As is usually the case in the NFL, Week 11 had its share of surprises.
Undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin threw three touchdown passes, leading the Oakland Raiders to a win over the floundering Houston Texans.
A Tampa Bay Buccaneers team with all of one win on the season blew the doors off an Atlanta team that won 13 games last year, racing to a 38-6 lead over a Falcons squad enduring a nightmarish year.
There's a deadlock atop the NFC North again, with a Bears win and Lions loss, leaving both teams at 6-4.
Oh yeah. There was kind of a big game in Denver too.
As we do each week, we've asked each of Bleacher Report's NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers to offer their takes on Week 11's games.
Here's what they had to say, beginning with Sunday night's huge AFC West showdown between the Broncos and Chiefs.
Week 11's biggest game was undoubtedly the Sunday night tilt between the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos.
The Chiefs are unbeaten no more. After a 27-17 loss in which Alex Smith and the Kansas City offense struggled mightily, NFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen thinks this contest shows that Smith was getting a little too much love during the Chiefs' hot start:
Much has been made of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith’s ability to win games. He received too much credit for getting the Chiefs to 9-0 this season, and he’ll get a lot of heat for losing to the Broncos on Sunday night.
The reality of the situation is that Smith really hasn’t changed. He is an average quarterback, and he’s a big reason why many people can’t buy the Chiefs as a contender.
The Chiefs might not be quite as good as their 9-1 record indicates, but they are still a playoff team. A big reason for the team’s success has been the defense, and it acquitted itself well against Peyton Manning.
Although the Chiefs may never say it, they know Smith is a limited quarterback. There is a recipe for the Chiefs' nine wins. Smith just had to stay out of the way, but that doesn’t work against Peyton Manning.
The offense was to blame for the Chiefs’ loss on Sunday night, but Smith shouldn’t get a disproportionate amount of the blame. Likewise, he sure as heck doesn’t deserve all of the credit for the team’s success.
The Cleveland Browns were in unfamiliar territory in Week 11: playing a relevant game this late in the season.
Quarterback Jason Campbell (the Browns' third different starter this season) struggled in a 41-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst doesn't see much point in lamenting Cleveland's situation under center:
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns fell to the rival Cincinnati Bengals 41-20. The loss drops their record to 4-6, and though not out of playoff contention by the numbers, it’s clear the Browns lack the one thing that could have prevented their Week 11 loss and improved their season’s chances from Week 1: a good quarterback.
For a while, they had one—Brian Hoyer, who brought the Browns three straight wins but who also had his season ended with a torn ACL in Week 5. Though they briefly turned to 2012 first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden, he is mostly unimproved from his poor rookie season, which necessitated a switch to veteran backup Jason Campbell.
The Browns have been better off with Campbell under center. He has better vision, better accuracy and a quicker release than Weeden, as well as valuable experience. However, Campbell was a liability in Sunday’s loss, with three interceptions thrown to just one touchdown. This doesn’t mean the Browns need to go back to Weeden, however, or that they have to do anything.
Once Hoyer fell injured, any option the Browns chose to replace him with would simply be a stopgap between this season and the next. No answers to the Browns’ longstanding question at quarterback are to be found in 2013. All they could do is put in the best quarterback they believe they have—in this case, Campbell—and hope it can at least result in a better record than in 2012.
The Browns’ current quarterback situation isn’t great, but they don’t have any options. Next year, they can draft a rookie worth developing, have him compete with Hoyer for the starting job and retain Campbell as a valuable veteran backup to help provide leadership.
For now, the position remains in a holding pattern. There’s no point worrying about it, because nothing can be done.
With their 27-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 11, the New York Giants won their fourth straight game after opening the 2013 season with six losses in a row.
The Giants now sit 1.5 games back of the first-place Philadelphia Eagles. In the opinion of NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon, it's the Giants (and not the second-place Dallas Cowboys) who are the biggest roadblock to the Eagles winning the division:
The Philadelphia Eagles now lead the NFC East and possess enough momentum that they have to be considered the division favorite with six weeks remaining. But while the Dallas Cowboys are still tied with Philly in the loss column, a game up on the New York Giants, we got more proof on Sunday that the G-Men should be considered a bigger threat than their rivals from Texas.
