Week 11’s Top NFL Storylines: Jonathan Taylor, The Chiefs’ Resurgence and the Fall of the Falcons

Plus, is it time to panic in Tennessee after a terrible loss to the cellar-dwelling Houston Texans?

November 23, 2021 8:13 am
Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts runs into the tunnel after a win over the Buffalo Bills
Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts runs into the tunnel after a win over the Buffalo Bills.
Joshua Bessex/Getty

With Monday Night Football between the Bucs and Giants wrapped up, Week 11 of the NFL’s first 17-game season is officially over and we can start looking forward to three games on Thanksgiving. While we can’t get to everything — like the deterioration of extra-point kicking across the league — here are four of the top storylines to emerge with the season’s 11th week in the books, and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.

Buy: Jonathan Taylor is the best RB playing in the NFL right now

Until further notice, Derrick Henry is the best running back in the NFL. But as he’s on the shelf with an injury for the foreseeable future, Jonathan Taylor of the Colts is the best running back currently playing in the NFL.

That realization comes after Taylor rushed for 185 yards and five touchdowns — four rushing and one receiving — against a Buffalo defense that had been limiting opponents to 83.9 rushing yards per game, the third best mark in the league. A one-man wrecking crew for Indianapolis, the 2020 second-round pick found the end zone on 14.2% of his 35 touches against Buffalo as the Colts rolled to a 41-15 upset of the Bills.

Now leading the league in rushing yards (1,122), rushing touchdowns (13), runs of 10 or more yards (30) and yards from scrimmage (1,444), Taylor has scored in eight straight games and is unquestionably the biggest reason the Colts are above .500 for the first time all season. With Sunday’s effort, Taylor equaled the NFL record set by Lydell Mitchell of the Colts in the 1975-76 seasons that was matched by the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 (his MVP season) by accounting for more than 100 yards from scrimmage and scoring a touchdown for the eighth consecutive game.

More importantly for Taylor and Indianapolis, the Colts, who have blown three fourth-quarter leads this season, didn’t squander their opportunity to get one win closer to a postseason return and closed Buffalo out in convincing fashion.

“It meant a lot. I mean, that’s something that we’re going to have to do if we want to get to where we want to go at the end of the year,” Taylor said. “We’re going to have to be able to put games away in the fourth quarter, we’re going to have to put points up.”

Losers of their first three games, the Colts (6-5) have ridden Taylor to six wins in the last eight games as he has vaulted to the top of the league in rushing in Henry’s absence. For now, King Henry still sits atop the NFL’s running back throne. But once he returns, Taylor is going to give an, ahem, run for his money.

Sell: It’s time for the Tennessee Titans to panic

Following a 2-1 start to the season, the Tennessee Titans went on the road in Week 4 and lost a stinker to the previously winless New York Jets to fall to .500 on the season.

Teetering on the brink of mediocrity despite being in what appeared to be one of the NFL’s weakest divisions, the Titans promptly reeled off six straight wins that saw them notch impressive victories over the Bills, Chiefs and Rams despite losing the aforementioned Henry along the way.

Sitting atop the AFC South at 8-2, the Titans came into a Week 11 matchup with the one-win Houston Texans in Nashville in prime position to become the first nine-win team in their conference. It wasn’t close; they lost.

A passenger for much of the season with Henry doing the heavy lifting, Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill was intercepted a career high four times, and the Titans also lost the ball on a muffed punt. Those season-high five turnovers led to a 22-13 loss that wasn’t really as close as the final score indicates. Following that dreadful performance, Tannehill now has almost as many interceptions this season (12) as he does touchdowns (13) and has thrown more than 300 yards just twice this season (once was yesterday).

Tennessee could point to injuries as an excuse: the Titans had used an NFL-high 82 players coming into the game and lost 2020 Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown during the game to a chest injury. But the reality is that they lost because they played down to the level of an inferior opponent the same way they did in Week 4 against the Jets. And what did they do after that game? Went out and won six in a row. It will be difficult to for the Titans to replicate that feat this time around as they head to New England in Week 12 as underdogs, but Tennessee only plays one more team with a winning record after the Patriots and could easily end the year with 12 or 13 wins.

