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The Starting 11: It’s Officially NFL Playoff Bubble Watch Season

While the Ravens and Colts made strides in the direction of the postseason on Sunday, Washington lost Alex Smith (and then signed … Mark Sanchez?). What do this week’s results mean for the playoff landscape? Plus: the Steelers continue to confound, and Julio Jones might have what it takes to play safety.

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. There were many crucial games for teams on the playoff bubble on Sunday, and among that bunch, the Ravens’ 24-21 win over the Bengals was easily the most intriguing. That has everything to do with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson making his first career start. With Joe Flacco out nursing a hip injury, the 2018 first-round pick was given the nod over Robert Griffin III, and it led to the strangest offensive game plan you’ll ever see in the modern NFL. Jackson ran the ball an astonishing 27 times—no quarterback since the 1970 merger had ever finished with that many carries in a game (the next-closest is Tim Tebow with 22), and Jackson broke the record during the most pass-happy era in league history. Against a Cincinnati defense that’s getting more beat up by the week, that strategy worked. Jackson ripped off 117 yards on the ground to go with the 115 gained by rookie running back Gus Edwards, who came into the game with 64 rushing yards in his career.

Jackson’s presence gives the Ravens several advantages on the ground. Because he’s a threat to keep the ball at any time, he consistently gives Baltimore a numbers edge in the box. The specter of him running with the ball can also screw with a defender’s keys. On a critical third-and-2 late in the third quarter, with the Ravens driving to try to tie the game, Bengals corner Darqueze Dennard came screaming off the edge and kept on his path toward Jackson even after Edwards had taken the handoff. That left a huge hole on the right side and led to an easy first down. Edwards later capped that drive with an 11-yard touchdown that featured jet motion from Willie Snead and a mesh with Jackson in the backfield. Snead’s motion kept linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. flat-footed and hesitant just long enough that right tackle Orlando Brown could get to the second level, seal him off, and let Edwards rumble in for the score. It didn’t hurt that all-world guard Marshal Yanda pushed defensive tackle Geno Atkins into the next county on the play. Jackson’s rushing abilities, coupled with an offensive line looking to kick ass, allowed the Ravens game plan to work—this week, at least.

As defenses respond to the wide-open spread passing games that have proliferated through the NFL, it’s always been possible that the pendulum would swing back the other way, and a team would choose to build its identity around an option-based rushing offense to exploit an inefficiency. But that might be giving the Ravens too much credit. Their approach on Sunday was likely aimed at making Jackson as comfortable as possible while limiting his opportunities as a passer.

There’s plenty to like about Jackson as a thrower. He’s able to use strange sidearm angles à la Matthew Stafford to get the ball out around defenders, and the play-action pop pass he threw to tight end Nick Boyle for a 16-yard gain in the third quarter is the exact type of play Jackson could excel at in the NFL. But there are still gaffes, like his third-quarter interception that came after he bounced around in the backfield trying to extend the play (although even on the pick, tight end Hayden Hurst had flashed open thanks to play-action).

If the Ravens, who sit at 5-5 and currently project as the no. 6 seed in the AFC, are going to claim that second wild-card spot, they’ll need to figure out the limits of this approach moving forward—that is, if they decide to continue with Jackson under center even after Flacco gets healthy. Obviously, 27 carries per game for a quarterback isn’t sustainable. But maybe 15 is. The issue at hand is whether Jackson can hold up to taking that many hits. For comparison’s sake, Cam Newton has never eclipsed 139 carries in a season. At a 15-carry-per-game pace, Jackson would finish a 16-game schedule at 240. Jackson also weighs 212 pounds, compared to 245 for Newton. Where Jackson has the edge, though, is in the sheer burst he shows just about every time he touches the ball. Newton’s 4.56-second 40-yard dash speed at his weight makes him one of the NFL’s all-time great athletes, but when Jackson runs, it looks like the tape is sped up. He flies, and it gives the Baltimore offense a dynamic rushing threat that hasn’t been seen at QB since RG3’s rookie season. I’m not sure how it’ll work out, both this season and beyond, but I do know I’m way more interested in watching the Ravens than I was a week ago.

2. Nipping at Baltimore’s heels in the AFC wild-card race are the 5-5 Colts, who put on another show in their 38-10 drubbing of the Titans. Head coach Frank Reich and quarterback Andrew Luck are in a groove right now. Outside of the league’s heavy hitters (the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints), no offense in the league is more fun to watch right now than Indy’s. Luck threw for 297 yards and three more touchdowns on Sunday, and he was hit zero times by a Titans defense that terrorized Tom Brady the previous week. T.Y. Hilton had his best game of the season as he wrangled nine receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns, but I want to focus on a couple of Colts plays that had more modest results.

