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. Sunday’s games were full of stellar performances from offenses that couldn’t be denied, and we should be seeing most of those units come playoff time. The most notable showing on Sunday was from the Saints, who racked up 45 points in their win over the previously undefeated Rams. Drew Brees is playing some of the best football of his career at age 39, and when the Saints offense is rolling at home like it was on Sunday, it’s borderline unstoppable. Last week, in an ugly win over the Vikings, Brees didn’t have to do much work. But he stole the show against a Rams defense that had absolutely no answer for Michael Thomas and the New Orleans passing game. As currently constructed, the Rams secondary just can’t hold up against quality passing attacks. Marcus Peters has been a liability for the Rams this season, and on Sunday he flailed all game while trying to stick with Thomas. His early-season struggles just don’t seem to be going away, and when Aaron Donald isn’t notching a couple of sacks, this team doesn’t have much hope against a quarterback like Brees. The bad news for the Rams is that the road to the Super Bowl may feature a rematch with New Orleans.
2. The Panthers offense continued to pile up points in its 42-28 win over the Buccaneers, and it seems like a new player steps up every week for Carolina. In last week’s win over the Ravens, rookie wide receiver D.J. Moore had a handful of highlight-reel moments. Against Tampa Bay, though, the game belonged to Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. Samuel scored two touchdowns, including a wild double reverse that he took 33 yards to the house while carving through the entire Tampa Bay defense. McCaffrey was a force throughout the game, tallying 157 yards from scrimmage and gashing the Bucs seemingly every time he touched the ball. What 66-year-old first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner has accomplished so far with this group is astonishing. In his fourth decade as an NFL coach, Turner has built one of the more creative offenses in the entire league. Every Panthers game is replete with motions, screens, and myriad ways to get the ball into the hands of Carolina’s playmakers—and the team has more than enough of those to go around. The number of players who can torch opposing defenses with the ball in their hands is almost overwhelming. The Panthers came into Sunday ranked fifth in offensive DVOA, and there probably won’t be much change after their performance against the Bucs. This is the most varied, efficient scheme that Carolina has had during Cam Newton’s tenure, and it has the Panthers on the doorstep of a playoff spot.
3. The Chiefs put up 37 more points in their throttling of the Browns, and at this rate, it’s hard to imagine any defense slowing them down. The ease with which Kansas City can pile up touchdowns is legitimately terrifying. Andy Reid’s team didn’t punt until the 5:20 mark of the fourth quarter against Cleveland, when the game was already firmly in hand. Patrick Mahomes II recorded a season-high 375 passing yards, and he made it look easy. Six different Chiefs receivers finished the game with a reception of 20 yards or more. Six. There are just too many electric skill position players to choose from on this team. Every drive, it feels like Tyreek Hill is hauling in a 40-yard bomb, or Kareem Hunt is taking a dump-off pass 50 yards. The Chiefs’ scheme attacks every inch of the field with a stable of speed and athleticism that defenses just can’t account for, and through the first half of the season, it’s turned them into the most explosive offense in football.
4. Philip Rivers may not have had the most efficient outing (13-of-26 passing for 228 yards) in a 25-17 win over the Seahawks, but the Chargers offense had more than enough firepower to get the job done. After missing L.A.’s London game with a hamstring injury, running back Melvin Gordon returned to the field against Seattle, and he didn’t miss a beat. For most of his NFL career, Gordon has been a volume-dependent back who’s struggled to put up big numbers behind a Chargers line that was equal parts injured or ineffective. So far this season, though, that hasn’t been the case. Gordon ripped off 113 yards on just 16 carries on Sunday, bringing his season yards per carry average to a robust 5.4. Being able to lean on Gordon has given the Chargers offense a dimension it didn’t have in previous years, and combined with what Rivers and guys like Keenan Allen can do through the air, it’s helped turn this offense into a very potent group. Just look at what Allen (who hauled in six passes for 124 yards on Sunday) did to Justin Coleman’s ankles:
That man has a family, Keenan Allen. pic.twitter.com/iHcb9Sz2q8— Robert Mays (@robertmays) November 4, 2018
5. The Texans nearly threw away a win by sticking with their ineffective ground game against the Broncos run defense, but in the end, Deshaun Watson pulled the game out for Houston. The Texans threw the ball only 24 times against Denver (compared to 33 rushes), but when Watson was allowed to let it fly, completions were there for the taking. Newly acquired receiver Demaryius Thomas had a few catches early, but for the most part, the team’s 19-17 win was another installment of the DeAndre Hopkins show. Hopkins reeled in 10 catches on just 12 targets for a massive 105-yard game. It didn’t seem to matter which Broncos cornerback was tasked with stopping him—he took the time to bully each member of the secondary throughout the game. Watson was sacked four more times on Sunday, bringing his season total to a whopping 30. Pass protection continues to be an issue for this team, but when Watson and Hopkins do get enough time to operate, they’re one of the scarier quarterback-receiving duos in the league.
