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The Starting 11: Are the Steelers, Chargers, and Texans Winning Streaks for Real?

While things are looking up in Pittsburgh, L.A., and Houston, plenty of other franchises around the league are facing head-coaching crises. Plus: The Bears finally look like a legit playoff team, and Melvin Gordon is taking 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. With dominant teams like the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints firmly entrenched at the top of the NFL hierarchy, streaking teams are looking to fight their way into the league’s elite tier—and that starts with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers’ 52-21 dismantling of the Panthers on Thursday night was about as complete a victory as you’ll ever see in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger was virtually flawless, completing 22 of his 25 passes for 328 yards and a ridiculous five touchdowns. For all the hand-wringing about the team’s early-season stumbles, Pittsburgh’s offense has finally started to resemble the high-flying units we’ve seen in years past. The Steelers are scoring 31 points per game (the fourth-best mark in the league) and, though they sit at no. 8 in offensive DVOA, they’ll likely climb at least a spot or two this week. James Conner has stepped in successfully for Le’Veon Bell, giving the Steelers the same level of offensive explosiveness that we’re used to seeing. Plus, it helps that Conner is playing behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. With all those factors clicking, this team looks terrifying, especially at home. And with the Patriots stumbling a bit, the no. 2 seed in the AFC looks like it might be there for the taking. The Steelers have been in prime form over their five-game winning streak, and no other contenders in that conference will want to see Pittsburgh come playoff time.

2. The Chargers are on a six-game winning streak of their own, and they look like they could compete with anybody in the AFC. Philip Rivers had an off day on Sunday, relative to the MVP-caliber numbers he’s put up so far this season, but Melvin Gordon picked up the slack for the Chargers offense in the team’s 20-6 win over the Raiders. The star running back finished with 165 yards from scrimmage and was a force as both a rusher and a receiver.

The Chargers have had plenty of talent on both sides of the ball in recent years; the difference this season is that established players have contributed in bigger ways, and offseason pickups like first-round pick Derwin James have paid immediate dividends. After years as a volume-dependent back who struggled to find much efficiency on the ground, Gordon has developed into one of the best backs in football. He failed to crack 4.0 yards per carry in any of his first three seasons, but this year, it’s jumped all the way to 5.4 yards per rush. He’s also added 36 catches for 361 yards and four touchdowns. Every game, it feels like Gordon rips off a huge play either on the ground or through the air, and combined with the way Rivers has played all year, they’ve turned the Chargers into one of the more potent offenses in the league.

3. Houston’s bye week kept the Texans atop the AFC South with a 6-3 record, but the Titans tightened that divisional race up this weekend. Heading into this week, the Texans had won six straight games while riding the red-hot Deshaun Watson. But Tennessee’s surprising 34-10 win over the Patriots on Sunday brought the team to 5-4 and kept the Titans within striking distance of the division lead. Head coach Mike Vrabel’s defense is very much for real. That unit dominated the Patriots up front and routinely made life hard for Tom Brady by collapsing the pocket. The sheer amount of talent that the Titans have in their front seven is going to keep them in games against just about every team in the league, and if wide receiver Corey Davis can show that his destruction of Stephon Gilmore (seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown) is a sign of what’s to come, the Titans offense will have an extra gear down the stretch.

And with the way that Houston is playing, they’re going to need it. The Texans offensive line continues to be a significant concern, but Watson has shown in recent weeks that he’s able to overcome his team’s shaky infrastructure. He followed up his five-touchdown performance in Week 8 against the Dolphins with another excellent showing against the Broncos, albeit with fewer opportunities to throw than he should have had. The combination of Watson and DeAndre Hopkins—and the high-end talent that Houston has on defense—rightfully makes the Texans the favorites in the division, even with Tennessee coming on strong.

Todd Bowles’s profile
Todd Bowles
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

4. Week 10 was a disaster for a few coaches who may be on the hot seat. The Jets lost 41-10 on Sunday to a Bills team quarterbacked by Matt Barkley. That’s about as bad as it gets in the NFL in 2018, and it’s starting to seem like the Todd Bowles era is nearing its end in New York. The Jets started Josh McCown under center after a foot injury kept Sam Darnold on the sideline, and the results weren’t pretty. McCown completed just 17 of his 34 attempts for a paltry 135 yards. But those kinds of struggles aren’t surprising against the stout Bills defense. The shocking part was how easily Barkley led the Buffalo offense up and down the field. Robert Foster and Zay Jones combined for 198 receiving yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions. When the seemingly inevitable postmortem on Bowles’s tenure with the Jets arrives, that should probably be the first sentence.

Bowles’s future with the franchise was already in question before Sunday’s nightmare game. With Darnold installed as the team’s quarterback of the future, there’s growing pressure for the Jets to build an offensive staff—likely around an offensive-minded head coach—to get all they can from Darnold on his rookie contract. Given that directive alone, it wasn’t likely that Bowles would last in his current role beyond this season. Performances like Sunday’s may bring that fate even sooner.

