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. The story of this NFL season has been the rise of newcomer teams like the Rams and Chiefs. But on Sunday, league stalwarts like the Patriots and Seahawks showed that they plan on sticking around for a while. The Patriots dispatched the Vikings 24–10 this week, and they did so in the familiar fashion of slowly bleeding their opponent dry. Tom Brady spent much of the first half picking apart the underneath areas of the field with quick throws to the flat and screens to running back James White (who again led New England in targets, with nine). Brady did throw a couple of missiles over the middle on a third-quarter touchdown drive that helped the Pats pull away, but for the most part, the Patriots’ offensive strategy was of the death-by-1,000-papercuts variety that can be absolutely maddening for opposing defenses.
More impressive, though, may have been the work of New England’s defense. The Patriots don’t have a devastating pass rush, which has typically been the Achilles’ heel of the Minnesota offense this season. But even when Bill Belichick’s defense wasn’t getting after Kirk Cousins, the Patriots secondary did more than enough to ground the Vikings passing game. Both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were held in check, and rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson had a pair of crucial pass breakups in the end zone against speedy receiver Aldrick Robinson.
The Pats may not have the offensive firepower that we’ve seen from them in years past, but at this point in the season, I’m getting a sinking feeling that Belichick and Co. are going to arrive in the playoffs as a (relatively) unintimidating no. 2 seed before they eventually win the AFC championship game in an ugly fashion. It’s almost eerie how easy that scenario is to imagine.
2. If the Patriots have been the team of the decade in the AFC, then Russell Wilson’s Seahawks have earned that distinction in the NFC. And with Sunday’s 43–16 win over the 49ers, Seattle has all but locked up a wild-card spot in the NFC. The Seahawks’ current offensive identity — which mixes an effective running game with some scattered deep shots from Wilson — is perfectly suited for their personnel. Wilson’s been brilliant for stretches this year, but on Sunday, he didn’t have to be. Outside of another long touchdown throw to Tyler Lockett and a gorgeous bullet pass on the run to Jaron Brown for his fourth TD pass of the day, the QB wasn’t asked to do much. Most of the workload on offense was handled by the duo of Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, who combined for 134 yards on the ground on just 20 carries and were able to rip off huge chunks of yardage on tosses and runs to the outside.
As recently as last Sunday, before the Seahawks narrowly beat the Panthers 30–27, it seemed like Seattle would be locked in a tight race for the conference’s top wild-card spot for the rest of the season. But after their win over Carolina in Week 12 and the Panthers’ loss to the Buccaneers this week, the Seahawks effectively have a two-game lead over Carolina in the standings. A win over the Vikings next week would create a similarly insurmountable gap between Seattle and a middling Minnesota team that’s still trying to stay afloat. For all their faults — and despite all the injuries they’ve suffered on defense — it sure looks like the Seahawks could pull off an upset or two come playoff time.
3. Week 13 also served as a showcase for some of the individual players who are fueling teams’ runs to the playoffs, and few stood out quite like Travis Kelce. Kelce caught a ridiculous 12 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 40–33 win over the Raiders, and in the process, he showed off just about every facet of his game. His first touchdown came on a short pass near the goal line, where Kelce initially lined up wide against cornerback Daryl Worley in man coverage. Kelce roasted Worley on quick route to the outside, leaving Patrick Mahomes II with an easy throw to the pylon for a touchdown. For the defense, the goal of putting a cornerback on Kelce in that scenario is to negate any quickness mismatch between Kelce and a larger defender. But in this case, it didn’t matter. Kelce spun Worley into the dirt so easily, he might as well have been a 260-pound linebacker.
Kelce also performed typically well on vertical routes up the seam, quick YAC plays in the flat, and more on Sunday. In his most impressive play of the day, Kelce had to leap over safety Reggie Nelson to pull down an on-the-run laser throw from Mahomes that traveled nearly 35 yards in the air.
4. Not to be outdone, Keenan Allen saw Kelce’s dozen catches and matched it with his own mind-boggling game in the form of a 14-catch, 148-yard outburst against the Steelers on Sunday night. Pittsburgh’s corners were no match for Allen, who torched everyone who dared to cover him one-on-one in this game. The whip route he ran against Joe Haden on a third-and-5 late in the first quarter should come with a disclaimer — it was that filthy.
Allen hasn’t had the monster season that some of his wide receiver counterparts are putting together, but he’s still on pace for more than 1,325 receiving yards and he’s scored a touchdown in each of the Chargers’ past four games. In many ways, he and Philip Rivers are the ideal QB-receiver pairing. Allen’s ability to shake defensive backs and create separation fits perfectly with a QB who’s willing to cut throws loose long before his receivers come out of their breaks. Their connection may not have the flash of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, or Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but when Rivers and Allen are rolling, the Chargers passing game is able to meld deep-ball prowess with devastating precision in the intermediate areas of the field.
5 and 6. After years of missed draft picks spent on offensive players, it looks like the Broncos hit big — twice — in 2018. Denver’s two finds came at opposite ends in the draft (sort of), in the form of second-round wide receiver Courtland Sutton and undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay. Concerns about Lindsay’s 5-foot-8 stature caused him to go undrafted out of Colorado, but he signed with the Broncos in April and has become one of the most unlikely success stories of the year. At this point, he’s a big play waiting to happen. Lindsay finished with 19 carries for 157 yards — including a 65-yard touchdown — in Denver’s 24–10 win over the Bengals on Sunday. It was the fourth game this season that Lindsay has averaged more than 7 yards per carry in a game, and there have been times when it has looked like he’s moving at a different speed than everyone else on the field — as if he’s wearing a jetpack and no one seems to realize it.
