NFL Week 11: What we learned from Sunday's games

Tennessee Titans 30, Baltimore Ravens 24 (OT)

1) After a half, Baltimore’s defense looked primed to redeem itself from last year’s playoff debacle, in which Derrick Henry ran for the most rushing yards (195) allowed to one back in Ravens history. The NFL’s defending rushing champion had just 36 yards on 13 carries at the break, and not much more in the third quarter. But his reputation for second-half juice showed up yet again. He had 96 by the end of regulation, and 133 after breaking off a 29-yard game-winning TD in overtime for the Titans (7-3). In the absence of injured defensive tackles Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, it was a workmanlike effort by the Baltimore defense, but there isn’t a back in the NFL who finishes games like Henry.

2) The Tennessee defense’s season-long inability to get off the field on third down plagued it again, but a late third-down stop made all the difference in the team’s seventh win. Baltimore (6-4) converted nine of its first 12 third downs and at one point moved the chains on six third downs in a row. But on a third and 6 with 0:28 left in regulation, with the Ravens threatening a game-winning touchdown at the Tennessee 10-yard line, the Titans forced an incompletion with pressure on Lamar Jackson that made Baltimore settle for a game-tying field goal. Tennessee forced a three-and-out on Baltimore’s overtime possession, but still finished having allowed a 60% conversion rate for the game.

3) When pounding Henry isn’t enough, the Titans can always let A.J. Brown do some pounding of his own. The 226-pound receiver broke an incredible seven tackles on two receptions to highlight the Titans’ final drive of regulation — three on one and four on another that resulted in a touchdown. Ravens defenders Chuck Clark, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Queen had a shot at stopping Brown on a 14-yard TD catch late in the fourth quarter, but Brown finished with three in his wake and dragged the fourth, Queen, into the end zone.

— Chase Goodbread

New Orleans Saints 24, Atlanta Falcons 9

1) Taysom Hill’s first NFL game as a full-time quarterback turned into a blowout beatdown of rival Atlanta (3-7), pushing the Saints (8-2) to 4-0 in the NFC South and keeping New Orleans atop the division as we reach Thanksgiving. In the first half, the offense was a rudimentary operation, lacking the creativity we expected from Sean Payton and Hill. Still, the QB threw some darts to get the Saints the halftime lead. In the final two quarters, the offense blossomed, with Hill using play-action passes to loosen up the Falcons defense. Two deep underthrows to Emmanuel Sanders (one wiped out by penalty) underscored the differences between the offense with Drew Brees and Hill. After not deploying a designed QB run in the first half, Hill plunged in for a fourth-down TD that gave the Saints an eight-point lead, which felt like a 20-point lead with how well the defense was playing. Hill added a couple more runs on key downs late and finished the scoring with another TD scamper. It wasn’t a Lamar Jackson-type run-first offense from Payton, but the second half showed what it could be until Brees returns. No one expected a perfect game from Hill. His bombs were woefully underthrown, he had a couple other wayward passes and took a few sacks. It wasn’t Steve Young-level great, but Hill showed promise as a passer, zipping balls over the middle with velocity, the ability to throw on the move, and got to the right read most times. Hill completed 78.3% of his 23 pass attempts for 10.1 yards per attempt. Playing a weak Falcons defense certainly helped, but the Saints have to like what they saw in Hill’s first extended time as a passer. His rapport with Michael Thomas (9/104) is a great sign. Payton proved once again that he is among the premiere play-callers in the NFL regardless of who is under center.

2) Hill is the biggest story coming out of the win, but the defense was the main reason a close game turned into a blowout. New Orleans’ defensive front dominated the game, sacking Matt Ryan a whopping eight times. Cameron Jordan earned three, Trey Hendrickson two, and David Onyemata also put Ryan on his bum twice. When Ryan wasn’t sacked, he was battered, pestered and rattled by unrelenting pressure. The secondary, led by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, gave Falcons receivers no room to breathe and forced Ryan to hold the ball. A one-point game at halftime, the NO defense put the clamps on after the break. The Falcons offense went three-and-out on their first three possessions of the second half, earning negative-four yards. The next ATL drive ended in an interception. It’s the third straight suffocating performance — one TD allowed in three games — from the Saints defense that is kicking it into gear after a shaky start to the season.

