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The Starting 11: The Saints Are Not-So-Under-the-Radar Super Bowl Contenders

Thanks to a rare Justin Tucker gaffe, New Orleans squeaked past the Ravens on Sunday. But don’t let the missed kick distract you — the Saints have the talent to beat anyone. Plus: The Vikings are finding their form, Blake Bortles has found the bench, and Dallas has found a new offensive piece in Amari Cooper.

Getty 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. Don’t let Justin Tucker’s missed extra point distract you—after their 24-23 win over Baltimore on Sunday, the Saints are now the clear no. 2 team in the NFC. Watching the best kicker in football botch an extra point for the first time in his career was a surreal way for this game to end, but New Orleans’s second-half showing against one of the league’s best defenses was impressive. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas connected for multiple comeback-saving passes late in the fourth quarter, and though Brees would finish with only 212 yards passing on the day, the Saints were still able to generate just enough offense to win.

New Orleans converted four of five fourth-down chances on the day, including a Brees QB sneak midway through the fourth quarter that set up the go-ahead touchdown to Thomas. With Brees at the controls—and with weapons like Thomas and Alvin Kamara at his disposal—this team is nearly impossible to stop in high-leverage situations. And with backup quarterback Taysom Hill getting in on the action as a read-option element in certain packages, they’re only getting more difficult to figure out. Games like this one—on the road, with wind gusting, against a defense that’s crushed opponents at times this season—were almost automatic losses for the Saints when they were in their run of 7-9 seasons. But this offense—with its stellar pass-protecting group, that allowed one sack and three hits a week after Baltimore sacked Marcus Mariota 11 times—looks complete right now, and New Orleans keeps managing to find a way.

2. The Vikings are starting to roll—and that’s bad news for the rest of the NFC. Following a rough two-game stretch to close out September, the Vikings have rattled off three straight wins, including their 37-17 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Minnesota’s defense may not be the suffocating unit it was last season, but Mike Zimmer’s group is slowly starting to resemble the units we’ve seen in years past. The Vikings stopped teams on 20 consecutive third downs dating back to the third quarter of their win over the Eagles in Week 5, and flailing stars like Xavier Rhodes have started to round into form. (There was a scary moment on Sunday when it looked like Rhodes might be severely injured, but Zimmer said after the game that it’s only a sprained ankle.)

If Minnesota’s defense can continue its climb, its offense has more than enough firepower to make the Vikings a scary proposition come playoff time. The offensive line is still a major concern (Kirk Cousins was hit seven times on Sunday), but when they do manage to protect the quarterback, this passing game has an absurdly high ceiling. Adam Thielen recorded his seventh straight 100-yard game on Sunday, and the connection he has with Cousins has become one of the most reliable in the league. It’s been an undeniably wonky season for the Vikings to this point, but at 4-2-1 and atop a division filled with uneven teams, it’s looking more and more like their talent will eventually win out.

3. After the Cowboys and Eagles lost on Sunday, the NFC East looks like one huge, jumbled mess. Jason Garrett’s decision-making near the end of the Cowboys’ 20-17 loss to Washington was a clinic on how not to handle late-game situations. With 12 seconds left, Dallas had the ball at the Washington 31-yard line and needed three points. Rather than keeping his foot on the throttle, Garrett elected to run the ball, despite having one timeout remaining. The Cowboys gained just 2 yards. Then on the field goal attempt, the long snapper was called for a false start, pushing the attempt from 47 yards to 52. Naturally, the kick bounced off the upright and sealed the loss. Dallas dropping another game in which it failed to put up points isn’t shocking. What is notable from the result is that the Redskins—who looked like a disaster in New Orleans two weeks ago—are now 4-2 and lead the division.

Washington’s offense has been underwhelming all season, but the defense has been surprisingly effective. Their front seven dominated a once-great Dallas offensive line all afternoon. Ezekiel Elliott finished with just 33 yards on 15 carries, and the Redskins hit Dak Prescott nine times, including four sacks. Washington has used a ton of high-level assets to assemble its front four, and that investment is paying off. Last year’s first-round pick, Jonathan Allen, and 2018 first-round pick Da’Ron Payne are a formidable duo inside, and Ryan Kerrigan is still an impactful pass rusher off the edge; he picked up two sacks on Sunday, and although he has only three on the season, his 20 QB hurries are tied for fifth in the league among edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.