While the injury-ravaged Cowboys attempt to get healthy on their bye, the Giants have gotten hot. The schedule has been easy, but you’ve gotta be good to win four in a row.
What’s most encouraging is that the Giants’ three best players Sunday—Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul—were also their three best players when this team went on that improbable Super Bowl run two years ago. It was the first time this year that was the case.
Manning was far from perfect in the 27-13 victory over the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, but New York’s franchise quarterback had his best performance of the year against a decent Green Bay defense. Manning still leads the league in picks, but he’s thrown just two during this four-game winning streak.
Cruz had a few tremendous catches among his total of eight, putting up 110 yards. He was the Giants’ top offensive player, breaking out of the mini-slump he’s been in ever since a hot September.
Pierre-Paul, who fought through a bad shoulder and back, started and played significant snaps despite being questionable. He had a game-clinching pick-six in the fourth quarter. JPP hasn’t been himself, but he was a game-changer Sunday.
Thanks partly to JPP’s performance, that D gave up 13 or fewer points for the fourth consecutive week. During this streak, they’ve surrendered only two touchdowns in four games.
Now they get to host the banged-up Cowboys next Sunday. Early Vegas lines indicate they’re the favorite there, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Nobody has ever made the playoffs after starting 0-6, so the chips are still stacked against Big Blue. But considering the shape of the rest of the NFC East as well as their reputation when the odds are out of their favor, you’d be crazy to rule them out of anything.
As hot as the New York Giants are, the Green Bay Packers are equally as cold. Sunday's setback in New York marks the third straight loss for the Packers, the first time since 2008 the Packers have lost three in a row.
The absence of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone was the genesis for this skid. As NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter points out, if the Packers are going to make the playoffs, they need to figure out a way to win a game without No. 12 on the field:
I wrote earlier this season that Aaron Rodgers is the NFL’s best player, and I stand by that. No NFL team would be able to lose a quarterback like Rodgers and keep a top-five scoring offense rolling without missing a beat.
However, subtracting a player of even Rodgers’ caliber shouldn’t reduce a Super Bowl contender to a bottom-feeder—and that’s exactly what the Packers looked like against the then-3-6 New York Giants.
The Packers weren’t shy about bolstering the offense this offseason. They reinvested in the long-dormant running attack and reinforced the offensive line. Even though they had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with Sunday’s starter, Scott Tolzien, three interceptions against a Giants team that was ranked dead last in turnover differential is unacceptable.
The Packers have quite a few playmakers on defense and should have been better against an offense that was ranked 30th in the NFL in scoring offense coming into the game.
With two straight divisional games coming up, the Packers simply have to start winning now—with or without Rodgers—if they want to make the playoffs.
Ultimately, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have to shoulder the blame. It’s not their fault that Rodgers and backup Seneca Wallace got hurt, but it is their fault that a carousel of sub-standard quarterbacks have been spinning around behind Rodgers on the depth chart.
Part of building a championship team is having a backup quarterback who can hold down the fort if the injury bug bites. McCarthy and Thompson left that box unchecked, and they paid for it Sunday.
It's been a rocky couple of weeks for the Miami Dolphins.
The Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito drama continues to swirl around the team. After winning their first three games, the Dolphins entered Sunday's matchup with the San Diego Chargers on a 1-5 skid.
That skid may have halted (at least temporarily) with a 20-16 win over the Bolts, but AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz doesn't think the win cooled off Miami general manager Jeff Ireland's chair any:
Wherever you look, there are reminders that the Miami Dolphins are in need of an overhaul.
You could look on the field, where the Dolphins have failed to finish with a winning record since 2008 and were once again spiraling out of control before another season-saving win. You could look in the stands, where the Dolphins regularly fail to fill their 75,540 seat count. And on Sunday, you could simply look in the skies over Sun Life Stadium prior to kickoff.
For the second time, Dolphins fans pitched in to fly a banner over the stadium, urging owner Stephen Ross to fire general manager Jeff Ireland.
“MR. ROSS: WE TOLD YOU SO 2 YEARS AGO. #FIREIRELAND,” the banner read.