3) Life without a healthy Julio Jones is difficult. The star receiver was in and out of the game Sunday while dealing with a hamstring injury. Jones played only 21 snaps, per Next Gen Stats, just five in the second half. Missing Julio was part of the reason the Falcons offense struggled. Without the field-tiling receiver, New Orleans was able to toss coverage at Calvin Ridley and make Ryan hold the ball longer. Unable to score a TD or hold down Hill, there wasn’t much good for Atlanta to take from Sunday’s game, particularly in the second half. Losing to a backup QB in his first NFL start at the position is a tough one to swallow for a division rival.

— Kevin Patra

Houston Texans 27, New England Patriots 20

1) Deshaun Watson just completed his greatest magic act of 2020. The quarterback almost singlehandedly led the Texans (3-7) to their third win of 2020, spreading the ball among nine pass-catchers in completing 28 of 37 passes for 344 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 121.9, while also leading Houston’s nonexistent rushing attack with 36 yards on six attempts. His touchdown run was as emphatic as it was impressive, as Watson evaded multiple tacklers before barreling through Devin McCourty for a big-man score. Without Watson, these Texans lose this game, plain and simple. While they still have plenty of work to do to figure out how to resuscitate their rushing attack, the Texans should be a tough out in most of their remaining games because of Watson, who proves the enduring value of a star quarterback in today’s NFL.

2) Even though it wasn’t enough to win the game, Cam Newton’s passing line finally reemerged from the murky waters of 2020 on Sunday. The quarterback completed 26 of 40 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown, and strengthened his connection with Damiere Byrd, who morphed into a third-down machine Sunday and helped New England (4-6) finish 7 of 13 in such scenarios. For the game, Byrd caught six passes for 132 yards and a remarkable touchdown, pulling his best Willie Mays impression to adjust to a well-placed pass from Newtown to make an over-the-shoulder grab for a score. New England’s attack was primarily air-driven, mainly because of the deficit the Patriots faced for much of the second half, but it’s at least encouraging to receive proof the Patriots can succeed through the air. At 4-6, it will be an uphill climb, but at least it might be an entertaining one.

3) Houston’s defense struggled to get off the field at times Sunday, but stood tall when it needed it most. Justin Reid was all over the field Sunday, finishing with seven tackles, and had a clutch sack in the fourth quarter that put the Patriots behind the sticks and limited a promising drive to three points, preserving the Texans’ one-score lead. J.J. Watt batted down a third-down pass that forced Newton to try to convert a fourth-and-long attempt, which came up short because of Houston’s pass rush, which forced Newton to pull the ball down and attempt to escape before he was brought down, left only to fling the ball to no one in particular for a turnover on downs. In a turnover-less game, Romeo Crennel’s bunch stiffened enough to secure a win over the coach’s former boss. While they’re still just 3-7, the Texans can enjoy a Victory Monday while feeling proud of their total team effort.

— Nick Shook

Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Jacksonville Jaguars 3

1) What more can be said about the Steelers (10-0) defense that hasn’t already been said? We didn’t necessarily learn anything new about DC Keith Butler’s smothering unit, but the group did what it had to do and imposed its will on a terrible Jaguars (1-9) offense. The Jags’ nine-play, 52- yard opening drive, which concluded with a FG, ended up being their best as Pittsburgh stalled every series that followed. Five of those possessions ended by way of a turnover (four INTs) or turnover on downs, while the other six ended with punts. The first pick went to Minkah Fitzpatrick after former Jags DE Tyson Alualu tipped a pass at the LOS. Terrell Edmunds snagged the second on the ensuing drive on an overthrown ball intended for Tyler Eifert. Fitzpatrick and Edmunds each tacked on another INT in the second half for good measure. The Steelers also held their opponent to a season-best 206 total yards and three points, a far cry from the single-possession finishes they’ve seen in five of their previous nine wins. A heated Thanksgiving showdown against the rival Ravens now awaits.

2) A failed onside kick following the Jaguars’ early 3-0 lead pretty much clued spectators to what kind of game this was going to be. And, as expected, it was not pretty. After a decent first two starts, Jake Luton’s third proved not to be a charm as the rookie was worked over by the Steelers D. Jacksonville played from behind all game, meaning Luton had to throw more than was perhaps intended. He faced consistent pressure that forced him into several off-target or overthrown balls, was taken down nine total times (two sacks) and went 16-of-37 for 151 yards. He also coughed up four TOs and nearly lost a fumble on the first of those sacks. Keeping with tradition, James Robinson (17/73) stood out once more, as he became the fifth undrafted rookie in the common draft era with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards in a season. It’s just a shame that his historic day came against such an overpowering opponent.

