There were some crazy games in Week 10, as has been the case for many of the weeks this season. While maybe there weren’t many surprising results, the way we got there certainly wasn’t conventional. We’re officially well past the halfway mark of the season, yet the playoff picture still seems cloudy for good and bad reasons. As move along, we’ll start to see some teams fade away and others emerge as real contenders. On that note, we’ll start this week off with one of the league’s biggest surprises.
New Orleans ain’t messing around
Even when the New Orleans Saints were at their peak, it was the high-powered passing offense that led the team. But this season the Saints have been able to shift how they attack opposing teams. New Orleans isn’t a team that went out of focus on a run game and defense, but this is a team that can beat just about anyone in the league using them.
For all the “are the Bills for real?” takes before and after the game, they’ve been a decent team this season. The defense hasn’t been dominant, but they ranked 16th in DVOA heading into Week 10 -- 14th against the pass and 17th against the run. On Sunday, New Orleans imposed their will on the ground, rushing for nearly 300 yards on the way to a 47-10 blowout. Mark Ingram led the way with 21 carries for 131 yards and Alvin Kamara was over the century mark with 106 yards on just 12 carries.
Still, more impressive was the defense that ranked eighth in DVOA heading into the week. The pass defense held Tyrod Taylor to 3.1 yards per attempt and the game script caused the Bills to give LeSean McCoy just eight carries, though for a successful 49 yards. And it’s not as if the passing game is useless. Drew Brees only had to throw 25 times, but with that, Michael Thomas had nine receptions for 117 yards.
New Orleans now sits at 7-2 and with the third seed in the NFC. They still face the Los Angeles Rams In Week 12 and have the Atlanta Falcons on the schedule twice, but the Saints could be inline for a chance at a first-round bye and home field advantage in the playoffs after a seven-game win streak. Wherever these Saints play, they could be dangerous and it’s in a whole different way than the New Orleans teams we’ve been used to seeing.
Tyron Smith might be the most important Cowboy
A big deal was made with the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott, but no absence had a greater impact on the Cowboys’ 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons than left tackle Tyron Smith. With Smith out, Dallas allowed Dak Prescott to be sacked eight times, six from Adrian Clayborn alone -- five of which came against a non-Smith left tackle.
The run game was fine, mostly led by Prescott, but there was little opportunity to turn to it while trailing most of the game. Dallas opened up the left edge like a department store on Black Friday and Clayborn was first in line. Prescott was held to just 5.8 yards per attempt and barely had time to run for his life with the immediate pressure. Despite Clayborn’s six sacks, he wasn’t even the biggest presence in the Cowboys’ backfield. That was Takk McKinley, who averaged 3.21 yards away from the quarterback, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Over the next three games, the Cowboys face the Eagles, Chargers, and Redskins, three teams that have proven to be able to get to the quarterback this season. With Dallas at 5-4 and technically 10th place in the conference after tiebreakers, they’ll need to be at full strength on the offensive line to give their quarterback a chance to compete over the next stretch of games.
The NFC playoff race could get crazy
There is not an equal amount of talent in the NFL’s two conferences this season. Arguably the best team and definitely the most good teams belong to the NFC. After Sunday, the NFC has 10 teams with a record above .500 while the AFC has just six. That could turn to seven if the Miami Dolphins win on Monday Night Football, but despite their record, the Dolphins have looked like one of the worst teams in the league.
In the AFC, 4-5 or 4-6 teams like the Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, and New York Jets still have a shot at sneaking in as a wild card team. In the NFC, teams at 4-5 are 11th and 12th in the conference.
The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers hold the NFC’s two wild card spots at 6-3, pending Carolina’s game on Monday. But four other teams are one game behind. Even the top of the conference is close. The Seahawks and Panthers are just a game behind their division leads and the current second, third, and fourth seeds in the conference are all 7-2 and a game behind the 8-1 Eagles. With so many teams so close, there could be a lot of movement in those standings over the next seven weeks.
New place, same endings
There’s always some hope the Chargers can finally put a season together and win some close games. Seven of their nine games have been decided by eight points or less and the Chargers are 2-5 in those contests. That includes the 20-17 overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
With 1:33 remaining in the game, the Chargers had the ball, a 17-14 lead and a 95.9 percent chance of winning the game, per pro-football-reference. But a quick three-and-out after a series that saw the Chargers fumble and the Jaguars throw an interception right back gave Jacksonville the ball and an eventual field goal to tie the game.
Philip Rivers threw and overtime interception that was wrestled out of the hands of Travis Benjamin by A.J. Bouye that set up a game-winning field goal for Jacksonville by former Chargers kicker Josh Lambo. The kick was even deflected, but still went in.
Records in close games should be something that regresses to the mean over time, but the Chargers have a unique skill of continually finding ways to lose. Because of that, they were the only team to underperform their expected wins from point differential by at least two wins in each of the past two seasons. At 3-6, they’re already 1.3 wins below expectation while tied with the sixth-best point differential in the conference.
In a year when the bottom of the AFC playoff bracket is wide open, the Chargers still can’t get out of their own way to make a push.
What have the Packers been doing?
When Aaron Rodgers got hurt, head coach Mike McCarthy was adamant about sticking with Brett Hundley because he had two and a half years developing behind Rodgers on the bench. But when Hundley was given the reigns, there was little freedom involved.
Hundley’s passes were kept short and safe and the game plan was not one that looked to help a young quarterback get in a rhythm. In his first two starts, Hundley averaged 3.5 and 6.5 yards per attempt, both well below the league average. It called into question why the Packers had so much faith in Hundley if the offense was going to be so constricted with him under center. But late in a 23-16 win over the Chicago Bears, Hundley was allowed to play like a real quarterback — he finished with 8.5 yards per attempt — and had a few throws that made the past conservative game plans look even more puzzling.
The first was a 19-yard touchdown to Davante Adams in the fourth quarter. Hundley threw the ball on the move to his right and hit Adams with perfect ball placement over a defender in the end zone.
Later in the quarter, the Packers faced a 3rd-and-10 just before the two-minute warning. With a 23-16 lead and one timeout remaining for the Bears, a first down would likely put the game away. The Bears brought six and Hundley unloaded a pass deep down the sideline to hit Adams in stride for a 42-yard gain.
There’s not many quarterbacks who have those two kinds of throws in them. If Hundley is one, it should make the Packers a more dangerous team than previously thought without Rodgers, but it should also raise questions about how Green Bay approached the past two weeks with Hundley at quarterback.