Lindsay’s big-play ability has given the Denver running game a jolt, but he’s not just a home run hitter. On his first touchdown run of the day, a 6-yard rush late in the second quarter, Lindsay found a small crease between the tackles and used it to slice his way into the end zone. He can take it the distance seemingly every time he touches the ball, but Lindsay has also shown that he’s capable of carrying the load in every way.
Lindsay has been explosive since the start of the season, but Sutton wasn’t fully unleashed until the Broncos dealt Demaryius Thomas to the Texans in late October. Now, firmly entrenched as the team’s no. 2 receiver, Sutton has shown that he’s a real vertical threat on the outside. He caught four passes for 85 yards in Sunday’s win, which brought his season yards-per-reception number to 19.9 — nearly 1.2 yards more than any receiver with at least 25 receptions. Typically, speedsters like DeSean Jackson (who ranks no. 2) dominate that category. But Sutton is far from a burner. He ran a 4.54 in the 40-dash at the combine, and he profiles more as a big-bodied physical receiver. As he showed on his 30-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, though, Sutton is more than capable of creating big plays without getting much separation. He leaped over cornerback Darius Phillips and simply snatched the ball away for a contested catch — all he needed was for Case Keenum to give him a chance. (Luckily for Sutton, he plays with a quarterback who has no qualms about putting the ball up for grabs.)
7. Tarik Cohen hauled in a dozen receptions for 156 yards in the Bears’ 30–27 overtime loss to the Giants on Sunday, and he continues to be the most dynamic presence in Chicago’s offense. Cohen was spectacular against the Giants, providing the Bears with big play after big play as the rest of their offense sputtered. On his 46-yard reception in the fourth quarter, Cohen came back on a route to secure a badly underthrown ball by Chase Daniel, and he nearly managed to get back up before being touched and take it for a score. Several times in the second half, play-caller Matt Nagy went back to the well and called deep shots down the right sideline on wheel routes to Cohen. And for good measure, Cohen also threw the game-extending touchdown pass to Anthony Miller on the final play of regulation to send the game into overtime. On days when the Bears offense struggles to find consistency, it often leans on Cohen to help manufacture chunk plays. Sunday was no exception.
8. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: This category can’t be trimmed down to just one play this week. Aaron Donald was about as good as a defensive player can be in the Rams’ 30–16 win over the Lions. Donald is arguably the best player in the NFL, regardless of position, but Sunday’s performance was remarkable even for him. Donald finished with two sacks, a forced fumble, and four tackles for loss against Detroit — and even those numbers don’t do his performance justice. Sacks and tackles for loss can be deceiving statistics: A defender will drop a quarterback after four or five seconds for a loss of a single yard, or a running back will slam into a scrum at the line of scrimmage, and the closest player to the ball gets a TFL credit. Donald’s plays on Sunday were considerably more havoc-wreaking than that. The Lions lost a total of 25 yards on his six tackles, not to mention that the Rams gained excellent field position in the fourth quarter after they recovered the fumble Donald forced. He spent his Sunday toying with every member of the Lions’ interior offensive line, swimming past and ducking around anyone in his way. Every time that Donald takes the field, he has the ability to completely change the game.
9. The Rams needed Donald’s monster game on Sunday because the offense was uncharacteristically off the mark. There are weeks when the Rams’ passing game looks like a finely tuned machine, casually ripping off chunk gains seemingly every time Jared Goff drops back to pass. But against the Lions, Goff was constantly under pressure, and the Rams failed to find much of a rhythm. Goff was able to create a couple of nice off-schedule gains, including a deep pass down the right side to Robert Woods in the first quarter. But for the most part, the Rams’ air attack was uncharacteristically unreliable.
10. Josh Allen wasn’t able to get his team a win over the Dolphins on Sunday, but his performance in the Bills’ 21–17 loss featured the sort of promising flashes you want to see from a rookie quarterback. Like he has several times this season, Allen did plenty of damage with his feet, finishing with 135 yards on nine carries. More notable, though, was the work he did with his arm. Allen threw a pair of interceptions and had his share of questionable decisions, but he also made some throws that had viewers sitting up and paying attention. He threw a touchdown strike to Zay Jones in the second quarter that looked downright Mahomesesque — a bullet across his body while moving to the right in the red zone. He followed that up with a rocket to Jones along the left sideline from his own goal line in the third quarter. Allen still has a long way to go as a passer, but games like the one on Sunday show why teams were so fascinated by him during the draft process.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Proof that DeAndre Hopkins is a cyborg. During the first quarter of the Texans’ 29–13 win over the Browns, Hopkins corralled a pass along the left sideline and somehow kept his feet inbounds, all while getting his jersey yanked and his helmet ripped off. The catch was astounding, but we can’t lose sight of what’s most important here: As Hopkins hopped to his feet, with part of his shoulder pad exposed and his braids dangling, it was plain to see that he’s actually Cyrax from Mortal Kombat. Finally having evidence that Hopkins is a cyborg ninja assassin makes plays like these seem a lot more reasonable.