In Week 11, there is a Super Bowl LVII rematch and potential Super Bowl LVIII preview, AFC North quarterback injuries are abundant and the Minnesota Vikings hope the Josh Dobbs experience keeps their season trending upward.
The Athletic’s NFL writers Kalyn Kahler, Mike Sando and Jeff Howe try to make sense of it all in our roundtable previewing the weekend’s action.
Everyone has Monday’s Eagles–Chiefs game circled on the schedule. Who do you like in this one and what makes the difference? Sando: I’ll take the Chiefs even giving the 2.5 points. They are at home, they have the better defense, they have the better quarterback and I’ll take Andy Reid coming off a bye just about every time. The Eagles are 5-0 in one-score games. A little regression seems likely.
Howe: Even though the Eagles have been the better team this season, it’s hard to pick against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in a game of this magnitude. More than anything, I’m interested to see how the Chiefs’ improving defense handles the Eagles offense. It stymied the Dolphins in Germany, but the Eagles present a different challenge.
Kahler: I like the Eagles. They’ve been a more consistent team that has had better offensive production than the Chiefs this season. It feels like it’s been so long since either of these teams has played a game, and Mahomes vowed strongly to right the ship on offense after the defense won the game in Germany, but I’m going to go with the team that has played better all year.
Another pivotal AFC North matchup, Steelers–Browns, is a highlight this week. But Deshaun Watson is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Nick Chubb is already gone, too. What now for the Browns? Sando: Cleveland is 6-3 with a bottom-five offense, so we know its defense and running game can keep it competitive. What the Browns lose is the potential to become a true contender if Watson had been able to elevate his game down the stretch. Watson’s efficient second half against Baltimore was a potentially positive sign, but 11 of his 14 passes traveled no more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. He was obviously diminished.
Howe: The Browns should still be in just about every game because their defense is that good. But if they had designs on a playoff upset or two, their best shot was obviously going to be with Watson improving down the stretch and playing his best ball in January. With that out of the equation, it gives the Browns somewhat of a stress-free audition for Dorian Thompson-Robinson. There’s absolutely no pressure on them now, and maybe that’ll free up the talented rookie to turn it loose. It’s hard to call this a silver lining when they’ve got Watson on a fully guaranteed contract for another three years, but a prolonged evaluation of Thompson-Robinson could be valuable down the road.
Kahler: It helps that the division rival Bengals are also down their starting quarterback. The loss of Joe Burrow for the year should allow the Browns to remain competitive within the division. Dorian Thompson-Robinson really wasn’t ready for his first start in Week 4, and it went about as bad as it could have. He finished with a 52.7 percent completion rating, no touchdowns and three interceptions. The good news is DTR can only improve from there, and he has potential to be a big playmaker for Cleveland. Long term, this makes the Browns’ deal with Watson look even worse than it already did and doesn’t help to answer any questions we had about whether Watson could prove to be worth the hefty price.
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Josh Dobbs is keeping the Vikings’ season alive. Denver’s defense is doing the same for the Broncos’ playoff hopes. Something has to give Sunday night. What does? Sando: Minnesota’s defense is the overlooked factor. It ranks third behind the Browns and Jets in EPA per play since Week 6. It ranks 11th for the season. That’s why I give the Vikings a good chance to win as long as they play a relatively clean game on offense, protecting the ball better than Buffalo did Monday night.
Howe: Dobbs and the Vikings feel like a more sustainable formula for success. I need to see more out of the Broncos, who absolutely deserve credit for winning three in a row given what the organization has gone through in recent years. But they beat a reeling Packers team, Mahomes in a flu game and the Bills when Josh Allen and that offense couldn’t have been any more reckless with the ball. The Broncos are about to take on the Vikings, Browns, Texans and Chargers — four teams that are in similar playoff standing. If they’re legit, they’ll hold their own in this stretch.
Kahler: I am not sold on the Broncos yet. Had the Bills not made a very questionable decision to sub out their defense for the field goal block unit Monday night, Sean Payton would be facing a lot of questions about his game management of that final sequence, when he chose to put his kicking unit in a “mayday” scenario with the clock running, when he could have had Russell Wilson throw out of bounds on third down to kill five seconds and stop the clock so the field goal team would have had its normal setup and a relaxed pace. Payton said he did it because he didn’t want his kicking team to have to think too hard because it had made its “mayday” field goal at the end of the first half but had messed up two extra point attempts. Anyway, Minnesota has been a more consistent team this season on both sides of the ball, and I expect Dobbs to continue his run.
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The Bills will try to stop their free fall against the Jets. Joe Brady gets another shot to be an offensive coordinator, this time in Buffalo. What should we expect with his play calling? Sando: Brady is taking over on a short week, so he will have less time to put his stamp on the offense. I think we’ll see a concerted effort to feature Stefon Diggs. We’ll see an effort to get easy completions for Allen. We’ll see increased use of tempo. We might see more effort to run the ball. We will probably see fewer turnovers. We might have seen some of those things anyway. I’m most interested in seeing what kind of emotional energy the Bills bring to this game and to the remainder of their games. They seem fragile.
Howe: Brady was the next big thing when he took Burrow and LSU to a national championship, but it’s hard to get a feel for his trajectory after a couple of lost seasons under Matt Rhule in Carolina. I don’t want to discount the importance of play calling, but the success of the Bills offense hinges almost entirely on Allen’s decision-making. He’s got the tools and talent around him to methodically move down the field and take the deep shots when available if he wants to go that route, but he hasn’t shown the discipline this season to do that.
Kahler: I think we’ll see fewer two-tight end sets and more pre-snap motion, something that is a cure for almost any NFL offense.
Could Las Vegas Raiders interim head coach Antonio Pierce be seriously considered for the permanent role? (Kyle Terada / USA Today)
The Raiders take a two-game win streak to Miami. Should they start to consider removing the interim tag from Antonio Pierce with a win Sunday? Or is the possibility of a splashy new hire too intriguing to ignore? Sando: Beating the Dolphins would give Pierce great momentum, but there’s zero advantage for the team to rush into any decision. The Raiders should wait until the end of the season before deciding how to proceed. They should be researching candidates in the meantime while honing in their minds what it is they want in a head coach. Flashy should not be part of the equation.
Howe: Too early and not quite necessary. This is a major jump up the ranks for Pierce, so give him a chance to show what he can do, especially in the face of adversity after a loss or a key injury or whatever else comes the way of the head coach. There are going to be a few very high-profile head coaching candidates this offseason. It’d be bizarre if Mark Davis didn’t give himself the opportunity to see the process through.
Kahler: Definitely too early to do that, and Davis’ past behavior makes me think he won’t. He didn’t hire interim Rich Bisaccia after the 2021 NFL season, and Bisaccia had the same effect Pierce has had on this Vegas team. Davis should be starting his process of figuring out what he’s looking for and who is going to help him look for it.
(Top photos of Patrick Mahomes, Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurts: Nathan Ray Seebeck, Brad Rempel and Bill Streicher / USA Today)