In 2021, the moment you think a team might be great is the moment it proves it is not. Here is what to know.
Parity rules. There is no dominant team at the top of the NFL, there is no clarity in the middle, and there is almost nobody out of playoff contention. The 9-2 Arizona Cardinals, who won again without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, are the only team in the NFL with fewer than three losses. The 0-9-1 Detroit Lions are the only team with fewer than two wins.
After 11 weeks, absolutely nothing is settled. Twenty-one teams squeeze into the territory between 4-7 and 7-4. The playoff picture is a mess in both conferences. In the AFC, seven teams fighting for the last two wild-card spots are between 6-4 and 5-5. In the NFC, the Washington Football Team was 2-6 two weeks ago, and now it is one game out of the playoff picture.
Jonathan Taylor may be the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts stunned the Buffalo Bills, 41-15, on the road, trouncing a team in free fall from its perch as the AFC favorite. The Bills knocked the Colts out of the playoffs last season, and in their victorious locker room Sunday, Indianapolis players and coaches referenced “owing” the Bills. They built their victory on the shoulders of Taylor, who in Derrick Henry’s absence has emerged as the closest thing to Henry: the best running back in the NFL and a one-man offense on an AFC South contender.
Taylor had four rushing touchdowns against the Bills and caught a pass for a score while rushing for 185 yards. Taylor leads the league with 1,122 rushing yards, putting him in position to challenge a 2,000-yard season. Henry has 937 rushing yards, putting him second even though he hasn’t played in a month. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb ranks third at 851, nearly 300 out of first place.
Taylor was the 41st draft pick in 2020 and the third running back taken behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D’Andre Swift. Though teams are wary of taking running backs early, there are some teams kicking themselves.
After a difficult schedule contributed to their 0-3 start, the Colts have climbed above .500 at 6-5. Taylor allows the Colts to play a style that can thrive anywhere, in any weather. If quarterback Carson Wentz can avoid the big mistake, the Colts will be exceedingly difficult to beat.
The Bills lost their grip on the AFC East. At the end of last season, it looked as if the Bills had wrested control of the division for years to come. It took the New England Patriots 11 weeks to take it back. The Patriots ascended to first place with their dominant, 25-0 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night and Buffalo’s loss Sunday. At plus-123, the Patriots have the best point differential in the NFL. They are undeniably a Super Bowl threat.
The Bills are facing serious questions about their status as a contender. Quarterback Josh Allen has dealt with the same problem Patrick Mahomes faced for so much of this season: Defenses are playing a shell-like alignment with deep safeties, daring the Bills to beat them with short passes and the running game. The Bills have lacked the personnel and the discipline to defeat that strategy.
The Bills’ defense often has looked strong, and they own a commanding victory over the Chiefs. But their other wins have come against Washington, the Miami Dolphins twice, the Texans and the New York Jets.
Kirk Cousins is quietly having an elite season. And the Minnesota Vikings will have to be reckoned with in the final two months of the season. In perhaps the best game of the day, Cousins outdueled Aaron Rodgers and led the Vikings to a 34-31 victory in Minneapolis. He passed for 341 yards, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions before leading a last-second field goal drive.
Cousins’s performance continued a sneaky-great season, at least by the numbers. He has completed 68.2 percent of his attempts while throwing for 21 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Entering Week 11, Pro Football Focus graded Cousins as the second-best quarterback in the NFL this season, behind only Tom Brady. Cousins doesn’t have to carry the Vikings with Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson surrounding him. He has been excellent and efficient in distributing the ball.
The Vikings’ victory nudged them to 5-5, but they are probably much better than a .500 team. Amazingly, the Vikings have led by at least seven points in every game this season. Four of their losses came by four points or fewer, and the other came by a touchdown. They have proved they can play with any team, and Cousins has been a driving factor.
The Kansas City Chiefs are winning with defense. As the Chiefs sputtered to a 3-4 start, their defense was routinely shredded. When it started to improve, its success was overshadowed by the first slump of Mahomes’s career. By now, it’s clear the Chiefs are surging back into contention not despite their defense but because of it.