Washington’s win-ugly recipe looks even more intriguing as the Eagles continue to struggle. Carson Wentz was accurate all game in Philly’s 21-17 loss to the Panthers, but the defense collapsed down the stretch. The Eagles secondary has been a problem all year, and if the defensive line isn’t getting pressure, the unit doesn’t stand much of a chance. Carolina’s passing game was nonexistent for the first three quarters as Michael Bennett and friends tormented Cam Newton, but when the pass rush slowed down late in the game, Newton was able to sit in the pocket and pick on cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. After watching what happened last season, it’s tempting to bet on the Eagles’ talent overcoming their struggles and pushing the team into the postseason. But at 3-4, the season is starting to slip away from them.

4. In the latest chapter of the Blake Bortles saga in Jacksonville, the Jaguars benched their starting quarterback in favor of Cody Kessler, and it’s fair to wonder where the team goes from here. Around this time a year ago, the Jags were emerging as the best story in the NFL. Their combination of a dominant pass rush and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye made for a deliriously fun unit that smothered opposing passing attacks and was good for a defensive touchdown every other game. Bortles’s up-and-down tendencies gave Jacksonville a volatile but still dangerous offense, and it seemed like that formula would be workable for at least this season. But after starting 6-for-12 with two lost fumbles in Sunday’s 20-7 loss to the Texans, Bortles was benched. Coach Doug Marrone said Monday that Bortles will be back under center when the Jags take on the Eagles in London next week—after all, if there’s any place that Good Bortles can rediscover his mojo, it’s across the pond. But when a starting quarterback gets yanked, it’s going to at least start a conversation.

NFL: Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Blake Bortles
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Sending Bortles to the bench after a performance like Sunday’s is defensible, but at this point, Kessler probably isn’t a better option. The Jags’ biggest mistake with their quarterback situation wasn’t keeping Bortles in the starting job for this long—it was making him their only realistic option this season. Jacksonville could probably make a panic trade for someone like Sam Bradford or Tyrod Taylor. Tom Coughlin could try to get the band back together and bring Eli Manning to Jacksonville. But none of those options is particularly appealing—and even if they were, a move like that doesn’t make sense in late October. With injuries all over the offense (including at running back and left tackle), the unit’s best chance is probably just hoping the good version of Bortles shows up a few more times this season. That isn’t much of a plan, but for now, it might be Jacksonville’s best bet. This offseason, there will be a serious discussion about the Jags’ QB direction—though, given the contract extension Bortles signed last offseason, the financials get complicated if he’s cut. It’s strange to say after such a promising 2017, but the Jags’ title window might already be closed.

5. The Amari Cooper trade is a fascinating pivot point for two NFL franchises. Jon Gruden dealt Cooper to Dallas in exchange for a first-round pick on Monday, and in doing so he’s made his intentions in Oakland clear: This is a full-scale teardown of the Raiders’ roster. In two months, Gruden has traded Cooper and Khalil Mack, both players who were once thought to be foundational pieces for an emerging young franchise. At this rate, it’s worth wondering who on the Raiders’ roster should feel confident about their future with the team. Derek Carr is due just $7.25 million in dead money if he’s traded or released this offseason, and the Raiders will likely finish low enough in the standings that they’ll have a top-five pick in the 2019 draft to use on a new franchise quarterback. And even if they don’t finish that low on their own, they have two extra first-round picks that will give them plenty of ammunition to move up in the draft if they so choose. In the first year of his 10-year deal, Gruden is fashioning himself as the face of the Raiders, and his tactics have likely left the veterans in that locker room wondering what the hell is happening.

On the Dallas side, the trade makes some sense, even if the asking price was extremely high. Cooper is set to make nearly $14 million next season on his fifth-year option, and he hasn’t looked like a no. 1 receiver for some time. It’s possible that a change in scenery will be enough to unlock Cooper’s potential — he’s still only 24 years old, after all — and allow him to rediscover the player he was in his first two seasons in the league. But giving up a first-round pick for a guy making top-20 money at his position, who will also need a contract extension after 2019, is a lot. There are some larger implications to this deal, though. Cooper could provide a significant talent boost to Dallas’s receiving corps, and in turn give the team a chance to evaluate Dak Prescott’s abilities through a new lens. Next year, Prescott will enter the final year of his rookie contract, and this offseason the Cowboys will have to decide whether they want to pay him upward of $20 million per season on an extension or let him enter 2019 without a new deal. If Cooper provides Prescott with a quality target and the offense still struggles, it’d be a larger indictment of Prescott’s play and may help the Cowboys decide whether or not to employ a wait-and-see method and franchise-tag him (though as we saw with Kirk Cousins over the past few years, that can be a dangerous line to walk). With Cooper in the fold, Dallas’s offense gets a significant talent boost, but there are plenty more questions to answer both this season and beyond.

