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The Saints Can Beat You With Anyone and Week 11’s Game-Changing Plays

A new week, a new role player emerges for Drew Brees and the explosive New Orleans offense. Plus: The Jags’ QB woes are laid bare against the Steelers, Lamar Jackson is as elusive as advertised, and the Cowboys’ ground game finds its footing.

Lamar Jackson, Kenny Golladay, Tre’Quan Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Week 11 Sunday slate was packed with down-to-the-wire action. Nine games were decided by five points or fewer: The Ravens edged the Bengals 24-21, the Lions outlasted the Panthers 20-19, the Steelers came back to beat the Jaguars 20-16, the Giants held off the Buccaneers 38-35, the Texans overcame the Redskins 23-21, the Bears beat the Vikings 25-20, and the Cowboys, Raiders, and Broncos each won on last-second field goals. Add in blowout wins by the Colts and Saints, and we got a fun day of football from start to finish.

Sunday’s action delivered plenty of excitement, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the the week’s game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.

Drew Brees Threads Needle to Tre’Quan Smith for a TD

Rookie running back Josh Adams got the listless Eagles off the ropes midway through the second quarter when he rumbled 28 yards to paydirt, putting Philly on the board for the first time and narrowing the score to 17-7 at the 8:42 mark. But Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense didn’t take long to counter, extinguishing any visions the visiting Eagles had of mounting a second-half comeback with a surgical seven-play, 84-yard drive that culminated with Brees’s 15-yard touchdown pass to rookie Tre’Quan Smith with 39 seconds left in the second quarter.

Smith ran outside before cutting inside on a slant, and Brees fit the pass between a pair of Philly defenders at the goal line. That score pushed the lead to 24-7, New Orleans’s win probability to 94.7 percent, and all but locked up the Saints’ ninth win of the year. It was also a great representation of something that’s made New Orleans damn-near unstoppable for most of the year: In addition to feeding his superstar playmakers like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, Brees has relied on lesser-known backups or role players to make plays. He trusts them to be where they need to be.

The Saints seem to have a different guy step up each week, whether it’s do-it-all utilityman Taysom Hill, tight ends Josh Hill (who caught two passes for 26 yards Sunday) and Dan Arnold (two catches, 25 yards), or Keith Kirkwood (three catches, 33 yards), Austin Carr (one 3-yard catch for a touchdown), and Smith (10 catches, 157 yards, one touchdown). With the Eagles playing primarily man coverage and frequently double-teaming Thomas, Brees looked elsewhere; more often than not, it was Smith (who led the team with 15 targets) who came open for the 39-year-old quarterback.

The high-flying Chiefs and Rams have gotten more hype this season as the poster children of the NFL’s offensive explosion, but the Saints, with their league-best 37.8 points per game, might have a more efficient, balanced, and unstoppable offense. The team benefits from a very good offensive line and a strong run game, but Brees is the glue who holds everything together. He’s shown few signs of his age—in fact, he seems to be getting better as he approaches 40—and he consistently elevates the play of everyone around him. This note from NFL Next Gen Stats shows why Brees is so important to his team:

In other words, Brees isn’t just hitting wide-open receivers or dumping off the ball and letting Kamara and the other skill players pick up yards on their own. He’s throwing the ball aggressively downfield and connecting on tough, tight-window throws at an incredible rate. He’s looking more and more like the MVP of the league.

Lamar Jackson Keeps Play Alive, Finds John Brown for 23 Yards

The Ravens, uh, eased Jackson into the passing game in his first start as a pro, running the ball on all 11 plays of their opening possession, a 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 7-yard touchdown carry by Alex Collins. Jackson toted the ball five times for 46 yards on that drive, picking up chunk yardage and converting two third downs with designed quarterback runs and read-option plays. Throughout the game, Baltimore leaned heavily on the rookie quarterback’s legs: He rushed an astonishing 27 times—the most for any quarterback since 1950—for a team-high 117 yards, showing off explosive open-field speed and elusiveness in space.

While Jackson proved to be dangerous as a runner, the formula Baltimore relied on this week simply isn’t sustainable. Jackson set a pace for a 432-carry season Sunday, a total that far outpaces those of even the most prolific running backs. In the long term, Baltimore must use Jackson as a passer first. The rookie had a quiet day with his arm, finishing 13-of-19 for 150 yards and one pick, but he made a few encouraging throws. On this play, a second-and-6 from the Ravens’ 39-yard line, Jackson came off his first read to the right, looked left, and with nothing open, eluded pressure in the pocket. After escaping to his right, he kept his eyes downfield and found Brown streaking over the middle.

That play set up a Ravens field goal right before the half and demonstrated how Jackson’s athleticism can change the offense. The young quarterback must develop as a drop-back passer, but that escape isn’t the type of play starter Joe Flacco could make. Jackson’s ability to evade pressure gave the team a dynamic out-of-structure playmaking element that it’s been missing. For a defense, there’s nothing more demoralizing than thinking you’ve got a quarterback bottled up, only to see him make a big play. That throw, paired with the way the Ravens used Jackson on option runs and quarterback draws, offered a glimpse of the future Ravens offense. With Flacco unlikely to play next week, that future may come sooner than we think.