3) The defense virtually took the Jags out of this one early, but the effort by the offense made sure they stayed down. Given how overmatched Jacksonville’s secondary was against an arsenal of versatile wideouts, Ben Roethlisberger (267/2/1) didn’t need big plays to pick them apart. He fired off a number of quick, intermediate throws and completed at least three passes to six different receivers with relative ease. Of course, that didn’t mean Big Ben avoided throwing any dimes at all (see: Chase Claypool’s 31-yard TD). Diontae Johnson hauled in a career-high 12 catches (16 targets) for 111 yards. His steady rise will be one to watch, especially on this short week if JuJu Smith-Schuster is at all compromised by the toe injury he suffered late in the game.

— Jelani Scott

Cleveland Browns 22, Philadelphia Eagles 17

1) Mother Nature has decided to unleash her wrath on Cleveland exclusively on Sundays for the last month, but the Browns (7-3) have adapted. Cleveland is built for this with the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, which again powered the Browns to a ground-based victory. Chubb finished with 114 yards on 20 carries, and while Hunt’s yardage total wasn’t great — he was in the negative until the final quarter — his touchdown run that required a hurdle and immediately followed Chubb’s longest rush of the day gave Cleveland a two-score advantage early in the fourth quarter. The Browns end a three-game homestand with a 2-1 mark on the backs of ugly victories necessitated by inclement weather. Sunday’s was their best of the stretch, with Baker Mayfield breaking 200 yards through the air and avoiding crushing mistakes, and Cleveland’s proven backfield finishing off another victory with a strong final quarter. At 7-3, the Browns are above .500 at the latest point in the season since their 10-6 season of 2007. If they want to make the playoffs, they must win against teams they’re expected to beat. For the second straight week, they did just that.

2) We’re in Week 11 and Carson Wentz isn’t showing many signs he’s anywhere close to the level that made the Eagles (3-6-1) a Super Bowl-contending team three years ago. Wentz is slow to throw while in the pocket, made a bad mistake while pressured in the first half that ended in a pick-six by Sione Takitaki, and failed to get rid of the ball from his own end zone in the third quarter, resulting in a safety. Philadelphia can again point to its health issues as an excuse, but it’s fair to wonder if Wentz would be any better even if he had his offense’s usual starting cast available. Right now, his lucrative contract is looking like an albatross weighing down the Eagles, who are on a path that would lead to nowhere if not for existing in the worst division in football. Philadelphia’s defense, meanwhile, deserves a pat on the back. While Chubb finished over 110 yards on the ground, the Eagles bottled up the Browns’ rushing attack for much of the day. The group was the lone reason why the Eagles were even in this game in the final quarter, which cannot remain the case if the Eagles want to win the putrid NFC East.

3) Cleveland’s defense isn’t one that will cause opposing offenses to lose sleep, but it has established a formula that, when executed, wins games. It’s simple: Force turnovers and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Cleveland did exactly that Sunday, ending Philadelphia’s most promising drive of the first half by recovering a Miles Sanders fumble, and followed that with Takitaki’s best play of his young career, an interception of Wentz returned for a touchdown. The Browns closed with their rushing attack and another timely turnover via Denzel Ward, who intercepted Wentz to end Philadelphia’s second-to-last possession of the day. Philadelphia was just 2 for 12 on third down because of Cleveland’s defense, which constantly harassed Wentz, pressuring him 16 times and registering five sacks, even without Myles Garrett. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate was so pleased by his teammates’ efforts, he tweeted he was “smiling and crying” (in response to the FOX broadcast’s mention of his absence) with pride. If the Browns can continue to do this down the stretch, they’ll have a good shot at making their first postseason appearance since 2002.

— Nick Shook

Washington Football Team 20, Cincinnati Bengals 9

1) Concentrating on this game was a difficult exercise once Joe Burrow was carted off with a serious knee injury early in the third quarter. Time stood still as the No. 1 overall pick clutched his left knee in pain; head coach Zac Taylor rushed the field while teammates and opponents immediately knelt as Burrow was getting checked out. The empty stadium at FedEx Field somehow grew quieter. Burrow’s injury came as the pocket collapsed on him while looking downfield and bodies crashed into his legs just after getting rid of the ball. If there was any indication of the seriousness of Burrow’s injury, it was that CBS elected not to show a replay on the broadcast. Once Burrow made his exit, time, particularly the minutes and seconds on the game clock, hastily ticked as Washington went on to score 13 unanswered points for an effortless comeback win against a deflated team that witnessed its future momentarily disappear through a tunnel. If there was any silver lining on this gloomy day in Washington, it was Alex Smith being there on the opposing sideline. Smith, who got his first home win as a starter after going through a treacherous two-year rehab for a broken leg, exemplified the story of a player coming back from injury. Hopefully Smith got a chance to offer words of encouragement to Burrow.