6. The Texans have been playing with fire all season by putting Deshaun Watson behind a ragged offensive line, but the team’s collection of talented players has propelled Houston to the top of the AFC South with a 4-3 record. It seems reductionist to say that every once in a while, having a few dominant stars is enough, but in Houston’s case, that’s been true this season. DeAndre Hopkins had three big catches against the Jags on Sunday despite being shadowed by Jalen Ramsey all game. Jadeveon Clowney was everywhere for the Houston defense, with four QB hits, two tackles for loss, and two sacks. Tyrann Mathieu added an interception, and J.J. Watt consistently bothered Jacksonville’s quarterbacks off the edge. Houston’s roster is littered with holes—mostly up front—but in a winnable AFC South, its collection of high-level talent might make it the front-runner in the division.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes II
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

7. Patrick Mahomes II’s start to the season has been even more ridiculous than it seems. With Mahomes throwing four touchdown passes on Sunday in a 45–10 win over the Bengals, he now sits at 22 through seven weeks. That puts him on pace for 50 TDs over a full 16-game season. Two guys in NFL history have ever pulled that off; their names are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Yes, Mahomes has the league’s most talented supporting cast and an offensive scheme that accentuates the skills of all its featured pieces, but that doesn’t take away from the historic run this dude has been on. The Chiefs are borderline unstoppable right now, and Mahomes is their driving force.

8. Some of the late-game decisions in the Chargers’ 20–19 win over the Titans in London have been lambasted, but not the ones that should have been. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel has taken some heat over his decision to go for two at the end of the game and not play for overtime. While the play call — an empty set from the 1-yard line, for a team that has Derrick Henry at running back — was a mistake, the choice to go for the win was not. It’s unlikely that Tennessee would have had a better look at the end zone over the entire overtime period than it did on the final two-point try. The Titans controlled the ball for much of the second half, but they were also roasted by two quick-strike Chargers drives earlier in the game. Going for the win in that moment and not letting Philip Rivers touch the ball again was more than defensible.

The real problem late in that game was with the Chargers’ clock-management decisions. With 2:13 remaining in the fourth and the Titans down seven, Marcus Mariota completed a 16-yard pass to Tajae Sharpe, which brought Tennessee to the Chargers’ 14-yard line. At that point, the Titans had more than enough clock to score, and with three timeouts remaining, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn should have made sure that he had time left if the Titans did tie the game or take the lead. Instead, Lynn let the clock tick down and finally called his first timeout with 35 seconds left. After Tennessee’s failed two-point conversion, that poor time management no longer mattered, but Lynn cost himself a chance to have a minute and change remaining on the clock with one of the NFL’s best big-play offenses. The Chargers are damn good, man, but they’re also maddening at times.

9. This week in tales of the tape: The battle between DeAndre Hopkins and Jalen Ramsey was everything you could have wanted it to be. The All-Pro corner shadowed Hopkins for a majority of Sunday’s game, and although Hopkins was limited to three catches, those plays were all massive gains for the Texans. Aside from his ridiculous hands (see: his one-handed snag down the sideline in the first half), Hopkins’s best trait is his physicality. The hand-fighting between he and Ramsey as they jockeyed for position was stuff you’d typically see between two guys battling in the trenches. Wide receiver–cornerback showdowns can occasionally be overblown, but not this time.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Aaron Donald was unblockable against the Niners. Donald’s best asset is his explosiveness at the snap, but he’s also able to use the threat of that speed to consistently crush guards with power rushes. Because so many offensive linemen set Donald outside as they try to cut off the edge, his power moves can be devastating. Donald collapses the pocket so quickly that he’s able to just throw the center into C.J. Beathard to bring him down. The Rams defense has struggled in the secondary this season, with injuries to Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, but when Donald is affecting games like he did on Sunday, it just doesn’t matter.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Kareem Hunt is the least explosive member of the Chiefs offense, and he can still do this.