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NFL Week 11: Bolt of Reality Hits AFC West, While NFC East Race All But Over

The Chargers drop 50-plus on the Bills and might be the best team in their division despite a losing record. Plus notes on the Eagles beating Dallas, the current playoff picture and more
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I don’t know where to start, with six weeks and one game left in the 2017 regular season. I’ll opt for the headlines:

• Chargers, 4-6, best team in fraudulent AFC West.
• Eagles, MVP Wentz put stranglehold on NFC East
• If playoffs started today, Ravens (really?) would be in them
• Peterman throws like “Seinfeld” Peterman in NFL debut
• Bills, playing for defensive head coach, allow 101 points in 8 days
• Jerry Jones seems headed for defeat in Goodellstakes
• Someone stole the Chiefs, who are missing
• Browns 2-35 in last 25 months, but Wentz still can’t play for them
• Last four teams finish bye week; NFL schedules parade
• Brady still king of world
• Cool two-point conversion saves Saints’ streak

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AFC West: Bizarroworld

Since Oct. 8, the AFC West’s power teams—Kansas City, Denver and Oakland—are 4-14.

Since Oct. 8, the AFC West’s weaklings, the Los Angeles Chargers, are 4-2.

“I’m glad the division is coming back to us,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said from California on Sunday night. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole, and this team did not know how to win early on.”

Go figure. Two months ago the Chiefs dispatched New England and Philadelphia, Denver was 2-0, and the Raiders just mauled the Jets to go to 2-0. L.A. was 0-2. Sad sacks. But now the Chiefs have lost all pretensions of being the deep-strike offensive team that embarrassed the Patriots in Foxboro; the loss to the Giants on Sunday made them look like the John Mackovic Chiefs. Denver is on a six-game losing streak, and GM John Elway called them “kind of soft” the other day—a clear indictment of rookie coach Vance Joseph. Oakland lost by 25 to New England on Sunday; no one would have been surprised if it was by 45.

Sean McDermott Deserves the Blame for Bills' Putrid Loss to Chargers

But the Chargers put 54 on the Bills on Sunday, coming off a terrible loss at Jacksonville last week. “Last week we stunk it up,” Lynn said. “Worst lost of my NFL career. Championship teams don’t made decisions like we made last week. So we played this game today angry.”

With Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram playing like the best 1-2 pass-rush threat west of Jacksonville, and with Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen rediscovering their combined greatness, the Chargers are going to be trouble if Kansas City (6-4) keeps slumping and L.A. (4-6) can make up another game or two quickly, starting on Thanksgiving at similarly desperate Dallas.

After the 54-24 rout of the Bills, Lynn told his team it reminded him of a Bible verse—2 Timothy 1:7 … For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. “Our guys have heart, they play for each other, and they refuse to give in,” Lynn said. “I just thought of that verse, because I think it’s who we are.”

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The Eagles have clinched* the NFC East before Thanksgiving

*Just about.

The 37-9 annihilation by Philadelphia (9-1) of Dallas (5-5) on Sunday night gave the Eagles a four-game lead (plus tiebreaker edge) over the Cowboys … and it all but assures that this will be the 13th straight year this weird division does not have a repeat champion. The Eagles are just too good, and Dallas just too flawed. For the Cowboys to rebound, missing Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee (and probably Tyron Smith too) Thursday against the Chargers, with a season that ends with games against Seattle and Philly, seems just too impossible.

The MVP race now seems to be a northeast affair. Tom Brady and Carson Wentz are both plus-20 in touchdown-to-interception differential, both north of a 103 rating, and both with a good chance of piloting the top-seeded teams in their conferences. Brady’s got a 9-percentage-point lead in accuracy and has thrown for 716 more yards than Wentz. Picking between them could be like picking between Venice and Paris for your honeymoon. And Brady (50 touchdown passes, four interceptions since opening day 2016) doesn’t look like he’s going to give an inch in this race.