Ireland’s contract was set to expire following the 2013 season, but NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported that during the offseason, "Ireland and the Dolphins agreed on an extension that will keep the GM under contract through at least the 2014 season."
The Dolphins pulled themselves back up to .500 with a 20-16 win over the San Diego Chargers that came down to the game’s final play. As a result of the win, the Dolphins will likely avoid much of the media shellacking they’ve suffered over the weeks since the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga began.
A win is the ultimate deodorant, but by the look of things, there are still changes that need to be made. That being said, maybe fans should fly those banners overhead more often: Both times they’ve done so, the Dolphins have won.
The flip side of Miami's win Sunday was San Diego's loss, which dropped the Chargers to 4-6 and did serious damage to their chances of making the playoffs as a wild card.
What's the problem with the up-and-down Bolts, who have looked great one week and lousy the next this year?
The answer is simple, at least according to NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey:
Sorry, Chargers fans, your team just isn’t good enough, and that’s OK!
This isn’t just my opinion. Quarterback Philip Rivers said much the same in postgame discussions when he said, via Chargers reporter Annie Heilbrunn, that they’re “not good enough” to overcome mistakes.
Rivers is right, so there’s only two logical choices: Stop making mistakes or get better!
Every team is going to make mistakes. Passes flutter incomplete. Running backs fumble the football. Players commit penalties. Coaches don’t always make the right calls. It’s human error in a game played by humans. While coaching is all about minimizing and eliminating mistakes, no team is perfect.
The Chargers are just not good enough.
They need to get better.
That’s a normal story for a team that is rebuilding after years of mismanagement by A.J. Smith and poor coaching by Norv Turner. This team has the right people in the right places. Any calls for the heads of general manager Tom Telesco, head coach Mike McCoy or quarterback Philip Rivers are simply premature.
One day, in the very near future, the Chargers will be good enough to fly across country and beat a team like the Miami Dolphins in spite of turnovers and mental errors. Along the way, they’ll eliminate some of those unforced errors as well.
The Chargers have shown vast improvement this season. They just need more time to right the ship.
If Sunday night's big game in Denver was the marquee matchup in Week 11, then the afternoon tilt between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints was a worthy undercard.
The Saints prevailed 23-20 on a last-second field goal. That dropped the defending NFC champs to 6-4 on the season, and as NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller pointed out, all is most certainly not well for Jim Harbaugh's boys:
Everyone will focus on the questionable penalty called in the fourth quarter when outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked quarterback Drew Brees, causing a fumble that was immediately recovered by Patrick Willis.
With the 49ers up by three points, the game was seemingly over. But yellow flags littered the field near Brees. Personal foul, roughing the quarterback. Not only did the Saints keep the ball, they also gained 15 yards.
The penalty was brutal, but the 49ers had many opportunities before and after the would-be strip-sack that were blown.
In what has become a common theme, quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggled again. The second-year starter was just 17-of-31 for 127 yards against a depleted New Orleans secondary.
While Kaepernick wasn’t helped by an offensive line that struggled to pick up delayed pressures, he seemed timid when facing big rushing lanes. The same rushing lanes he would have made his own last season.
Two straight losses put the 6-4 49ers tied for the No. 6 seed in the NFC. For some teams, that would be a successful season. But for the defending NFC champions, that’s simply not good enough.
With the Oakland Raiders set to start undrafted rookie Matt McGloin at quarterback in Week 11, not many experts gave the Raiders much of a shot against the Houston Texans Sunday.
Well, the Raiders handed the free-falling Texans their eighth straight loss, and in the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, a large part of the credit for that win lies with the young signal-caller:
The NFL has always been about opportunity for rookies. It was that way when I played, and nothing has changed since.
And when you get your shot to play meaningful minutes, everyone is watching to see how you handle the stress (plus the speed) of the pro game.
Take McGloin on Sunday in Houston.
This kid is an undrafted rookie out of Penn State making his first career start because of the injury to Terrelle Pryor. But instead of showing signs of panic under center, he goes on the road and throws three touchdown passes in the Raiders’ 28-23 win over the Texans.