2) It was a competitive, defensive slugfest before Burrow’s injury, but Washington (3-7) steamrolled the Bengals (2-7-1) in the second half to stay alive in the lowly NFC East. Washington pass rusher Chase Young — the No. 2 overall pick — had a moment with Burrow in the first half on a wild play. With Burrow scrambling out of the pocket and toward the end zone, Young chased him down and forced a fumble into the end zone for a turnover/touchback. The next time they were on the field together, Young got both hands on a ball that could’ve been intercepted at the line of scrimmage. Ryan Finley, the Bengals backup QB, didn’t stand a chance against a Washington defense that smelled blood and pinned its ears back with Burrow gone. Finley was sacked four times, threw an interception and offered a QB rating of 0.0 by game’s end. Smith was 17-of-25 for 166 yards and a TD in what was a mistake-free game despite one INT of his that was tipped at the line. Washington running back Antonio Gibson gained 94 yards off 16 carries and scored a TD in his fourth consecutive game. 

3) With a score in the second quarter, A.J. Green passed Carl Pickens for the second most receiving TDs in Bengals history. Green’s 64th career TD puts him two behind the Bengals’ all-time leader Chad Johnson (66). It was the first TD reception by Green since Oct. 28, 2018, not to mention his first from Burrow. Green’s afternoon ended with four catches for 41 yards and a score. 

— Michael Baca

Carolina Panthers 20, Detroit Lions 0

1) P.J. Walker made his first NFL start in place of an injured Teddy Bridgewater. The former XFL standout had a solid, if up-and-down, day and proved he deserves to be on an NFL field. The QB made some dime throws, including a brilliant dart on the move early in the second half. When in rhythm, Walker showed good ball-placement and was elusive enough to escape pressure against a defense that struggles to disrupt the passer. With the run game for the Panthers (4-7) slowed early, Walker completed 70.6% of 34 pass attempts for 258 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt, with a TD and two INTs. Walker showed good touch on a deep pass to D.J. Moore and great rapport with a receiver corps that he hasn’t gotten a ton of time working with. It wasn’t all perfect, with the two interceptions both coming in the end zone on poor reads by the QB. Even with the errors, Matt Rhule has to be pleased with what he’s seen from his backup. Walker showed he should be a staple on an NFL roster for years to come.

2) The Lions (4-6) are a broken team. Matthew Stafford’s velocity didn’t appear disrupted by the thumb injury, but the first-half play-calling suggested it was, with Detroit sporting a run-heavy offense on early downs. The run game sans D'Andre Swift was non-existent, and Stafford completed just 54.5% of his passes for a measly 178 yards and took five sacks. A creative flea-flicker midway through the third quarter should have gone for a 51-yard touchdown to Marvin Jones and cut into the Panthers 14-0 lead. An illegal formation penalty wiped out the play. The sequence epitomized a Detroit team that is lost and can’t get out of its own way. The defense is a weekly sieve and got blown out by a team without its star running back, starting QB or left tackle. Sunday, the offense followed suit laying an egg, unable to take advantage of a Panthers defense that entered the NFL last in third-down conversions allowed (Detroit converted just 3 of 14) and 31st in sacks (Detroit gave up five). The Lions entered with an outside chance to remaining in the playoff discussion heading into Thanksgiving. Instead, Matt Patricia’s team got shut out.

3) Give credit to Brian Burns and the rest of the Panthers’ defense for playing their best game of the season. Carolina lived in the backfield, hassling Stafford seemingly every drop-back. Burns remains a blur off the edge, compiling two sacks to go with four QB hits, a tackle for loss and a pass defended. Missing corner Donte Jackson, the secondary blanketed receivers, forcing Stafford to hold the ball. The Panthers D, which had the fewest three-and-outs in the NFL entering the game, forced two on the day and allowed just 10 first downs. The defense allowed more than one first down on a drive just twice — both coming in the fourth quarter when the Panthers had a double-digit lead. Carolina kept Detroit to 89 first-half yards and a woeful 3.4 yards per play for the game. Holding a team to 185 total yards and zero points is an accomplishment, even if it’s against a limp opponent. The young Panthers team could build on games like Sunday as it looks toward the future under Rhule.

— Kevin Patra

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