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What to know from NFL Week 11: The Cowboys showed off their ceiling

Cowboys running back Tony Pollard runs away from Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson during a 30-yard touchdown reception in the first half Sunday. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

The time for pretty football has passed. It is time for long shadows, bundled fans and puffs of vapor discharged from face masks. Teams have to play in weather, if the weather even lets them; more than six feet of snow forced the Buffalo Bills to relocate and play the Cleveland Browns in Detroit. Elsewhere, NFL teams traded punts through the chill and knocked extra points off uprights.

Here is what to know about Week 11.

The Cowboys have a Super Bowl ceiling. That has been apparent all along, but Sunday they provided emphatic proof of concept. It’s not clear which is the best team in the NFC, but Dallas is in the conversation. The Cowboys traveled to Minnesota to play the Vikings, who had just toppled the mighty Bills and validated their standing among the NFC’s elite. And the Cowboys annihilated them.

In a 40-3 victory, Dallas showed how good its offense can be when all of its pieces work together. Dak Prescott made quick decisions and accurate throws and, crucially, scrambled for easy yards when running lanes came open. He completed 22 of 25 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns.

Maske's Sunday takeaways

Ezekiel Elliott picked up short-yardage conversions, and Tony Pollard served as a versatile, explosive skill player out of the backfield, gaining 189 total yards, including a 68-yard touchdown catch, on six receptions and 15 carries. Regardless of which running back the Cowboys call their starter, Pollard is their best offensive player.

And not for nothing, kicker Brett Maher is a weapon. He tucked a 60-yard field goal inside the right upright before halftime, only to learn a whistle had paused play so officials could review CeeDee Lamb’s toe-tapping catch along the sideline. Once Lamb’s catch was confirmed, Maher trotted back out and drilled another kick — and this one went straight down the middle.

For the season, Maher has made 19 of 21 field goals and 26 of 27 extra points. There is an argument he’s the second-best kicker in the NFL behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker. That’s the kind of thing that matters during meaningful games in January, and the Cowboys will be playing in some of those.

The AFC West came at the king and missed. The Kansas City Chiefs’ division rivals spent the offseason building up to challenge them, to take a legitimate run at ending their reign. The Los Angeles Chargers added Khalil Mack. The Las Vegas Raiders brought in Davante Adams and Chandler Jones. The Denver Broncos turned their franchise over to Russell Wilson.

And where did it get any of them? The Chiefs are still the Chiefs, and the rest of them are not. The Chiefs took further command of the division with a thrilling, 30-27 victory Sunday night over the Chargers, pushing them to 8-2 and leaving them as the lone AFC West team over .500.

More to the point: The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, and their rivals do not. Mahomes is the MVP front-runner again after his latest performance, in which he took over with his team down four at its 25-yard line with 1:46 to go, led the Chiefs down the field with surgical efficiency and tossed his third touchdown pass with 31 seconds to spare.

Earlier Sunday, the Raiders outlasted the host Broncos for a 22-16 overtime victory. The result left both at 3-7. Wilson has provided only buyer’s remorse, and the Raiders’ additions haven’t prevented six losses within one possession. The 5-5 Chargers have been torpedoed by injuries, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has not been able to get the most out of Justin Herbert. The AFC West was supposed to be a gantlet that would test Kansas City’s dominance. Instead it has been more of the same.

The Patriots found another way to beat the Jets. Neither team scored a touchdown in the first 59 minutes 55 seconds before rookie defensive back Marcus Jones, at his team’s 16-yard line, settled underneath a punt from Braden Mann. In a 3-3 game in which both quarterbacks scuffled, Jones weaved right to the sideline, cut back and then zoomed across the field and past Mann until only the goal line was in front of him.

Jones’s touchdown with five seconds left gave New England a 10-3 victory, improbable in form and inevitable in result. The Patriots have beaten the Jets in 14 consecutive regular season meetings, and they beat them twice this year despite scoring one offensive touchdown in two games.

Jones’s return — the first punt returned for a touchdown all season — could reverberate in the AFC playoff race. The Jets and Patriots both moved to 6-4, and the Patriots leaped in front of the Jets after the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Patriots stun Jets with game-winning punt return in final seconds

Their windswept game in Foxborough, Mass., did little to inspire optimism in either team’s second-year quarterback. Zach Wilson completed 9 of 22 passes for 77 yards, failing to back up his confidence after the Jets’ first loss to the Patriots, when he said, “We’ll see them in two weeks.” He somehow played both rushed and with indecision. On a roster worthy of playoff contention, he is not doing his part.