The first came at the 13:53 mark of the second quarter. Already up 7-0, Indy faced first-and-10 at its own 43-yard line. Under Reich, the Colts have done a phenomenal job of tinkering with personnel packages to gain an advantage over the defense. On this play, they break the huddle in 12 personnel, but with tight ends Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron split out wide, the formation functions as a four-receiver set. At the snap, Luck fakes a handoff to running back Marlon Mack coming right. That sucks both linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, essentially leaving the entire middle of the field vacant. Based on his pre-snap keys, which became clear after Doyle’s subtle motion, Luck knows he has man coverage. As the linebackers crash toward the line of scrimmage, Doyle hits an in-breaking route for an easy 15-yard gain.

Now, let’s look at the play that happened immediately before Hilton’s 68-yard second-quarter touchdown. The Colts have a third-and-3 on their own 20-yard line with 8:14 remaining in the half. This time, Indy breaks the huddle in 21 personnel, but rather than aligning both backs in the backfield, Reich motions Nyheim Hines into the left slot. Just before the snap, Hines streaks in jet motion across the formation. With Doyle and Hilton both running crossing routes and set back Jordan Wilkins running a go route down the left sideline and taking a linebacker with him, wide receiver Dontrelle Inman is free to work the entire middle of the field one-on-one against cornerback Malcolm Butler. All Inman has to do is turn around, and the ball is on him for a 12-yard gain and a drive-sustaining first down. Reich’s play-calling these past few weeks has been special, and both of those designs are telling examples of just how good he’s been.

3. Losing Alex Smith for the rest of the season and losing Sunday’s game 23-21 to the Texans means Washington’s postseason future is in serious jeopardy. Even with Smith under center, the Redskins were walking a tightrope with their stylistic approach. Washington is built to win ugly, with Adrian Peterson and the ground game pounding away on offense and a stout front four pushing people around on defense. In the midst of the NFL’s scoring boom, the Redskins are putting up just 19.7 points per game — 27th in the league. Before Smith’s injury — which was later revealed to be a broken tibia and fibula — he was 12-of-27 for 135 yards on the day. Colt McCoy played the rest of the game and completed exactly half of his passes, at 4.5 yards per attempt. Combined, Washington’s quarterbacks finished 18-of-39 for 189 yards and two interceptions. Granted, Houston’s front four of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and I Mean … Does it Really Matter looked like the Monstars on Sunday, but even without that crew wrecking shop there’s just no way a team with that sort of passing capability (plus the newly signed Mark Sanchez) can realistically string wins together down the stretch, even in a putrid NFC East.

4. And speaking of that putrid NFC East, it seems like the Cowboys are now the favorites to come out of the division. Seriously. Dallas eked out a 22-19 win over the Falcons this week, despite Jason Garrett’s best efforts. After the Cowboys drove to the Atlanta 30-yard line with 34 seconds remaining in the game and the score tied 19-19, Garrett — armed with two timeouts — elected to run Ezekiel Elliott into the line three times and force Brett Maher to kick a 42-yard field goal to win the game. Maher snuck the ball inside the right upright, but that’s beside the point: Garrett consistently makes in-game scenarios harder than he has to. Yet somehow, with Alex Smith out and the Eagles in a tailspin, Dallas may just win a division title — and save Garrett’s job in the process.

The Cowboys won on Sunday because of two main factors: first, the defense made a few key plays, including a fourth-quarter interception by linebacker Leighton Vander Esch that bounced off wide receiver Calvin Ridley’s hands. The 2018 first-round pick has been a revelation for the Dallas defense, especially in the absence of injured star Sean Lee. Along with his interception, Vander Esch picked up a highlight-reel stuff of running back Ito Smith in the first quarter and two key third-down pass disruptions that forced Atlanta field goals.

The second was Elliott’s impact on the offense. He did everything for the Cowboys on Sunday; following Vander Esch’s interception, Elliott sailed through the Atlanta defense for a 23-yard touchdown on a run that few backs in the league could pull off. Anyone still clinging to the opinion that Elliott was worth a top-5 draft pick can use his 201 yards from scrimmage on Sunday to help that argument.

5-6. As the NFC East engages in its rock fight to see which team will earn the right to lose a playoff game, the Seahawks and Panthers are battling for a wild-card spot — and heading in opposite directions. Seattle’s 27-24 win over the Packers on Thursday was a crucial victory in the race for the fifth or sixth seed in the NFC, and may have been the death blow to Green Bay’s playoff chances. The Seahawks continue to look like the bizarro version of the team we’ve seen for the past few seasons. Head coach Pete Carroll’s defense has vastly outperformed expectations after losing the Legion of Boom to retirement (Kam Chancellor), cap casualty (Richard Sherman), and injury (Earl Thomas). What’s more shocking, though, is how well Seattle’s offense has played. The Seahawks’ much maligned offensive line has crushed defensive fronts in the run game, and that continued against the Packers. Seattle’s trio of backs (Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and Mike Davis) finished with 29 carries for 155 yards (5.34 yards per carry) in the win. This offense was ranked seventh in rushing DVOA coming into Week 11, and it may continue to climb up the rankings. Compare the team’s rushing performance this year to last season (when they finished 23rd in rushing DVOA), and there’s a claim to be made that swapping offensive line coach Tom Cable for Mike Solari was the most important position-coach move of the offseason.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have dropped two straight, and an offense that was humming earlier in the season has stalled. Carolina’s performance in the team’s 20-19 loss to the Lions on Sunday was both frustrating and encouraging. The Panthers allowed three third-down sacks, including a coverage sack in the red zone that led to a missed Graham Gano field goal. Still, even with the speed bumps, rookie D.J. Moore burst onto the scene in this game. The first-round pick hauled in seven catches for 157 yards and a touchdown and looked incredible in the process. It doesn’t get much more impressive than Moore’s 82-yard reception early in the third quarter. On a third-and-10 down the left sideline, Moore leapt over cornerback Darius Slay to pull in a contested catch, kept his balance, and outran the entire secondary for a monster gain.