Leonard Fournette’s 1-Yard Run on Third-and-5

The Jaguars’ game plan against the Steelers on Sunday wasn’t subtle: take the ball—and ultimately, the team’s fate—out of Blake Bortles’s hands. For a while, it worked like a charm: Jacksonville capitalized on two defensive takeaways and jumped out to a 9-0 halftime lead, rushing 27 times for 152 yards in the first half while controlling the ball for more than 22 minutes. The team’s drive that culminated with a second-quarter field goal was emblematic of that strategy: It ate up nearly nine minutes of clock, and 14 of the 16 plays were runs.

The game looked firmly in hand by the 2:12 mark of the third quarter, when a Leonard Fournette touchdown run put the Jags up 16-0 and gave Jacksonville a 92.9 percent win probability. That’s when the Jags’ plan went off the rails. The Steelers got on the board on their subsequent drive with a 78-yard touchdown bomb from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. The Jaguars offense, instead of leaning on its run game to protect the lead and bleed the fourth-quarter clock—as it’s designed to do—ground to a screeching halt. The Jags went three-and-out on their next four possessions for a net of negative-3 yards. The Steelers repeatedly stuffed Fournette in the backfield on first and second down, forcing Jacksonville into third-and-long situations, where Bortles was ineffective.

The Jags’ controversial decision to extend Bortles over the offseason came to a head Sunday with the team clinging to to a slim 16-13 lead with 1:54 to go. Jacksonville faced a crucial third-and-5 from its own 30-yard line. Convert there, and the Jags would have a great chance to run the clock out and secure the win; fail to get 5 yards, and they’d give the ball back to an offense that had recently found its footing. With the Jaguars unwilling and unable to trust their quarterback, the ball went to Fournette. He got 1 yard.

Jacksonville punted, and the Steelers marched down the field and scored the winning touchdown with five seconds left. This tweet sums things up:

The quarterback wasn’t the Jags’ only problem Sunday: They had injuries on the offensive line, and the defense gave up some plays late in the game. But with the Bortles under center, Jacksonville is effectively playing with one hand tied behind its back.

Andrew Luck Hits T.Y. Hilton for a 68-Yard TD

As the Jaguars fell further out of contention in the AFC South, the Colts continued their meteoric rise in the division. Indy won its fourth straight game with a 38-10 shellacking of the Titans. This play, a deep touchdown bomb from Luck to Hilton with 7:26 to go in the second quarter, all but sealed the deal.

Hilton ran past Tennessee cornerback Adoree’ Jackson for the easy score, pushing the Colts’ lead to 17-0 and their win probability to 88 percent. They coasted from there. Hilton looked like himself after missing two games with an early-season hamstring injury, as he reeled in all nine of his targets for 155 yards and two touchdowns. A fully healthy Hilton added another element to an already efficient Colts offense, stretching the field vertically to open up space for the team’s many pass-catching options.

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore this Frank Reich–coached team. The Colts scored 24-plus points for the seventh straight game, their longest streak in 13 years. Luck tossed three-plus touchdowns for the seventh straight game, joining Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to do that in a single season. Indy went its fifth straight game without allowing a sack. And rookie phenom Darius Leonard continues to make plays, collecting a sack, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit, an interception, a pass defended, and a forced fumble. Reich has taken what seemed like a bottom-five roster before the year and transformed it into one that looks capable of making some playoff noise.

Ezekiel Elliott’s 23-Yard TD Run

Speaking of surprise playoff contenders, the Cowboys seem to be finding their mojo at the right time. Dallas rode a quality defensive performance and a reinvigorated identity to their second straight win on Sunday, beating the Falcons on the road to improve to 5-5 and move into second place in the NFC East.

Elliott carried the Cowboys offense from start to finish, notching 201 of the team’s 323 total yards on 30 touches, including this fourth-quarter touchdown run. The back ran right through an eight-man Atlanta front, shrugging off a trio of defenders on his way to the end zone to give Dallas a 19-9 fourth-quarter lead.

Elliott has returned to a familiar role as the focal point of the Cowboys offense. He racked up 122 yards and a score on the ground and added a team-high seven catches for 79 yards as he regularly powered through arm-tackle attempts to pick up first downs and put points on the board. Dallas’s passing game has improved with the addition of Amari Cooper, who helps spread out the defense and gives the team lighter defensive boxes to run against, as QB Dak Prescott said Sunday. The Cowboys have rediscovered who they are on offense, and they’re starting to look like a contender.

Kenny Golladay’s Leaping Fourth-Quarter TD Catch

Detroit got a crucial stop on Carolina’s late-game two-point conversion try, preserving a hard-fought win. Still, Golladay’s jaw-dropping touchdown grab with 5:13 to go was the real play of the game.

In a perfectly thrown pass from quarterback Matt Stafford, Golladay extended fully, reaching up and diving before landing hard on his back. That touchdown ended up being the game-winner, the cherry on top of a huge afternoon for Golladay. He racked up eight catches for 113 yards and a score, further cementing his status as a future superstar.

It was an impressive win for the 4-6 Lions, who remain a long shot for the postseason after 11 weeks. In any case, Golladay’s continued breakout makes this team worth watching every week.