5. Marvin Lewis and the Bengals had their own embarrassing showing in a 51-14 loss to the Saints, and while Lewis has managed to hold onto his job for 15-plus years, it seems like this might be his last gasp in Cincinnati. The Bengals defense looked hapless as the Saints offense moved the ball at will Sunday. With that game, Cincinnati became the first team in the Super Bowl era to allow 500 yards in three straight contests. To stem the tide, Lewis fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on Monday and will reportedly take over the defense this Sunday against Baltimore. At this point, that doesn’t seem like much of a solution. Lewis hasn’t called defensive plays since his days as a coordinator—more than a decade and a half ago. Plus, the Bengals’ issues aren’t contained to the guy calling the shots. This defense has a serious talent deficiency at every level. Without pass rusher Carl Lawson, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL, Cincinnati hit Drew Brees only twice Sunday. As, a result the secondary was exposed. New Orleans scored touchdowns on its first five possessions and faced virtually no resistance.

Earlier this decade, Lewis did a remarkable job resurrecting a lifeless Bengals franchise. Cincinnati was a leaguewide punch line before Lewis secured greater personnel control and more power within the organization after the 2010 season. With him at the helm, the Bengals made the postseason in five straight seasons, from 2011 to 2015. All of those trips ended in early defeat, but the fact that Lewis built a team that was even competing for division titles was nothing short of a miracle. Those days of even moderate success are over. The team is sitting at 5-4 and trending in the wrong direction. It lacks any discernible identity on both offense and defense and will likely miss out on the playoffs for the third straight season. It may be time to start over and see whether the franchise can break out of its rut.

6. Speaking of teams trying to break out of a rut, my goodness, are the Buccaneers in trouble. The Bucs offense was rolling through the first six weeks of the season. With Todd Monken installed as the team’s play caller, Tampa Bay’s Air Raid–influenced approach led to monster numbers for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the team’s impressive collection of offensive weapons. For whatever reason, though, after the Bucs defense gave up 42 points to the Panthers in Week 9, head coach Dirk Koetter decided the offense was the problem. Sunday, Koetter took over play-calling duties against Washington, and the Bucs lost a game in which they scored three points. A few ill-timed turnovers and a costly fumble on a shotgun snap in the red zone made the final score look uglier than the game flow would indicate. Fitzpatrick threw for 406 yards while completing nearly 71 percent of his passes. But Koetter’s decision—which came about halfway into a season when his team has ranked 15th in offensive DVOA—was the latest short-term solution designed to stave off the inevitable in Tampa Bay.

First, the team fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith in mid-October. That was defensible, as 2018 was Smith’s second season in charge of the most clueless defense in the league. Then, when teams were handing out draft picks left and right in exchange for useful wide receivers, the Bucs held onto DeSean Jackson and will likely watch him walk in free agency this spring. Koetter also changed the one aspect of his team that was actually working. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that the Bucs’ ownership won’t clean house this offseason and start a wholesale rebuild from the ground up.

Andrew Luck and Frank Reich talk during a preseason game
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

7. Frank Reich has finally built the offense that Andrew Luck deserves. The Colts offense hung 29 points on the Jaguars on Sunday in yet another efficient game through the air by Luck. The signal-caller spent the first five seasons of his career playing in a downfield passing offense that asked him to make difficult throws and left him vulnerable to punishment behind a shaky offensive line. This season, Reich has overhauled that system. The Colts now feature a quick passing game that gives Luck plenty of receiving options early in downs, and as a result he’s having the most efficient season of his career, completing more than 66 percent of his passes. Luck has had one game all season with a completion percentage under 60 percent. The team’s mix of RPOs, quick play-action throws, and creative tight end use has lifted a ton of the burden off of Luck’s shoulders. For the first time since he arrived in Indianapolis in 2012, it looks like the Colts have solved their offensive line issues.

The team landed left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, which upgraded two starting line spots. With those two playing alongside established starters like left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly, the Colts have allowed just 10 sacks on the season and were spotless against a talented Jaguars front Sunday. The Luck-Reich partnership couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

8. Sunday’s win served as a reminder of what the Bears were missing without Allen Robinson and Khalil Mack. Chicago decided to rest its ailing stars against the Jets and Bills in back-to-back weeks, and both returned with a vengeance in a 34-22 win over the Lions. Robinson finished the game with 133 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including an absurd sliding catch that required him to adjust midair as he twisted to haul in the pass. And Mack picked up right where he left off before he was hampered by an ankle injury. He finished with two of the Bears’ six sacks, as they tormented Matthew Stafford all game. It was tough to tell against teams like the Bills and Jets, but with this win the Bears finally look like a playoff team. Their prime-time showdown with the Vikings next week figures to be crucial as those two teams battle it out for control of the NFC North.

9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind, Part 1: This is why the Rams traded for Dante Fowler Jr. Despite the amount of pass-rush production they get from their interior rushers, the Rams’ lack of explosiveness on the edge was one of the reasons their pass defense has struggled so much this season. This chop on Duane Brown is fantastic hand usage, and then Fowler finishes it off with the game-sealing strip sack. That’s an element the Rams just didn’t have before the trade deadline.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind, Part 2: Quenton Nelson is everything us offensive line nerds could ever want.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Melvin Gordon has been a cheat code this season.