Look at the slant route McGloin threw to Denarius Moore versus man coverage, the post against Cover 4 or the seam to tight end Mychal Rivera to beat 2-Man down the middle of the field.
Those are big-boy throws. NFL throws. And they came from a rookie in his first start.
I don’t know what the Raiders plan to do at the quarterback position moving forward. But given the recent slide in production from Pryor, this game tape is going to look pretty good for McGloin when the Oakland coaching staff turn on the film Monday morning to hand out the grades.
And that’s how you earn a starting job in the league.
The Detroit Lions entered Week 11 all alone in first place in the NFC North.
They exit it deadlocked with the Chicago Bears at 6-4, and NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse opines that Sunday's 37-27 loss to a 4-6 Pittsburgh Steelers team is one that could come back to haunt Detroit:
Given a golden opportunity to increase their lead atop the NFC North, the Detroit Lions played an uninspiring second half and let a mediocre Pittsburgh Steelers team steal a game that eventual division winners really should win.
The 37-27 defeat might be one the Lions regret as they approach the final month-and-a-half of 2013.
The consensus front-runner in the division entering Sunday, Detroit will now head home for two important games—against the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers and rival Green Bay Packers—in the span of just 10 days.
Just hours after the Lions let the Steelers dominate the second half, the Chicago Bears beat the Baltimore Ravens to match Detroit's 6-4 record in the division.
Winning in Pittsburgh is far from an easy task, but the Lions will be disappointed in the final outcome, especially after taking control of the game during the second quarter. Detroit scored 27 points during the period, and Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson both appeared well on their way to huge days.
Instead, the Steelers held Stafford to just 35 passing yards and shut out Johnson over the final 30 minutes. The Lions failed to score in the second half, while Pittsburgh put up the game's final 17 points.
A chance to swell momentum was lost, the Bears evened up the records and Aaron Rodgers got one week closer to returning.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers destroyed the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11, racing to a 38-6 lead before eventually winning 41-28.
As NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen reports, one of the stars of Sunday's win by the Bucs was something of an unlikely hero:
Running back Bobby Rainey carried the ball 30 times on Sunday for 163 yards and two touchdowns on the ground as his Tampa Bay Buccaneers pummeled the Atlanta Falcons.
Rainey’s performance was impressive (he also caught two passes and scored a touchdown through the air) on its merits alone, but phenomenal if you consider his path to the playing field Sunday.
Rainey is playing on his third NFL team in the last three months. After spending 2012 on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad, he was claimed in September by the Cleveland Browns, then cut seven weeks later on Oct. 17. Four days later, the Buccaneers announced they had claimed Rainey off waivers.
At that point, Rainey was well behind Mike James, Brian Leonard and Doug Martin on the depth chart. But Martin was already injured and soon placed on injured reserve. Then James followed Martin with a season-ending injury.
Rainey stepped up.
Rainey carried the ball eight times last week as Leonard’s backup, averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored his first career touchdown. Against the Falcons Sunday, Rainey entrenched himself as “the man” in Tampa Bay. At least until 2014.
It took a number of injuries and transactions for Rainey to find himself lined up behind quarterback Mike Glennon, but Tampa Bay is glad to have him now.
The Arizona Cardinals defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-14 in Week 11, the third straight victory for the Redbirds.
Don't look now, but as NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland points out, that winning streak has the 6-4 Cardinals in the thick of the playoff chase:
After a 1-2 start to the season, head coach Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals have hit their stride with six games left to play.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has done an exceptional job of protecting the football during their current three-game win streak, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' defense has been winning the turnover battle.
With a favorable schedule down the stretch, Arizona has put itself in prime position to capture one of two wild-card spots in the NFC. As it stands right now, the Cardinals have three remaining contests in front of their home crowd.
This, in turn, should help the organization get to a 9-7 or 10-6 mark at the conclusion of the season. The key from now until the end of the year is simple: win games in the NFC West.
The good news is they have three games left to reverse their poor early-season performances in the NFC West. Arizona will host the Rams and 49ers at home and travel to the Pacific Northwest in Week 16. It's hard not to like where this team presently sits, considering the competitive nature of the NFC.
A lot can change, but the Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in the NFL.