Mac Jones took six sacks and foundered on third down despite completing 23 of 27 passes. His task will only get harder if the Patriots lose center David Andrews, their most reliable offensive lineman, who hobbled to the locker room in the first half.

The Giants’ magical season could be in jeopardy. Even after a 31-18 loss to the visiting Detroit Lions, New York is 7-3 and comfortably in wild-card position. On the surface, there is little for a fan to worry about. A look around the corner and a quick study of their résumé, though, suggest a playoff spot is no sure thing.

The Giants have few, if any, easy victories remaining. They must play the 9-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the surging Washington Commanders twice each, plus the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the Vikings and the Indianapolis Colts. And as the Lions exposed, the Giants are not as good as their record indicates. They have relied on close victories, some of them near-miraculous, against subpar opponents.

Entering Sunday, the Giants’ .399 strength of victory (the combined winning percentage of the teams they had beaten) ranked fourth lowest in the NFC, and their point differential is now only plus-1. First-year coach Brian Daboll, running back Saquon Barkley and many others deserve immense credit for making the Giants competitive after years of ineptitude. But this team could finish the season playing at the same level that gave it a 7-2 record and still fall out of the playoffs. It wouldn’t be a collapse as much as regression toward the mean.

Houston is almost on the clock. The race for the first draft pick has a clear leader: the Texans, who at 1-8-1 have the worst record in the NFL by more than a full game. They don’t seem particularly close to breaking through for a second victory, either; they have lost five straight by an average of 11.6 points. At halftime of their 23-10 loss to the Commanders, they had five yards of offense.

Buckner: The Commanders are cruising. Don't parse it -- just enjoy it.

It is clear the Texans should target a quarterback in April, even though they have a second-year starter. Given the job for an entire season, Davis Mills has shown he might be a low-level NFL starter, but he’s not a quarterback worth building a franchise around. Assuming the Texans end the season with the NFL’s worst record, they should determine whether they think Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Alabama’s Bryce Young or another draft-eligible passer is their franchise quarterback.

The other draft subplot to keep an eye on is the Los Angeles Rams’ first-round pick. They owe it to the Lions; it is the second first-rounder they shipped to Detroit in their trade for Matthew Stafford. After the Rams fell to 3-7 with a loss in New Orleans, the pick sits at No. 6 — far better than either team ever expected.

The Eagles are going through some turbulence. Entering Week 10, they were unbeaten and barely had been challenged. After a Monday night loss to the Commanders revealed some cracks, they squeaked by the Colts, 17-16, by rallying for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. They won on the road on a short week, and they’re 9-1 and alone atop the NFC again after Minnesota’s loss. It’s hard to complain about that. It’s also hard to view the Eagles the same way as you could last week.

After the Commanders controlled the ball by running on them, the Eagles signed 30-something defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh off the street. Both played Sunday, and the Eagles held Jonathan Taylor to 84 yards on 22 carries, an average of only 3.8. After Taylor shredded them for 49 yards on the Colts’ opening drive, which ended with a one-yard touchdown run, he mustered only 35 the rest of the game.

Their improvement in handling the run was encouraging, but the Eagles still struggled to beat the Colts. They lost two fumbles, and without injured tight end Dallas Goedert, Jalen Hurts passed for just 190 yards and took three sacks. Hurts also ran for 86 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni called it “sweet” to beat the Colts after they fired Frank Reich, whom he considers a mentor. The Eagles aren’t playing their best, but they can at least try to make improvements after a victory.

Deshaun Watson will come back to a team out of contention. The Browns’ craven plan to lure Watson to Cleveland with a record-breaking guaranteed contract despite an overwhelming number of sexual misconduct allegations against him backfired in Year 1. Watson returned to practice this week and will make his debut in two weeks. When he does, the Browns’ season will be effectively over.

The Browns fell to 3-7 with a 31-23 loss in Detroit to the Bills, their sixth loss in their past seven games. Next week, the Browns will be an underdog against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are coming off their bye. At best, the Browns will be on the outer edge of the AFC wild-card race. More likely, they’ll be 3-8.

While the Browns are waiting for Watson, quarterback has not been their problem. Jacoby Brissett has been just what the Browns could have hoped for: a caretaker who may not have carried them to wins but who kept them in games. The Browns’ horrid run defense is why they’ve sunk to the bottom of the conference. They entered Sunday allowing 4.8 yards per carry, fifth highest in the NFL. After Sunday’s loss, they are allowing 26.9 points per game, second most in the NFL.