“The fact that we were in that game fighting, swinging tells me a lot about our football team, our character,” head coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “Nobody wants to be in that position. We have to do everything we can to avoid being in that type of position. But proud of the effort. We just have to be better.”

It might not translate to a win on Sunday in New England, but history indicates the Titans will be fine.

Buy: The Atlanta Falcons are a terrible football team

Though it feels like ancient history by now, it’s worth looking back at Thursday Night Football when the New England Patriots blanked the Falcons 25-0 earlier this season on national television to handle Atlanta their first shut out at home since 1988.

Given the nature of the final score and the fact that the Patriots are now in first place in the AFC East, you might think that Thursday’s lopsided margin was due to New England playing extremely well. And to some extent, at least on defense, the Patriots did execute well. But the blowout loss had more to do with just how badly the Falcons, who have never recovered from blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, played on TNF.

Considering that Atlanta is 4-6 on the season and is technically still very much in the mix for a playoff spot in the NFC, one could certainly look at Thursday’s performance as a fluke from a team that is playing without its most talented player, Calvin Ridley. But make no mistake, the Falcons really are that bad and should be viewed as being on about the same level as the Jets, Texans, Jaguars and Bears. (They’re above the Lions.)

Averaging just six wins over the past three seasons, the Falcons consistently fly under the radar as one of the NFL’s worst teams due to the combination of having a former NFL MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan and because Atlanta sports fans care far more about college football than they do the pro game.

Held without a touchdown since Week 9, Atlanta was outscored 68-3 in Weeks 10 and 11 and got so desperate at the end of Thursday’s game they turned to Josh Rosen and Feleipe Franks at quarterback in place of Ryan. (Both Rosen and Franks threw a pick after Ryan tossed two as the Falcons became the first team since the 2009 Houston Texans to have three players throw an interception in the same game.)

“It’s been a tough five days offensively,” Ryan said in the wake of the loss. “It’s just across the board. We haven’t thrown the ball well enough. We haven’t run the ball well enough. I’ve got to be more accurate. We’ve all got to be more effective with what we’re asked to do in terms of the game plan.

A glorified game manager playing behind a suspect offensive line without any sort of running game to rely on, Ryan now has 10 interceptions on the year after throwing four over the past two weeks. Missing Ridley for the foreseeable future and possibly pass-catching running back Cordarrelle Patterson for a few more weeks, Ryan basically only has rookie tight end Kyle Pitts at his disposal, so it’s unfair to saddle him with all the blame, but the fact of the matter is he is no longer a franchise quarterback.

At least not for a franchise like the Falcons, who are much more than a QB away from being a good NFL team.

Buy: The Chiefs will stay in first place in the AFC West until the end of the season

The Cowboys woke up on Sunday in Kansas City with the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense and top-ranked overall offense and went to sleep back back in Dallas after being held to season lows of nine points and 276 yards by a defensive unit that has sneakily been outplaying the much-hyped offense of the Chiefs.

Thanks to Sunday’s 19-9 win over Dallas, the Chiefs now have a four-game winning streak and sit in first place in the AFC West. If their defense, which has surrendered just 47 points combined over the past four games, keeps playing as they have during the winning streak, the Chiefs aren’t going anywhere and will finish in contention for the top seed in the AFC.

After nearly half a season of confusion, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has finally schemed up a way to let Pro Bowl defensive end Chris Jones, who finished Sunday’s win with a season-high 3.5 sacks to go along with two tackles for loss, a pass deflection, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, attack the opposing quarterback

As a team, the Chiefs sacked Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott five times and picked him off twice while forcing a pair of fumbles. Prescott, who was missing some key offensive playmakers, is far from a slouch and plays behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, so what Kansas City was able to do should not be discounted.

Nor should the fact that Kansas City hasn’t given up more than 20 points for four straight games, something that the Chiefs were also able to do through five weeks of the 2019 season as the team reeled off nine consecutive wins — including a victory over the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs have been far too inconsistent this season on both sides of the ball to assume history will repeat itself in quite that same manner this year, but if KC can stay stout on defense, the team will keep winning games and remain in first place in the AFC West. From that position, and with Patrick Mahomes under center, the Super Bowl will be in reach.

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