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Eagles Strengthen Grip on NFC With Dominant Performance Against Cowboys

The Eagles have never been in such a strong position to win a Super Bowl. And there’s one X factor that could make it even more attainable. Most teams are struggling physically by this point of the season. Philadelphia got back its number one cornerback, Ronald Darby, from injury Sunday night, and he had an interception of Dak Prescott. Second-round cornerback Sidney Jones, recovering from an Achilles tear, could return in December. What a boost they should give, particularly against strong receiving corps (Vikings, Saints, Rams) that the Eagles could face in January.

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With six weeks and one game to go …

Playoff matchups if they were played now:

NFC wild-card games: Seattle at New Orleans, Carolina at Los Angeles Rams. Philadelphia and Minnesota would be the 1-2 seeds.

AFC wild-card games: Baltimore at Jacksonville, Tennessee at Kansas City. Pittsburgh and New England would be the 1-2 seeds.

Man, those early AFC games … yikes. Glad we’ve got six weeks to get some clarity there. Jacksonville is one of the most interesting teams the league has seen in years. Great pass rush, excellent linebackers, wonderful corners, suspect offense, injured superstar runner. The Ravens are just 5-5, including a 37-point loss to the Jags. But Baltimore has shut out Cincinnati 20-0, Miami 40-0 and, on Sunday in Wisconsin, Green Bay 23-0. “To be able to come in here—you know we only play here once every eight years—and win a game at Lambeau Field … this is a pretty historic place,” said Joe Flacco after embarrassing the Packers.

The AFC’s biggest game down the stretch is New England at Pittsburgh on Dec. 17. That could decide home-field through the AFC playoffs.

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That must have been a testy plane flight home for the Bills

Imagine the Bills’ veterans, embarrassed by the 30-point loss to the Chargers, flying through the night to get back to frosty Buffalo, wondering why Nathan “Five Picks” Peterman was making his first NFL start in a game crucial to the Bills’ playoff hopes. Imagine coach Sean McDermott, who made the call to bench Tyrod Taylor for Peterman, staring daggers at the defense for allowing eight scoring drives—albeit some on short fields after Peterman turnovers.

The Bills, after back-to-back 37-point and 30-point losses, are a mess, and apparently doomed to miss the playoffs again, as they have in every season since the turn of the century. They’ve lost to New Orleans 47-10 and to the Chargers 54-24.

Peterman, the 171st pick in the draft last April, did complete one more pass than he had intercepted. He was six of 14 for 66 yards, no touchdowns and five picks. “I don’t regret my decision,” an unbowed McDermott said after the loss Sunday. “I regret the result. This is in part about winning now and in part about winning in the future.”

Translation: Tyrod Taylor’s not going to be our quarterback in 2018 … The draft has some potentially good quarterbacks in 2018 whom we might want … We have four selections in the first two rounds of the draft including our own, and we could certainly package some picks to move up if we love one of these college guys … and it would be good to find out if Peterman is going to be a part of our future or not in the next six weeks.

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Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling wrap up the Sunday action each Monday morning on “The MMQB: 10 Things Podcast.” Subscribe on iTunes.

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A window into the aging of football players

So this isn’t as much as a headline of the weekend as it is a realization: I’m not sure Tom Brady’s a total outlier. We’ve assumed Brady, playing so well at 40, is the singular exception to the rule that says football players can’t play so well from their mid-30s to the mid-40s. (And maybe they can’t; except for punters and kickers we don’t have much of a track record on players playing well beyond 38 to 40 years old.) But I think that may be because we’re at the dawn of a new age of players turning this into a lifestyle, the way Brady has.

I visited Dallas tight end Jason Witten, 35, a week ago Monday in Dallas, and spent seven hours with him on his day off, as he recovered and rehabbed while preparing to play his franchise-record 241st game for the Cowboys. I wanted to track Witten because he plays a physical position, he’s 35, he’s missed one game (as a rookie, in 2003), and two practices in 15 years of professional football … and because he’s totally changed how he prepares and how he uses technology to stay on top of his nagging physical issues.

Watch the extended version of the video I did for NBC to see what I mean about Witten’s dedication, and what he does on a Monday.