In a 19-9 victory, the Chiefs held Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, who played without wide receiver Amari Cooper and lost fellow wideout CeeDee Lamb to a concussion, without a touchdown. During their four-game winning streak, the Chiefs have yielded 17, seven, 14 and nine points.
The midseason acquisition of defensive end Melvin Ingram played a major factor. Ingram’s arrival allowed Chris Jones to move back inside, which improved the Chiefs at two spots — Jones is a mediocre edge rusher but one of the best interior defensive linemen in football, and on Sunday he sacked Prescott 3.5 times. Their young cornerbacks have grown up — there are better duos across the league than L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward, but not many.
After a bye next week, the Chiefs will end the season with a manageable schedule: Broncos, Raiders, at Chargers, Steelers, at Bengals, at Broncos. It’s wholly realistic that the Chiefs could finish 12-5 or even 13-4. The Chiefs started the season as Super Bowl favorites, and soon they may wear that label again.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a path to the playoffs. Two weeks ago, the Eagles lost to the Los Angeles Chargers on a last-second field goal and fell to 3-6, which seemed to shift the franchise’s focus toward big-picture questions. Is Nick Sirianni the right coach to lead a rebuild? Could Jalen Hurts become a franchise quarterback? All of a sudden, Philadelphia’s performance and schedule have conspired to make another question urgent: Could the Eagles make the playoffs?
The Eagles smashed the Saints, 40-29, and improved to 5-6, placing them on the edge of the muddled NFC playoff picture. Hurts has been playing the best football of his young career, and that’s not the only factor that makes the Eagles a threat. The Eagles will not face an opponent that currently has a winning record until the Cowboys in Week 18. Their next five games: at Giants, at Jets, Washington, Giants, at Washington.
With a 17-game season and seven playoff teams per conference, seasons that once would have been doomed can’t be ignored. Washington has life in the NFC, too, after two impressive victories in a row. Washington won at Carolina one week after stunning Tampa Bay in Washington. It is one of seven NFC teams with a record between 4-6 and 5-5, which covers the teams in sixth through 12th place in the playoff race.
Matt Nagy might be in trouble. The “Fire Nagy” chant that cascaded from the seats at Soldier Field seemed like a realistic demand after the Chicago Bears suffered one of the most maddening losses of a season filled with maddening losses.
The Baltimore Ravens played without supernova quarterback Lamar Jackson and top wide receiver Marquise Brown, out with a non-covid-19 illness and a thigh injury, respectively. The Bears lost Justin Fields to a rib injury midgame, but they still had the quarterbacking advantage with veteran Andy Dalton against second-year backup Tyler Huntley.
Dalton gave the Bears a 13-9 lead with 1:41 remaining on a miracle pass, a fourth-and-11 bomb that Marquise Goodwin caught for a 49-yard touchdown. The Bears had pulled a season-saving win out of the fire, and then they dropped it on their foot. The Bears surrendered three gains of at least 21 yards, including a 29-yard reception from Sammy Watkins on a third-and-12 coverage bust. It was an inexcusable play that was the linchpin of an inexcusable loss.
The Ravens deserve credit for their resilience, a trait they have showed all season in the face of unceasing injuries. But Nagy will to have to own a terrible loss. There have been no midseason coaching firings this year. Nagy could be the first.
The Seattle Seahawks are circling the drain. Having scored one touchdown in the first two games since Russell Wilson returned from a broken finger, the Seahawks fell to 3-7 with their 23-13 loss at home to the Arizona Cardinals, who were quarterbacked by Colt McCoy as Murray continues to recover from an ankle injury.
Will the Wilson-Pete Carroll partnership, which powered one of the best teams of its era, last another season? This offseason, Wilson’s agent publicly offered a list of teams to which Wilson would prefer to be traded to. At 70, Carroll is the oldest coach in the NFL and staring at a second straight season with a disappointing finish, after the Los Angeles Rams bounced them out in the first round of the playoffs last January.
The Seahawks do not own their first-round pick next year, a result of their trade with the New York Jets for safety Jamal Adams, a uniquely skilled player whose impact has not nearly been worth the heavy cost Seattle paid. Seattle is a losing team without a clear path back to contention. The Seahawks will play at Washington next Monday night. A loss there, and it may turn ugly in Seattle.