First Down/Fourth Down: Chiefs D gets it done, Mark Sanchez does not
The Kansas City Chiefs have had more complete defensive efforts than the one they produced Sunday, but when push came to shove, the Chiefs again proved immovable. Three times in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks found themselves needing to convert on fourth down. All three times, the Chiefs held, preserving a well-earned 24-20 victory.
"Our defense, we were sitting there with three fourth-down plays late in the game, and they stepped up," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said.
Seattle's final attempt was a near-impossible fourth-and-18 brought on by a Dontari Poe sack two plays earlier. Poe was among the driving forces on a fourth-and-1 stuff two minutes earlier, when the Seahawks tried to plow Marshawn Lynch through the teeth of Kansas City's defense.
And the Seahawks also came up empty on a fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line, that time opting to try a pass rather than ask Lynch to find the end zone. Russell Wilson overshot Doug Baldwin, and the Chiefs took control.
Why not run the football there, too? Perhaps because the Chiefs have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. No other defense has allowed fewer than four. Of course, the Chiefs also have kept every opposing quarterback under the 300-yard passing mark, so throwing against his defense is not exactly a sure bet either.
"The closer they get [to the end zone], the more we tighten up as a defense," said Poe, via the Associated Press. "Everything is happening way faster, so people just fly around and make plays."
Kansas City's 2-3 start to 2014 is a fading memory. Now 7-3, the Chiefs have pulled into a first-place tie with Denver (they host the Broncos in Week 13). With their top-flight defense complementing Jamaal Charles' incredible work on the ground, they're starting to resemble a team that could play deep into the playoffs.
More winners (and losers) from Week 11:
First Down: Mike Evans.
Seems like there's a First Down/Fourth Down spot reserved every week for a different rookie receiver. This time around, it's the Buccaneers' Evans, who has suddenly jumped into the mix as a leading Rookie of the Year candidate.
Evans turned in his best game yet Sunday: seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns. The former favorite target of Johnny Manziel now has three straight games with exactly seven catches and an average of 152.7 yards. He's also scored five touchdowns in that stretch, giving him seven on the year, while his 794 receiving yards lead all rookies.
"I have been around the league for a while," Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said, "and I just know that I haven't been with (a rookie) that's been able to do some of the things he's done."
Fourth Down: The Colts' defensive adjustments.
Ever watch one of those Wisconsin games (like Saturday's dismantling of Nebraska behind a record-setting performance from Melvin Gordon) where the Badgers just keep lining up and running the football, daring the defense to stop them?
Tom Brady threw 30 times Sunday night in Indianapolis, but that is essentially what occurred in New England's smash-mouth win. Running back Jonas Gray saw 38 carries, and the Colts were completely inept trying to stop him, even though it was clear by the second quarter what the Patriots' plan was. When Indianapolis did try to load up against the run, Brady dumped a few passes over the top, as on touchdown tosses to Tim Wright and Rob Gronkowski.
This has happened a few too many times for the Colts in 2014. In losses to the Broncos, Eagles, Steelers and Patriots -- the four best offenses they've seen -- the Colts have allowed 38.5 points per game.
J.J. Watt for MVP, etc., etc. For all of Watt's dominating performances this season, the Texans still went into Sunday's game against Cleveland at 4-5. They needed their new starting quarterback and fill-in starting running back to help pick up the slack for an inconsistent offense.
Mallett dodged a turnover when Paul Kruger dropped an errant throw and had some help on a touchdown pass when an official inadvertently set a pick, but all in all he was very solid for a first NFL start, finishing 20-for-30 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and one interception -- on the road, no less. The Texans also protected him by running the ball 54 times.
Which brings us to Blue, another rookie, who had career highs of 14 carries and 78 yards before Week 11. He lapped those numbers with 36 rushes for 156 yards.
Fourth Down: Mark Sanchez's redemption tale.
Let's all make sure we save some overreactions for next Sunday, when there is a pretty good chance Sanchez bounces back and lights up the Titans in Philadelphia. Should that happen, the discussion again will shift to how well Sanchez fits Chip Kelly's system, what a wizard Kelly is with quarterbacks and so on and so forth.
For now, however, Sanchez and his teammates are trying to erase the memory of a putrid 53-20 blowout loss to the Packers.
Sanchez himself played a huge role in the loss, though he didn't receive much help. Making his second start for the Eagles, Sanchez fired two awful interceptions -- "I'm not sure how he didn't see me," Julius Peppers said of Sanchez on his pick-six. He also was responsible for two fumbles, one on an errant snap that Casey Hayward scooped and scored for another Green Bay touchdown.