It’s not just Witten. Lots of people around the league think there’s a metamorphosis going on, and players will almost routinely be playing the most physically demanding positions well into their late 30s—assuming they’re comfortable taking the risks of head trauma they know are part of the gig. “You’re hitting on something I’ve seen for a little while,” Saints coach Sean Payton said on Sunday. “It’s changed the last five, six years. It’s changing now. We just brought in a sleep specialist to talk to the team this year. We have a sleep tank for players, a cryo-chamber, masseuses on Friday.”

Witten says he’s learned from reading what Brady’s done, and learned from the Cowboys athletic trainers who have taught him about dry-needling, an acupuncture-like treatment designed to soothe pain in specific areas of the body; jet-stream-focused water-pressure treatment in fitness pools; and other tissue-enhancing aids like compression pants and deep-tissue massage and dynamic stretching and flexing the day after the body has been stressed or injured. Witten says early in his career he believed the day after the game was for rest, purely, and maybe a massage. Now he realizes he’s got to move, and he’s got to attack his vulnerable areas. ”I feel a lot better this time of year, this year, than I did six or eight years ago at this point of the season,” said Witten.

“I’ve read a lot about Brady,” he told me. “It’s inspiring what he’s doing. I really think he’s changing the game. Tom and his team have created a formula for all of us.”

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You’ll enjoy the video, particularly if you’re a person who exercises or who has wondered about some of these players defying convention when it comes to career length.

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A few more tidbits …

The story behind the Saints’ two-point play. More later in the column on the Saints, but let’s focus on the two-point conversion by the Saints that tied the game with Washington and sent it to overtime, a game New Orleans won 34-31. After rallying to within 31-29 and needing the two-point conversion, coach Sean Payton took a moment to think of best practices. Every Friday the Saints practice two-point plays or short-yardage plays they plan to use in the game, and they do it against the first-team defense. This Friday they tried tight end Coby Fleener coming across the formation left to right, fast, on a jet sweep, with Drew Brees faking the ball to Fleener as he sprinted by and then turning and pitching to the left to running back Alvin Kamara, who would have only one escort in front of him, tight end Josh Hill. On Friday the defense stopped Kamara cold. “We’ve had that play up [in the game plan] for three weeks,” Payton said Sunday night. “But when it gets stopped in practice, you think about it a little bit. But here we were, and I gravitated to Kamara. I wanted the ball in his hands.” Amazing, really. The 67th player taken in the draft, Kamara had earned the trust of Payton and the staff by Week 11—so much so that in the biggest play of the game, Payton put the ball in his hands. And at the snap, after the fake to Fleener, here came the perfect Brees pitch to Kamara, and he ran left, toward the pylon, and Hill swept away the single Washington defender who didn’t take the bait with the misdirection by Fleener, and Kamara scored. That has to be so rewarding for a coach and for a team, to see a play you love but that didn’t work when you tried it in practice, and then having enough faith in it to call it with a vital game on the line. I love that call.

• As Cleveland continues to lose, and as rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer continues to struggle and lead the league in interceptions, Paul DePodesta, the Browns’ chief strategy officer, will be haunted by the decision to pass on Carson Wentz two drafts ago. DePodesta said the team didn’t think Wentz would be a top-20 quarterback in the NFL. Well, he might be a top five quarterback, right now. …

The Chiefs are simply not a dangerous team going downfield anymore. Remember the bombs-away stuff Alex Smith did with rookie back Kareem Hunt and wideout Tyreek Hill in the opening-night rout of the Patriots? Gone. Perhaps the best deep chance the Chiefs had against the Giants on Sunday was an option-pass bomb by the tight end, Travis Kelce, that was intercepted. Kelce said, “Teams are running the cover-2 on us, and until we can beat cover-2, we are going to struggle.” In other words, the Chiefs may have to hit some doubles before going back to trying for the home runs. Teams have moved the fences back. …

The Rams got slapped in the face at Minnesota. Let’s see how they react in a continuation of a tough stretch after the Vikings: Saints at home, at Arizona, Philly at home, at Seattle, at Tennessee.

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