Unlike this point last season, when we had the 10-0 Steelers and the 0-10 Jets, no team across the league has lost every game so far – not even Detroit(!) – and everyone bar Arizona has at least three Ls in the loss column.
It seems the watchword for the 2021 NFL season is ‘parity’, as strugglers continue to upset the mid-season pacesetters to keep things competitive. This week, the Bills, Titans, Cowboys and Packers were all undone by less-fancied foes, and the standings bunched up even more. Let’s see who gets the game balls from the Week 11 action.
Offensive player of the week
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Wow, did I have my work cut out on this one. Starting with quarterbacks, the stand-outs for me were Aaron Rodgers’ 4 TDs in the Packers’ 34-31 loss to the Vikings, Jalen Hurts’ three rushing TDs (a franchise first) in Philly’s win over the Saints and Justin Herbert’s performance in the Chargers’ 41-35 victory over Pittsburgh, in which he threw for 382 yards and 3 TDs, but also rushed for a career-high 90 yards. He becomes the first player in NFL history to throw for 350+ yards and rush for 90+ yards in the same game.
Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson rattled off 169 receiving yards and 2 TDs, getting into the hundreds in the first quarter from just three catches, and we also had running backs D’Andre Swift, Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon all topping a ton on the ground. And if there was a runners-up prize, I’d be dishing it out to pocket powerhouse Austin Ekeler, who starred alongside Herbert for the LA Chargers. His 65 receiving yards and 50 rushing yards yielded four touchdowns (two of each, a franchise first), leaving him equal second in the league for total TDs with 13.
“But who’s first?” I hear you ask. That’ll be Colts RB JONATHAN TAYLOR, who finally gets a game ball (he was a close second in Week 9) for piling up a franchise-record five touchdowns as Indy trampled over the Bills 41-15, With their fifth win in six, the 6-5 Colts are over .500 for the first time this season and have timed their hot streak well. Taylor scored on rushes of 1, 2, 3 and 10 yards, and added a 23-yard TD reception. He finished the game with 204 total yards: 185 rushing on 32 carries and 19 receiving yards from three catches.
The second-year back entered the fray level with Derrick Henry on 937 rushing yards but he now leads the league in rushing yardage (1,122), rushing touchdowns (13) and total touchdowns (15). As well as being well placed to top the NFL in these categories come January, he must also be a serious contender in the League MVP race, despite not being a quarterback. Taylor is now one of only three players ever to rattle off eight consecutive games with 100+ total yards and a touchdown, and only the fourth player this century to begin his career with consecutive 1,000-yard, 10-TD seasons – and he still has six games to go.
I know there’s a chance that Henry could return from injury should the Titans make the playoffs but for now, The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
Defensive player of the week
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, New England Patriots
If you take the main contenders on their own merit, any one of them is worthy of a game ball, and I wouldn’t argue if you had one of them as your defensive player of the week. For me, the runners and riders included:
- the Cowboys’ Micah Parsons, whose two sacks of Patrick Mahomes in their 19-9 loss at Kansas City takes him to eight sacks and 48 tackles for the season (the only other rookie ever to exceed 8/40 was Von Miller)
- the Chiefs’ game-wrecking DT Chris Jones, who more than doubled his tally for the season with 3.5 sacks of Dak Prescott in the same game
- Chicago linebacker Robert Quinn, whose own 3.5-sack haul against Baltimore’s stand-in QB Taylor Huntley takes him into double figures for the season
- Desmond King II, who grabbed two of the Texans’ four interceptions in their shock 22-13 win over the Titans, a full three years since his last one.
But for my winner, I’m going back to TNF, when the Patriots beat the Falcons 25-0. Going 70-0 since the Browns’ opening drive the previous week, Bill Belichick’s crew are riding a five-win streak and really hitting their stride. Nick Folk led the scoring with four FGs while the Pats’ D dominated proceedings with four sacks and four INTs (of three different Atlanta QBs).
One of the sack monsters, Matt Judon, is now on a career-best 10.5 for the season while ‘Mr INT’ himself JC Jackson netted yet another takeaway, but the star of the show was undoubtedly KYLE VAN NOY. Clearly enjoying life back in New England after a brief sojourn with the Dolphins, he’s a key component in a stingy defence that has allowed a mere 13 points in the last three games and an average of 17.7 points per game (#2 in the NFL) across the whole season. Our game ball recipient finished with two sacks (doubling his season’s total), a team-high eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one pass break-up and two QB hits. And as if that wasn’t enough, the 30-yard-old linebacker rounded off the scoring with a minute remaining, intercepting back-up quarterback Josh Rosen and taking the ball back 35 yards for his fourth career touchdown.
To cap off the evening, he then coolly hit back at a Falcons fan heckling him during a post-game interview by referencing a certain Super Bowl loss in 2017. A pretty good day all round, I’d say.
Coach of the week
David Culley, HC, Houston Texans
I think Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor deserves a nod here as the Bengals returned to winning ways against Las Vegas after two losses. Against one of the league’s worst rushing defences, they wisely relied on Joe Mixon (123 rushing yards on a career-high 30 carries and 2 TDs); the defence forced two turnovers and held the Raiders to under 280 yards, while Evan McPherson banged in four FGs, three of them from over 50 yards. Not many people leave Vegas quids in, but the 6-4 Bengals did.
