a quarterback who thrives on extending plays to create chunk gains. Deshaun Watson is good for three or four spectacular moments a game, but he was sacked seven times Sunday and took 12 hits. The Bills’ defensive front has kept them in several games this season, but Houston’s line deserves much of the blame for allowing that much pressure. No element of the Texans’ passing game looks settled, and it’s led to Watson taking unnecessary risks with the ball in high-stakes areas of the field. The interception Watson threw to safety Jordan Poyer in the end zone with less than a minute left in the second quarter—one that came because of an awful decision—stole three points from Houston in a game where scoring was at a premium. The Texans defense has enough talent to keep them hanging around in most games, and Watson has had plenty of moments this year despite the team’s inability to sustain offense. But it’s hard to feel good about where Houston is heading right now.

2. Much like the AFC South, the AFC North looks to be up for grabs. The difference is that this might be the best division in the NFL. The Steelers pulled out a 28-21 victory at Cincinnati on Sunday, and that game provided a window into just how vicious the fight for the division title is going to be down the stretch. After five weeks, it seemed like the 4-1 Bengals might be the class of the AFC North, but Sunday’s game was a reminder of just how dangerous the Steelers can be in the right circumstances. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster both made huge plays when it mattered most (including Brown’s game-winning touchdown reception on a pick play that could have been called offensive pass interference) and James Conner pounded the ball for 111 yards and two scores on the ground (also, this team is likely to get Le’Veon Bell back in the fold down the stretch, which certainly isn’t a bad thing). But the best performance for the Steelers came collectively from their offensive line. On 46 dropbacks, Ben Roethlisberger was hit once. Once. Roethlisberger played from a clean pocket the entire game, and if an opposing pass rush can’t make noise up front, the Steelers’ firepower is going to be break through eventually.

3. As the Bengals and Steelers slugged it out in Cincinnati, the Ravens cruised to a 21-0 win over the lifeless Titans—and in the process, showed why they might be the team to beat in the AFC North. While some of the league’s best defenses through five weeks (Bears, Jaguars, and Browns) fell apart Sunday, a strong Baltimore unit just kept chugging along. The Ravens sacked Marcus Mariota 11 times in Sunday’s win, which I didn’t even know was possible in an NFL game. Despite changing coordinators in the last year (going from Dean Pees to Wink Martindale), this defense has remained one of the most reliable groups in the NFL. It has talent at every level, and Sunday, pass rusher Za’Darius Smith and safety Tony Jefferson took their turn leading another excellent performance.

Baltimore fielding one of the league’s best defenses is no surprise. The difference this season, though, is that the offense has just enough juice to make the Ravens a scary proposition should they get to the playoffs. Offseason additions Michael Crabtree and John Brown may have been afterthoughts to most observers, but they’re significant upgrades over the receivers Joe Flacco has played with over the past few seasons. And All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda is back in the lineup after missing most of last season, which has vastly improved the offensive line’s pass protection (according to Pro Football Focus, Flacco has been kept clean on 75.6 percent of his dropbacks; among qualified QBs, only Mitchell Trubisky ranks higher). In a league where so many teams are struggling to find an identity, the Ravens know exactly who they are, and that makes them dangerous.

4. The Ravens may be lurking in the playoff hunt, but after the Chargers defeated the Browns in a 38-14 blowout, it’s time to put them squarely behind the Chiefs and Patriots in the pecking order of AFC contenders. The L.A. offense decimated a Cleveland defense that came into the week ranked second in DVOA. QB Philip Rivers did some damage with a trio of deep throws to wide receiver Tyrell Williams, but the star of this game was running back Melvin Gordon. The fourth-year rusher ran for 138 yards on just 18 carries while scoring three touchdowns, smoking the Browns from sideline to sideline. The Chargers had a perfect game plan against an aggressive Cleveland defense that involved sealing the edge with their wide receivers while their interior linemen (particularly center Mike Pouncey, one of the most unheralded free-agent signings of the offseason) climbed to the second level and picked off linebackers. Gordon did the rest. The visualization of his player-tracking data from Sunday’s win is a gorgeous work of art:

During Gordon’s tenure with the Chargers, the team has struggled mightily to find consistency with its offensive line. That hasn’t changed this year, with starting right tackle Joe Barksdale missing the past five games with a knee injury, but Pouncey has been a steadying presence for this group inside. And even on days when Gordon isn’t churning out yards efficiently on the ground, the Chargers are so confident in his ability to find the end zone that they continue to feed him as both a runner and a receiver. Gordon is on pace for more than 110 targets this season, which represents a considerable departure from the way L.A. used him early in his career. In 2015 and 2016, when Danny Woodhead was the second member of the Chargers’ backfield, Gordon ceded the receiving work to the team’s change-of-pace back. But even with Austin Ekeler taking away touches this year, Gordon’s role is no longer so singular. He’s become 2015 Melvin Gordon and 2015 Danny Woodhead melded into one player. Much like his draft classmate, Todd Gurley, Gordon has moved beyond being a running back and transitioned into a multi-faceted weapon for the Chargers offense.

5. Speaking of Gurley, following a 23-20 win over the Broncos, he and the Rams both have chances to accomplish historic feats: Gurley could become the first running back since Adrian Peterson in 2012 to win the MVP, and the Rams have a chance at going 16-0. With another 225 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns Sunday, Gurley is on pace for 2,320 yards from scrimmage and 29 total touchdowns this season. Here’s the full list of players who’ve accomplished that feat: LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.

That’s it. That is the list. Tomlinson also happened to win the MVP award that season. In an era when quarterbacks are king, what Gurley is doing for the league’s best team is ridiculous. He’s set to approach records many thought would never be broken, and if the Rams do own this season for the next 10 weeks, it’s reasonable to think that a player with Gurley’s production would have a case for MVP even if he and Jared Goff split the vote.