It’s possible the past two weeks were just an unfortunate combination of the Panthers running into a red-hot Steelers team in Pittsburgh and getting a few bad breaks against a lackluster Detroit team on the road. I tend to believe that Carolina is a favorite to earn one of the final two spots in the NFC, but the team will need to turn it back on — and fast.

7. After their 25-20 loss to the Bears on Sunday night, you can throw the Vikings into the wild-card mix too — and despite all the talent on its roster, Minnesota’s weaknesses may be enough to spoil a playoff bid. The Vikings’ performance against Chicago just about encapsulates where this team is right now. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is still loaded with stars, and he has the players and the scheme to frustrate opposing quarterbacks. On offense, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are a problem, even for a defense as good as Chicago’s. Diggs roasted cornerback Kyle Fuller on a double move in the first quarter on Sunday that would have resulted in a touchdown had Kirk Cousins been able to put the ball on target. But that’s the problem with Minnesota’s offense right now. Cousins’s connection with his star receivers has been sabotaged by the Vikings’ offensive line problems. His missed throw to Diggs didn’t come while he was under pressure, but even when there isn’t a defender in his face, Cousins looks uneasy in the pocket. Minnesota’s ceiling is still higher than any of the other teams in the NFC wild-card race, but its deficiencies might be enough to keep the Vikings on the couch come playoff time.

8. Stepping away from the bubble teams, Sunday’s odd game between the Steelers and Jaguars is worth examining. After stomping the Panthers at home last week, the Steelers responded by laying an egg for almost the entire game against Jacksonville. Had it not been for the Jaguars’ unacceptably conservative offensive approach in the second half, one that allowed Pittsburgh to come back and win 20-16, we would have spent Monday questioning whether the Steelers really are the contender we thought they were. So let’s have that conversation anyway. It’s possible that Ben Roethlisberger’s three-interception game was an aberration, but at this point, the difference between this Steelers offense at home and on the road is noticeable. Roethlisberger’s adjusted yards per attempt at Heinz Field this season has been 8.66. Away from home, it’s 6.88. James Conner had a few uncharacteristic drops, and Antonio Brown won’t have to deal with a cornerback of Jalen Ramsey’s caliber most weeks. But considering that the Steelers seem unlikely to get the no. 1 seed in the AFC, and they’ll probably have to head to Kansas City if both teams make the AFC championship game, maybe it’s time for a collective pumping of the brakes when it comes to Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl aspirations.

9. Julio Jones finished with 118 receiving yards and a touchdown against Dallas, but his most impressive play on Sunday may have been as a de facto defender. On a second-and-8 in the second quarter, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan overshot Jones on a deep ball up the left side. In order to prevent an easy interception by Jeff Heath, Jones laid out the 212-pound safety with an earth-shaking form tackle.

Watching Jones lower the boom like that got me thinking: If Jones decided to play safety, where would he fall in the hierarchy of NFL players at the position? The hit on Heath clearly showed that Jones isn’t afraid to mix it up, and we already know that he’s one of the best pure athletes to ever step into the league. My guess is that he could make the Pro Bowl within about two years if given the time to learn the position. Just for fun, I compared Jones’s combine numbers with those of every defensive back around the league. His strongest comparison based on the metrics? Jalen Ramsey.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: We all know by now that Khalil Mack is good. But if you’re wondering why, here it is: Analysts talk all the time about edge rushers converting speed to power. This play is what they mean. Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff takes a vertical pass set deep into the backfield in order to take away the edge and negate Mack’s explosiveness around the corner. As a result, he’s not anchored down. By redirecting and driving straight through Reiff’s chest, Mack instantly has a strength advantage. And take a look at the way he uses that long-arm move. The timing is perfect. His left hand hits Reiff’s chest just as Reiff’s right foot leaves the ground, meaning Reiff is already off-balance. The benefit of a long arm is that it increases the distance between a pass rusher and a defender. You can create more separation by leaning forward with one arm out than you can with two. Reiff’s barely touching Mack’s shoulder pads as Mack tosses him to the ground. There’s no right way to block this guy.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: I need a physicist to tell me how Odell Beckham Jr. hangs on to this ball.