Kudos to Eagles HC Nick Sirianni too, for putting together a game plan that utilised Jalen Hurts’ abilities on the ground (three rushing TDs) in a 40-29 win over the Saints. Sirianni’s offence rushed for 175-plus yards for the fourth straight game (they actually racked up 242 on Sunday) while the defence caused three turnovers.
Talking of teams on hot streaks, Frank Reich’s Colts have won three straight and five of their past six, but prior to Sunday’s win over Buffalo, the quality of the opposition was open to question. But the Colts led the Bills from start to finish in an impressive display. I’d also throw in a brief mention here for Steve Spagnuolo, the DC of the Kansas City Chiefs. In stifling the Cowboys, his unit held the league’s top offence to 276 total yards and no touchdowns.
But let’s forget game balls for a moment; DAVID CULLEY is probably in line for Coach of the Year for getting more than one win out of his woeful Texans roster! In persistent rain, the eight-win Tennessee Titans looked like the eight-loss Texans and while the opposite wasn’t quite true, they did enough to humble the AFC pace-setters 22-13.
Tyrod Taylor completed just 14 of 24 passes for 107 yards without an INT but he also rushed for two touchdowns, becoming just the third QB with multiple rushing TDs in franchise history, after David Carr and Deshaun Watson. In all honesty, they were helped considerably by an abject display by Tennessee, with Ryan Tannehill suffering the first four-interception game of his career, including a red zone pick taken all the way back to his own 15-yard line. But let’s be fair to the Texans who, with the Jets and the Jaguars (the two teams below them in the AFC standings) still on the schedule, could get more wins yet.
While Culley told reporters in his post-match presser that his players hadn’t done enough for him to hand out game balls, I’m going to redress that right now. Game ball to you, sir!
Play of the week
Cameron Sutton, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The list of possible plays I had written down in my notes reads like a menu, there were so many entries. Jalen Hurts’ third TD run of the day featured a massive direction-changing cut and while we’re talking Philadelphia, how about Darius ‘Big Play’ Slay taking a turnover back for the second week running, this time intercepting a (somewhat telegraphed) pass from Saints QB Trevor Siemian?
Then there was Chicago’s Darnell Mooney’s 60-yard TD catch-and-run, dinking between two Ravens defenders after a screen pass from Andy Dalton, and at least two efforts from the Justin Jefferson highlights reel: a catch and one-handed reach for the line was deemed down at the 1, plus a 24-yard TD catch that put the Vikes 29-24 up. In the latter, Kirk Cousins was absolutely flattened by an unchecked pass rusher but undeterred, he stayed in harm’s way long enough to find Jefferson for the score.
After last week’s winner Robert Hunt, there was more big-man fun’n’games in the Bucs/Giants game on MNF. For the first time in NFL history, we saw 300-pound players score a TD (Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas) and make an interception (Tampa Bay nose tackle Steve McLendon) in the same game. At the opposite end of the size spectrum, Austin Ekeler’s third of four TDs on the day was pretty nimble-footed, and the Chargers sealed victory with Mike Williams’ 53-yard touchdown catch-and-run. But while that game did produce our game ball winner, it actually went to Pittsburgh.
Cameron Heyward blocked a throw from Justin Herbert on a 2nd-and-10 with his helmet. The ball ricocheted vertically and went so high, it went out of view (for TV viewers at least) for a couple of seconds. Heyward, Herbert et al searched the skies for the ball and when it eventually returned to Earth, cornerback CAMERON SUTTON ran in at speed. His spectacular diving catch for the interception set up the Steelers’ equalising TD as they fought back from 17 points down.
Gaffe of the week
Chester Rogers, WR, Tennessee Titans
There was something up with kickers on Sunday, with four field goal attempts doinking off an upright instead of sailing serenely between them. When you think about the width of a post (6 inches), it’s actually quite difficult to hit one but somehow Buffalo’s Tyler Bass, the Packers’ Mason Crosby, the Jets’ Matt Ammendola and Miami’s Jason Sanders all managed it, the latter two doing so barely a minute apart in the same game.
I also toyed with Isaiah McKenzie, Buffalo’s specialist returner, who caught a kick-off on his own 5-yard line after the Colts had gone 17-7 up. However, having set off up the field, he fell flat on his face at about the 12 (tripped by the same turf monster that got Daniel Jones last year, I suspect) and coughed up the ball. It was picked up by TJ Carrie who took it to the 2-yard line, setting up one of Jonathan Taylor’s umpteen TDs.
But for our gaffe of the week, I had to return to the Titans/Texans game and select a play that summed up Tennessee’s unforeseen capitulation. Early in the second half, Houston punted away their first possession, but Titans returner CHESTER ROGERS decided to let the kick go uncaught, focusing instead on keeping his opponents from making a play. But in trying to stay out of the way, he committed the cardinal sin of turning his back on the ball; inevitably, it hit his heel, became ‘live’ and was smothered by the Texans’ Tremon Smith five yards from the end zone. Tyrod Taylor punched in a TD run moments later, propelling Houston into a 19-0 lead they never relinquished.
Feature image: Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports