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The Starting 11: The AFC’s Middle Class Is More Confusing Than Ever

With the Patrick Mahomes—led Chiefs falling to the Titans this week, and the Raiders, Steelers, and Ravens securing big wins, there’s almost nothing certain about the AFC playoff race right now. Plus: Lamar Jackson’s MVP candidacy is gaining steam.

Getty 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. The AFC’s middle class looks more muddled than anyone could have predicted, and that confusion starts with the Kansas City Chiefs. The return of Patrick Mahomes was supposed to help propel this team back into the race for a first-round bye. Instead, the Chiefs lost a stunning 35-32 game to the Titans, and at 6-4, Mahomes and Co. will have an uphill battle to catch Baltimore and Houston (which owns the tiebreaker over Kansas City) in the hunt for the no. 2 seed.

Head coach Andy Reid’s offense still had its share of highlight-reel moments against Tennessee. The jump pass that Mahomes completed to rookie receiver Mecole Hardman for a 63-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter is just the latest preposterous throw from the reigning MVP. In his first game back since sustaining a knee injury in the Chiefs’ Week 7 win over the Broncos, Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three scores. Kansas City’s offense played well enough to win on Sunday, but the same issues that have plagued this team all season continue to be a problem.

Kansas City’s pass protection was better against the Titans than it’s been for most of 2019, but a two-play stretch in the second quarter illuminated some concerns that have crept up this year. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz tweaked his knee in the second quarter and had to leave the game—ending a league-high streak of nearly 8,000 consecutive snaps played. (In a cruel twist, that injury came on the same play where backup left tackle Cam Erving was roasted for a sack.) On the very next play, Schwartz’s replacement, Martinas Rankin, had to be carted off after suffering a knee injury of his own. Already without starting left tackle Eric Fisher (who’s been out since Week 2 recovering from core-muscle surgery) and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (who missed his second straight game with an ankle injury), the Chiefs have been shuffling bodies around and playing with patchwork lines all season. Schwartz returned in the second half, but if his knee worsens this week and if an already ailing line is forced to play without its best pass protector, this offense will suffer.

Even in a diminished state, though, the Chiefs offense has enough talent to sustain success. The same can’t be said about this defense. Titans running back Derrick Henry ripped off huge runs in the second half on Sunday—including three rushes of at least 12 yards in the fourth quarter, when the game was hanging in the balance. Henry finished with 188 yards on just 23 carries; 68 of those yards came on a long touchdown run in the third quarter, but if you remove that carry from the total, he still would have finished with 120 yards on 22 carries—good for an average of 5.5 yards per rush. Along with the Chiefs’ run-defense woes, the pass defense was also exposed. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished with 181 yards on only 19 attempts and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score, which came on an inexplicably easy 23-yard completion to wide receiver Adam Humphries with 23 seconds left in the game. The defense has improved this season under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but Sunday’s nightmarish outing was reminiscent of the leaky unit Kansas City fielded in 2018.

With four games against AFC West opponents remaining on their schedule, the Chiefs are still the clear favorites to win their division. But that was never supposed to be the goal in 2019. This preseason, Kansas City was being mentioned alongside the Patriots as the most dangerous teams in the league. The Chiefs were projected to fight for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Instead, they’re just trying to make it into the tournament. It’s been seven years since a team without a first-round bye has gone to the Super Bowl, and at this rate it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs playing their way into the no. 2 seed. With Reid and Mahomes, this group has a shot against any team on any day, but the road to a title will be tougher than the Chiefs would have hoped.

2. After their last-minute win over the Chiefs, the baffling Titans are now 5-5 and back in the AFC wild-card picture—and their recent run with Ryan Tannehill could affect the team’s quarterback outlook. Tennessee’s multiyear run as the most confounding team in the NFL has continued in full force this season, but at least this time there’s a plausible explanation for the ups and downs. The Titans’ trade for quarterback Ryan Tannehill in March was largely an afterthought as teams shelled out big money in free agency. Tennessee sent two third-day 2019 draft picks and a 2020 fourth-rounder to Miami in exchange for the veteran QB, and Tannehill agreed to a one-year, $7 million deal ($5 million of which was paid in the form of a signing bonus from the Dolphins). It was a low-risk move for a team that needed an insurance policy for oft-injured starting quarterback and pending free agent Marcus Mariota, but one that wasn’t expected to matter much. After some promising moments during the first month of the season, though, Mariota was benched at halftime of the team’s Week 6 game against the Broncos, and Tannehill has been the starter ever since.

While most teams lack a viable second option to replace a struggling starter, the Titans had a legitimate alternative. And turning to the 31-year-old Tannehill has helped to salvage their season. Since coming on in the second half against Denver, Tannehill has completed 71.3 percent of his passes and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. This offense has found new life with Tannehill under center, and his play has been a boon for Tennessee’s receivers.

With Sunday’s win, Tennessee has a path to the playoffs—but it’s treacherous. The Titans sit a half-game back of teams like Pittsburgh, Oakland, and the Colts for the second AFC wild-card spot, and they have only one game left on the schedule that’s against a sub-.500 team. They could pick up a game on either the Colts or Raiders with a head-to-head win, but there will be no easy victories for the rest of the season.

It’s not impossible to see Tennessee sneaking into the postseason, even if it’s unlikely. But regardless of how the standings shake out, what the Titans have accomplished with Tannehill is a testament to the franchise’s own self-awareness. Too many teams are content to ride with their starters through any storm, leaving themselves without a contingency plan when the situation goes awry. By trading for Tannehill, the Titans gave themselves an emergency lever, and in the process may have solved their short-term quarterback problem. Tannehill likely isn’t the long-term answer in Tennessee—or anywhere else—but after seeing him in their offense for about half the season, the Titans now have the option of bringing him back as a stopgap for 2020.

3. After knocking off the Chargers on Thursday night, the Raiders are 5-4 and seem to have the easiest path to a wild-card berth in the AFC. Oakland’s 26-24 win last week wasn’t the team’s most impressive performance of the season, but it was enough to put Jon Gruden’s squad in prime position to make the playoffs. The Raiders are currently a game behind the Bills in the wild-card hunt and have the same record as both the Steelers and Colts (along with the head-to-head tiebreaker against Indy), but their remaining schedule is by far the easiest of any of the AFC’s playoff hopefuls. Oakland’s next two opponents are the Bengals and Jets, who have two wins combined. The Raiders also have a rematch against the 4-6 Chargers in December before closing out the regular season on the road against the 3-6 Broncos. The Chiefs are the only team left on Oakland’s schedule with a winning record.

There’s been nothing cheap about the Raiders’ 5-4 start. This offense has been one of the most efficient units in the league, with an impressive air attack that’s been successful despite a lack of pass-catching talent, and a dominant running game powered by rookie Josh Jacobs and one of the league’s most complete offensive lines. Even without a cupcake back half of the schedule, the Raiders would likely still belong in the playoff field as one of the six best teams in the AFC. This defense is still a concern, especially after safety Karl Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury on his game-sealing interception against the Chargers. Oakland signed journeyman safety D.J. Swearinger as insurance this week and also brought in former no. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan to bolster the pass rush. Jordan was suspended for the first 10 games of the season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing-drug policy by testing positive for Adderall, but he had several promising moments with the Seahawks during the past couple seasons. At this point, though, Oakland’s best chance to get into the playoffs—and make some noise when it gets there—is the offense.

4. The Steelers, meanwhile, hope to beat out the Raiders in the wild-card race on the strength of their top-five defense. After a terrible start to the season, during which the Steelers defense gave up 61 points to the Patriots and Seahawks and allowed 436 yards of offense against the 49ers in Week 3, this unit has been one of the best in the NFL. Pittsburgh dismantled the Rams on Sunday, allowing just 4.4 yards per play and surrendering only three points to L.A.’s offense (nine of the Rams’ 12 points came on a defensive touchdown and a safety). Pittsburgh’s front four controlled the game and terrorized Jared Goff: The pass rush notched four sacks and nine quarterback hits and consistently crumbled the pocket. Cornerback Joe Haden also had his best game of the season. Early in the third quarter, Goff tried to find tight end Tyler Higbee deep down the right sideline on a tricky play-action design, but Haden read it beautifully and came up with a leaping interception. Haden finished the game with five passes defensed and seemed to be everywhere on the field.

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick also had a monster game, which seems to be a weekly occurrence now. The second-year defensive back returned a Goff fumble 43 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter, and he caught one of Haden’s deflections to snag the game-winning interception. In seven games since he was traded to Pittsburgh from the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has five interceptions, one forced fumble, and two defensive touchdowns. When the Steelers gave up a first-round pick for Fitzpatrick two games into the season, it seemed like a massive risk for a team that had already lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the year. But Fitzpatrick has looked like an absolute superstar. The move to a full-time safety role has helped him blossom into the player that many thought he could be when he was drafted in the first round out of Alabama in 2018. A first-round pick is a high price to pay for any player, but with only his base salaries on the books for the next two seasons, Fitzpatrick’s combined cap hit for 2020 and 2021 is $4.8 million. And the Steelers can still keep him cost-controlled on a fifth-year option in 2022. With every game that Fitzpatrick helps this team win, the pick that Pittsburgh sent to Miami gets a little bit worse—and gets this team closer to an unlikely playoff berth. I was critical of the deal when it happened, but it looks like a resounding win for the Steelers.

5. The Bills’ 19-16 loss to Cleveland is particularly devastating when you look at their upcoming schedule. Buffalo is still 6-3 and atop the wild-card standings in the AFC, but Sean McDermott’s team has the most difficult stretch of opponents remaining. The Bills get the Dolphins next week before facing the Broncos in Week 12, but after that, things get rough. Buffalo’s schedule features games against the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots. The Cowboys have had a bizarre season (which I’ll get to in a bit), and the Steelers’ struggling offense could sabotage a game at any time. But the soft stretch of Buffalo’s schedule is decidedly over, and the Bills haven’t shown enough improvement this season to inspire much faith in them knocking off a team like Baltimore or New England.

Josh Allen had another up-and-down game on Sunday in what’s been a season full of them, and Buffalo’s defense needed multiple goal-line stands to keep the game close. Missing the playoffs would be devastating for a team that started 5-1, but the Bills’ talent never really lived up to that lofty record. Buffalo’s team-building plan around Allen always centered on 2020 being the year this group might be ready to compete, and the results this season make that timeline seem correct. The Bills may have the inside track now, but their hold on the wild-card race is slowly slipping away.

6. The Colts’ 16-12 loss to the Dolphins is a crushing blow to their playoff aspirations, but the more relevant consequence of this game may be how it affects the battle for the no. 1 pick. The downgrade from Jacoby Brissett—who missed Sunday’s game with a left knee injury—to “backup” quarterback Brian Hoyer proved to be the Colts’ undoing. Hoyer threw three interceptions and failed to produce much of anything against a terrible Dolphins defense. The Colts’ ability to stay afloat in the aftermath of Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement is one of the most impressive developments of the season, but no matter how great a job head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have done so far, the mounting injuries threaten to ruin Indy’s year. If Brissett can return next week, the Colts have a chance to right the ship and find their way into the dance. But this group has a defined ceiling.

In a way, the stakes for the Dolphins might have been higher entering this contest. In the first seven games of the season, Miami orchestrated one of the greatest tanking masterpieces in recent memory. The Dolphins stripped their roster to the studs, amassed several high-end picks in the process, and proceeded to lose in spectacular fashion on their way to an 0-7 start. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. And then the past two weeks happened. The Dolphins have won two consecutive games, and if they beat the Bills next weekend, they’ll even have a “winning streak” going. As the great Lou Brown once noted, it has happened before.