"They played awesome in all phases," Sanchez said, via NJ.com. "We did quite the opposite."
First Down: Good Andy Dalton.
Andy Dalton's penchant for bouncing between sharp and slipshod is hardly a new development. When the Bengals quarterback is bad, he tends to be really bad, like in Cincinnati's Week 10 loss to the Browns.
But he is more than capable of finding a groove. Dalton did just that in New Orleans, firing three touchdowns in a critical 27-10 win. Six of his 16 completions (and one of those scores) landed in A.J. Green's arms, proof positive -- if anyone really needed it -- that Dalton is far better with his top receiving threat on the field.
A five-interception day from Manning against San Francisco killed what little hope New York had left of a miracle postseason run. With the potential for a new coach and new general manager in place before the 2015 season, could Manning's days be numbered in the Big Apple?
It's unlikely, but less so than ever before. Consider that Manning, who turns 34 in January, has one year left on his current contract at a $19.75 million cap cost; if the Giants release him, less than $3 million would count as a dead-money hit.
"I think they're going to have to look at where things are at with his contract," The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas said Monday. "He hasn't played well the last few years. They made a change at OC, they brought in a new system and he hasn't played well in this system, either. I think everything's on the table.
First Down: Le'Veon Bell.
The Steelers have a habit for playing to the level of their competition, for better or worse. Luckily for them, their star running back brought his "A" game to Tennessee on Monday night.
Pittsburgh trailed 24-13 in the fourth quarter and absolutely could not protect Ben Roethlisberger from the Titans' pass rush. So offensive coordinator Todd Haley put the ball in Bell's hands, and he responded with a 204-yard night that included a rally-starting fourth-quarter touchdown.
The score was Bell's first on the ground since Week 1. In the meantime, he has racked up yards -- so many that he surpassed his rookie-year total of 860 on Monday. He's sitting at 951 for the year, despite carrying the ball 49 less times than in his rookie season.
Fourth Down: Detroit ignoring Golden Tate.
Arizona uncorked another stellar defensive performance Sunday. Detroit may have played right into the NFC West leader's hands by ignoring Tate.
Without question the Lions' offensive MVP to this point, Tate caught just two balls for 41 yards in a 14-6 loss. Worse yet, Matthew Stafford did not throw a single ball in his direction during a scoreless second half.
The Cardinals' pass rush flustered Stafford, while cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie helped keep Tate and Calvin Johnson (five catches for 59 yards) in check. Still, Tate had been Stafford's rock throughout the first 10 weeks of the season, with the quarterback often force-feeding Tate the football. Not in this game.
"It’s not a matter of going to him -- the plays that we called are a lot of the same plays where he may have gotten the ball previously," Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell said. "You look at progressions ... there may be a guy in front of him and he has to go somewhere else. Those are the things that happen more so than saying, 'Hey you know what, we’re not designing any plays to go to Golden.' That wasn’t the case. It’s just kind of the way things turn out sometimes."
First Down: Jeff Fisher's job security.
Maybe the Rams will opt to can Fisher after this season, which barring a miracle will mark his third of three years in St. Louis without a playoff berth and could be an eighth consecutive sub-.500 year for the franchise. Yet, with each passing week, Fisher's team is adding to the reasons to keep him.
The latest evidence: a surprising, dominant 22-7 upset of the Denver Broncos. Two weeks removed from shackling the 49ers' offense, St. Louis' defense forced Denver into its worst offensive day in the Peyton Manning era.
The Rams now have wins over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver over a five-week stretch. At 4-6 overall, they're nowhere near where they would like to be, but few can doubt the effort or signs of progress.
Fourth Down: Home-field advantage for the NFC South.
Expect to hear this debate ad nauseam between now and Wild Card Weekend. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Atlanta Falcons, at 4-6, would host the 7-3 Green Bay Packers in an opening-round matchup. Preference in the NFL's seeding system still lies with the division winners -- Atlanta leads the miserable NFC South -- but ... well, should it?
The Falcons have yet to win a game outside of the South, with a 4-0 record against the Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers to date. A similar scenario arose back in 2010, when Seattle went 4-2 within the NFC West and 3-7 outside of it. At 7-9 overall, the Seahawks still landed a first-round playoff game in front of the 12th Man. And they won, dropping the 11-5 Saints.
A repeat of that scenario could again open the calls for the NFL to re-seed its full conference playoff fields based on records, forcing underachieving division champs to hit the road.