6. The Steelers didn’t have many chunk plays in the passing game in their 23-16 win over Baltimore, but their methodical drives allowed them to control the game from start to finish. It was a forgettable day for the typically prolific Antonio Brown (five catches for 42 yards), but Pittsburgh’s other producers were able to pick up the slack. The Steelers converted 10 of 16 third-down opportunities and put together four drives of at least 61 yards. Running back James Conner had another huge game against what’s historically been an excellent Ravens run defense. The production that Conner has given the Steelers in Le’Veon Bell’s absence has been crucial, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Whether on the ground or as a receiver, Conner has been a reliable piece of the Steelers’ game plan all season. Even when Pittsburgh isn’t making big plays with Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the passing game, this offense is capable of steadily dictating games.
7. At 4-4, the Falcons have a tough road to a wild-card berth in the NFC, but their 38-point outburst against Washington proves this team can score on anybody. Atlanta has struggled against talented defensive fronts on the road this season (see: the total collapse against Pittsburgh in Week 5), but the Falcons offensive line was able to neutralize a Washington front four that’s packed with high-end talent. Matt Ryan was sacked only twice while throwing for 350 yards and four scores. A good chunk of that production came on screens to running back Tevin Coleman (who took a short pass 39 yards for a touchdown), but Ryan had more than enough time to get the ball to his dynamic pass catchers. Most of those throws went to Julio Jones, who hauled in seven catches for 121 yards and his first touchdown of the season. I’m glad to see that my theory (that Jones can’t cross the goal line without exploding) wasn’t actually true.
For the first time in 343 days, Julio Jones has scored a regular season TD— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 4, 2018
: FOX pic.twitter.com/IJOIsUWlEh
8. His absence may not have been talked about as much as Joey Bosa’s, but defensive tackle Corey Liuget’s return to the Chargers has given the Bolts a lift. After missing the first four games of the season for a PED suspension, Liuget has made his presence felt since his return. He was a run-stopping force on Sunday and tallied five tackles against the Seahawks. After some early-season struggles against two of the best offenses in the league, the Chargers defense has really started to round into form. Cornerback Desmond King has been lights out after a promising rookie season, and Bosa’s return is hopefully right around the corner.
9. This week in tales of the tape: This segment is normally about specific play designs, but I wanted to highlight one Mahomes throw from Sunday. The placement and velocity on this ball to Travis Kelce in the end zone could not have been any better. Man, can this guy sling it:
10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Danielle Hunter finished with 3.5 of the Vikings’ single-game-record 10 sacks in Minnesota’s 24-9 decimation of the Lions. After signing a five-year, $72 million extension this offseason, the 24-year-old defensive end is having himself a career year. He now has 11.5 sacks on the season, and it looks like his upside is finally being realized. Hunter has always had elite change-of-direction ability, and his burst on inside counter moves makes him a real handful for offensive tackles trying to take away his speed on the edge.
#PassRush: Danielle Hunter (yellow) & Everson Griffen (red) sell speed upfield, but use different counters. Hunter goes counter club/arm over while Griffen uses the spin. Each get credit for a ½ sack! #SKOL pic.twitter.com/YeKvcUdCBD— DLineVids (@DLineVids) November 5, 2018
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: I’m pretty sure the best way to describe this move by Christian McCaffrey is “levitation.”