What we learned from Week 11 in the NFL

  • Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor carries the ball during Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

This season, bludgeoning running attacks have paid off.

Defenses have turned to deploying two-deep safety looks to diffuse the big-play potential of the league’s most potent quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray. NFL front offices have also started drafting lighter, quicker defensive players capable of reacting to their improvisation.

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So the smart offensive minds are countering with the run.

That pivot absolutely makes the Indianapolis Colts dangerous down the stretch. Sunday’s 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills made this week’s biggest takeaway clear:

Jonathan Taylor has entered the MVP chat.

One year ago, he struggled to even stay on the field as a rookie. This season, it has taken a good two months for Jonathan Taylor to calibrate with the Colts’ powerful offensive line.

But Taylor’s full repertoire was on display at rainy, windy Highmark Stadium in western New York, and the Colts shoved the Bills’ top-ranked defense around behind the running game, as Taylor finished with 185 rushing yards on 32 carries with five total touchdowns.

Monday morning will be a physically painful one for every defensive player in Buffalo, and the No. 1 reason, of course, was Taylor.

He is a fascinating thinker, a philosophy major in college who thought about attending Harvard before choosing Wisconsin, because he dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist. Taylor’s mind operates at a different level. When he wasn’t blasting Big Ten Conference defenses, he was studying the works of the German metaphysician Immanuel Kant or tending to a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without using the box as a guide.

Now, he’s driving NFL defenses mad and, with Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry out, working his way into the MVP race.

The Vikings’ enduring faith in Kirk Cousins can still pay off.

Everyone knows how this rivalry usually plays out. Minnesota competes for a while, then Aaron Rodgers heats up. Whoever is quarterbacking the Vikings withers, throwing a pick, losing a fumble or committing some brutal mistake that leads to another loss.

On Sunday, however, Kirk Cousins took Rodgers’ best shots and responded with one of the best wins of his career, in a thrilling 34-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Cousins finished 24 of 35 passing for 341 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 128.4 passer rating.

Into the fourth quarter, the same old NFC North bullying had started to break out again. Rodgers pulled the Vikings’ underpants over their head yet again with a signature 94-yard touchdown drive that gave the Packers a 24-23 lead with 7:49 to go.

For once, however, the Vikings responded. A hearty blend of run and pass melted some time off the clock, as Cousins hit wide receiver Justin Jefferson for a 23-yard touchdown with pressure up the middle.

Most of his career, Cousins has wilted in that moment. That blitz arrives with the game on the line, and he panics. Yet Cousins didn’t flinch on this throw and a 2-point conversation put the Vikings up by 7 with a just over 2 minutes remaining.

Rodgers dealt another haymaker — a 75-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling — and Cousins put together an 8-play, 64-yard field goal drive to win it.

Cam Newton remains must-see TV.

This was a reunion of necessity, the Carolina Panthers rolling out the red carpet for Cam Newton once more.

A series of brutal decisions at the most important position in sports gave the Panthers no other choice but to call Newton, the 2015 MVP, who departed Carolina in 2019 after nine seasons with the team.

Carolina lost to the Washington Football Team on Sunday, 27-21, and now has a 5-6 record. But if nothing else, we know this out of Week 11:

The quarterback who tore through the league in 2015 for 45 touchdowns en route to the Super Bowl is no more, but it’s also true that Newton, 32, had no business waiting for a job until mid-November. After scoring two touchdowns in a limited role last week, Newton started at home Sunday and did not disappoint with three total touchdowns and 189 yards on 21 of 27 passing.

Of course, the numbers alone never do Newton justice. His arrival itself injected the Panthers with hope out of nowhere. When he was introduced Sunday, the team blared “Coming Home” by Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey over the loudspeakers. As smoke clouded the tunnel, Newton took a moment to bask in this improbable return before screaming at the top of his lungs and sprinting onto the field.

His touchdowns Sunday were vintage Newton. Punctuating the game’s first drive, he stepped up as if he would run upfield, stopped and jumped to throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver D.J. Moore.

Late in the second quarter, off a play fake, Newton raced to the left edge of the Washington defense and outran multiple defensive backs to the pylon, putting the Panthers up, 14-7. Newton then sprinted to midfield to perform his trademark “Superman” celebration.

One thing’s for certain: The NFL is a lot more fun with Newton in it.

Around the NFL

Texans 22, Titans 13

Houston, 10 1/2-point underdogs, shocked Tennessee on the road behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s two touchdown runs and a defense that forced four Ryan Tannehill interceptions. Three of those picks came in the fourth quarter. Injuries are piling up for the Titans, who lost top receiver A.J. Brown in the third quarter with an injured chest.

49ers 30, Jaguars 10

A trendy Super Bowl pick in August, the 49ers seemed dead by October. But as they get healthier, they’re rediscovering their bruising identity and are now right in the thick of the playoff race at 5-5. A string of winnable games is lined up and, each week, it seems like coach Kyle Shanahan dusts off a new play for do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel. He rushed eight times for 79 yards and a touchdown.

Ravens 16, Bears 13

MVP candidate Lamar Jackson was a late scratch with an illness, and it wasn’t pretty offensively with Tyler Huntley at quarterback. However, Devonta Freeman bashed ahead for a 3-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left to improve Baltimore’s record to 7-3.

Eagles 40, Saints 29

Trevor Siemian has struggled mightily through three straight losses for New Orleans. He threw 18 incompletions and two picks Sunday, while Eagles coach Nick Sirianni’s decision to lean on the rushing attack continues to pay off. Philadelphia blasted the Saints for 242 yards on 50 attempts with three touchdowns.

Dolphins 24, Jets 17

Miami needs to see as much of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as it possibly can the rest of the season to make a franchise-defining decision heading into 2022. He was solid against a bad Jets defense, completing 27 of 33 passes for 273 yards with two touchdowns.

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Browns 13, Lions 10

Nothing like a date with Tim Boyle to get your defense back on track. The Browns’ passing game wasn’t sharp, but the Lions’ was worse, as Boyle threw for all of 77 yards on 23 attempts in place of an injured Jared Goff. As a long as the Browns can feed Nick Chubb (130 yards), they’ll have a shot against anyone.

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