It would certainly help Gurley if the Rams go undefeated the rest of the way, and although a tight win over a mediocre (at best) Broncos team doesn’t seem all that inspiring, consider that the Rams just played a game in freezing temperatures on the road in October. Those are the types of games where good teams often falter, and, for the second straight week, the Rams managed to pull out a victory when the outcome seemed uncertain for much of the game. Sean McVay’s team does have a Monday-night tilt with the Chiefs in Mexico City looming next month and a road trip to New Orleans remaining on its schedule, but the Rams also get two games against the banged-up 49ers, another against the Josh Rosen–led Cardinals, and a home game versus the Seahawks to round out their divisional slate. It’s possible that by the time the Eagles come to town in mid-December they’ll have morphed into a bigger threat, but the Rams will enjoy the comforts of the Coliseum for that one. It’s far from an easy path, but the amount of talent on this roster—and the ability to finish off close road games—means it’s on the table.

6. In a wild 31-28 loss to the Dolphins, the Bears disappointed every person who was starting to believe they could be an NFC wild-card contender. Chicago played the most bizarre game it could have against a Miami offense led by Brock Osweiler. After Ryan Tannehill became a late pregame scratch due to an injured throwing shoulder, it seemed like the Bears defense would feast on the immobile, turnover-prone backup quarterback. Instead, Osweiler threw for 380 yards and put up 31 points on Khalil Mack and the no. 1 defense in football by DVOA. Of Osweiler’s 380 yards, an unbelievable 274 of them came after the catch. Bears safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson, who had both been excellent open-field tacklers for much of the season, consistently took terrible angles on short throws, allowing Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson to tear up the defense for 155 yards on six catches. It didn’t help that Mack went into the injury tent in the first half and emerged with a heavily taped right ankle. Without his dominant presence on the edge, the Bears’ pass rush went silent, and the defense fell apart.

Still, even with all of Osweiler’s easy catch-and-run completions, this was a game the Bears could have won. They held a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and it seemed as though Mitchell Trubisky and Tarik Cohen had put the game away with a short touchdown pass in the right flat. But the play was called back on a borderline offensive pass interference call, and, on the next snap, Trubisky threw an ill-advised pass over the middle that was intercepted. That’s the type of sequence that can crush a team on the road, but Miami let Chicago back in the game in overtime when running back Kenyan Drake coughed up the ball inches from paydirt and allowed the Bears to drive into Dolphins territory. Once there, though, head coach Matt Nagy was content to sit on the ball with three straight running plays and kicker Cody Parkey pushed the resulting 53-yard field goal attempt to the right. The Dolphins drove down the field on the next possession and ended the game with a 47-yard field goal. It was a maddening game for Bears fans (and likely, people still alive in their survival pools), but with an easy slate of games following their Week 7 matchup against the Patriots, the Bears are still very much in the playoff hunt.

7. In the final seconds of the Buccaneers’ 34-29 loss to the Falcons, they nearly pulled off one of the wonkiest trick plays in NFL history. With seven seconds remaining in the game and the Bucs starting from the Falcons’ 21-yard line, Jameis Winston took the snap and darted out, starting what looked like a designed series of laterals to his wide receivers. The only problem was that Winston ran a bit too far upfield, screwing up the timing of the play and forcing his receivers to scramble as they tried to get the ball to DeSean Jackson on the sideline. Even with the dysfunction, though, a better bounce might have allowed Jackson to scoop up the ball and make it into the end zone.

For a play that initially looked dead in the water, the Bucs wound up just inches away from winning the game, and, possibly, from saving their defensive coordinator’s job. Instead, after yet another embarrassing performance by the Tampa Bay defense, Mike Smith was fired Monday; it may not be enough to solve the Bucs’ woes on that side of the ball, but it was clear that something had to change.

8. Change also seems to be brewing in Oakland—but not in a good way. Shortly before the Raiders were crushed by the Seahawks 27-3 in London, word leaked out that both Amari Cooper and Karl Joseph may be available for trade before the deadline later this month. It’s the latest odd turn in the Jon Gruden saga, which began with the Raiders dealing Mack just before the season. Gruden’s motivation at this point remains a mystery. The Raiders are set to move to Las Vegas ahead of the 2020 season, and there’s a chance they won’t have a single one of the high-profile players that were a part of this team during its surprising 2016 playoff run.

Quarterback Derek Carr has only $7.5 million in dead money remaining on the landmark $125 million deal he signed 16 months ago, and it’s possible that Gruden will move on from the passer before the 2019 season. Over the past seven months, Gruden has gone from signing aging veterans like Jordy Nelson to overseeing a full-scale teardown of everything the previous regime tried to build. The Raiders have fully entered the Tyson Zone. There is no news story about this franchise I wouldn’t take at face value.

9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Few plays along the defensive line are more fun than a well-executed spin move, and this beauty from Maliek Collins was no different. Every element of the setup is perfection. With linebacker Jaylon Smith bailing just before the snap, Collins knows he’ll have plenty of room to work back inside as the lineman accounts for Smith all the way on the other side of the other formation. As he sees guard Andrew Norwell’s set, he hits a quick spin back inside, and Blake Bortles has absolutely no chance to escape.

10 and 11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: It was too damn hard to choose between Adam Thielen and JuJu Smith-Schuster—so I didn’t. By the way, what the hell is there left to say about Thielen? After six straight 100-yard games to start the season, he’s proved that he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL, no qualifiers necessary. Along with being one of the best route runners in football, he’s good for one of these catches a game. The guy is just incredible.