By beating the Colts on Sunday, the Dolphins are now two games above the winless Bengals in the standings. That may not seem like an insurmountable lead for the no. 1 pick, but when we’re talking about these teams, two games is massive. The Bengals play the Jets in Week 13 before traveling to Miami for a suddenly crucial Week 16 tilt, so hope is not yet gone for the Dolphins. But Cincinnati rookie quarterback Ryan Finley looked lost against the Ravens in his first career start on Sunday, so relying on the Bengals to win two more games seems like a tall order.

Miami’s surprising win wasn’t the only unproductive victory this weekend. The Jets also beat the Giants, and the one-win Falcons somehow upset the Saints. The only competition more muddled than the race for the AFC wild card is the fight for the no. 1 pick. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see five teams with one or two wins heading into the final few weeks of the season with the right to draft Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, or Chase Young hanging in the balance.

7. Lamar Jackson was incredible again on Sunday, and his MVP case is starting to gain steam. The Ravens quarterback played a perfect game in Baltimore’s 49-13 win over the Bengals. Jackson completed 15 of his 17 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns while adding 65 yards and another score on the ground. I’m not sure what’s left to say about Jackson’s play this season. His magnificent 47-yard touchdown run in the third quarter is the sort of play only a handful of pros could pull off, and he finished the game with a perfect passer rating. Few quarterbacks in NFL history have been able to make defenders look so hapless in the open field and complete pinpoint throws like Jackson’s dart to Hayden Hurst early in the second quarter.

Russell Wilson is still the rightful MVP favorite, given his virtually flawless performance so far this season, but Jackson’s play over the past few weeks has put him in the conversation. The MVP race tends to change dramatically in the second half of the season, and Jackson will make a serious push if he continues playing like this.

8. Marcus Peters was the perfect addition to the Ravens roster. Baltimore sent linebacker Kenny Young and a fifth-round pick to the Rams last month in exchange for Peters, and considering what the veteran cornerback has done for this team, I’d say it was well worth it. Peters picked off Bengals quarterback Ryan Finley in the second quarter of Sunday’s game and returned the interception 89 yards for a touchdown.

Recognizing that the tight alignment of the Bengals’ receivers likely meant he was matched up one-on-one, Peters correctly guessed the route, jumped the pass, and took it to the house. It was his second pick-six in three games since the trade (and his third total on the season) and just another example of why Peters is a great fit for this team. The Ravens defense hasn’t been as dominant this year as in seasons past, but with Lamar Jackson leading the league’s highest-scoring offense, it doesn’t have to be. Combining an opportunistic unit that can survive on turnovers with this offense could be a championship recipe for the Ravens.

9. Dak Prescott was brilliant in Sunday’s 28-24 loss to Minnesota, but the Cowboys’ commitment to running the ball on early downs is a huge problem. The Dallas quarterback finished Sunday’s game with 397 yards passing and three touchdowns, adding another notch to what’s been the best season of his career. Yet despite Prescott’s excellence, the Cowboys continue to insist on using running back Ezekiel Elliott in first-and-10 situations. Dallas ran the ball 16 times for 39 yards on first down against the Vikings (a 2.44-yard average) while Prescott averaged 8.3 yards per passing attempt. Head coach Jason Garrett has one of the best quarterbacks in football at his disposal, but the Cowboys seem hell-bent on justifying the six-year, $90 million deal they gave Elliott this offseason. With first-year coordinator Kellen Moore designing the offense and the wide receiver duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup on the outside, Prescott finally has an offensive infrastructure that gives him the best chance to succeed. But Dallas still refuses to make him the focal point of the offense. It’s baffling.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made he hit rewind: T.J. Watt is playing some amazing football right now. Watt has improved significantly in each of his three seasons in the NFL, and this year he’s emerged as one of the league’s best pass rushers. Watt tallied two more sacks in Sunday’s win, and his textbook dip move on this play late in the second quarter showed off a flexibility that few rushers possess. Watt ranks fifthfourth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks, and that’s not an empty stat. He also ranks seventh in disrupted dropbacks (47) and fifth in QB hits (11). He’s getting after the quarterback as consistently as any player in football right now.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Lamar Jackson is capable of actual magic.