Chiefs’ defense beats Cowboys, Packers hurting, NFL power rankings and more

Chiefs’ defense beats Cowboys, Packers hurting, NFL power rankings and more

The Kansas City Chiefs are known for their offense, but the defense is becoming the main reason everyone should be fretting their resurgence.

Who the hell saw this coming?

The Kansas City Chiefs, whose defense could have been charged with aiding and abetting opposing offenses over the season’s first five weeks, have sprung to life.

After allowing more than 32 points per game during said span, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s group has transformed, holding teams to 14.5 points since Week 6. On Sunday, they turned in their masterpiece, allowing only three field goals to the league’s top-ranked offense, winning 19-9 over the Dallas Cowboys.

For Kansas City, it was a victory spearheaded by defensive tackle Chris Jones, who notched a career-high 3.5 sacks before tipping the day’s final pass, resulting in a L’Jarius Sneed interception. All told, the Chiefs totaled five sacks of beleaguered Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, limiting him to 5.0 YPA with two interceptions in a dominant showing.

Since Patrick Mahomes became the starting quarterback in 2018, the Chiefs have correctly been known for their offense. They’re a transformative group, with limits unseen. They have three likely Hall of Famers in Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill. Under head coach Andy Reid, they are more performers than players, putting on a spectacular every week.

In 2021, that hasn’t been the case. Kansas City leads the league in turnovers. Mahomes has 11 interceptions and while still largely brilliant, he’s been off-kilter at times. On Sunday, Kelce had three drops, including one which turned into a pick.

Yet none of it mattered, because the Chiefs’ defense is kicking ass in shocking fashion.

What spurred the drastic turnaround is a bevy of personnel changes, one important trade and the improved health of a key veteran.

Spagnuolo, correctly dogged for starting safety Dan Sorensen over Juan Thornhill, relented before Week 6. The move had another impact, allowing fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu to increasingly play in a robber role. Kansas City also benched corner Mike Hughes for Rashad Fenton, who entered Sunday’s tilt as Pro Football Focus‘ top-ranked cornerback.

Additionally, corner Charvarius Ward and edge rusher Frank Clark got healthier and have been standouts over the past month, while rookie linebacker Nick Bolton and second-year man Willie Gay have combined to be a force on the second level. Up front, Jones was moved back inside after an experiment as a defensive tackle. The result has been his reliable chaos.

Finally, the trade deadline brought disgruntled pass-rusher Melvin Ingram to Kansas City from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a sixth-round pick. While Ingram doesn’t have a sack yet in three games, he’s creating pressure, blowing up run plays and pushing the pocket.

All of those factors have turned around a once horrific unit into a terrifying presence. Two weeks ago, the Las Vegas Raiders have nine third-down attempts in Kansas City 41-14 win. The Chiefs allowed one conversion, and for those nine plays, surrendered -3 yards.

During Kansas City’s current four-game win streak, the defense is allowing a 25 percent third-down conversion rate while holding opponents to 43 percent in the red zone. The Chiefs have also amassed five interceptions in that stretch after notching the same total over the previous seven contests.

At 7-4, Kansas City leads the AFC West heading into its bye. The Chiefs are a game out of the AFC’s top seed, trailing the Tennessee Titans who lost to the previously one-win Houston Texans on Sunday.

For Kansas City, it’s all ahead of them. And for the rest of the AFC, nobody should want to see the Chiefs. Not because of Mahomes, but a defense seemingly playing the best of any unit in football right now.

Who the hell saw that coming?

Power rankings

Top 10 end zone celebrators of all time

1. Chad Johnson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
2. Terrell Owens, WR, San Francisco 49ers
3. Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
4. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
5. Billy ‘White Shoes” Johnson, KR, Houston Oilers
6. Homer Jones, WR, New York Giants
7. Elmo Wright, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
8. Deion Sanders, CB, Atlanta Falcons
9. Ickey Woods, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
10. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

Quotable

“I’m done.”

– Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll to finish his postgame press conference. 

Carroll might not yet know how far-reaching in truth those words are. At 3-7, the Seahawks are finished following an embarrassing 23-13 loss to the Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals.

Seattle is now playing for pride. The Seahawks don’t have their first-round pick, either, having traded it to the New York Jets for Jamal Adams. Oh, and that choice is currently No. 5 overall.

At 70 years old, Carroll is the second-oldest head coach in the NFL. If Seattle deals quarterback Russell Wilson come winter — as many in the league believe it will — why keep Carroll?

We could be looking at a full-scale rebuild in Seattle.

Podcast

Random stat

Over the first 35 Super Bowls, the only participant without a Hall of Fame player?

The 1977 Denver Broncos.

Info learned this week

1. Colts humble Bills while showcasing major, ongoing flaws

If the Buffalo Bills are going to win the Super Bowl, they need to fix the defensive front.

From a national perspective, Buffalo has quietly struggled along both lines at times this season. Yet with early wins, nobody was fretting much.

On Sunday, the issues were put on full display. In a 41-15 blitzing by the Indianapolis Colts, the Bills allowed running back Jonathan Taylor to gain 185 rushing yards on 5.8 YPC with four touchdowns — and another in the air. All told, Indy notched 264 yards on the ground while Carson Wentz was 11-of-20 for 106 yards.

Buffalo knew the Colts would run the ball, especially as they amassed an early lead and the weather turned hostile. Yet Indianapolis treated Bills defenders like road cones in a student driver test, avoiding them with little issue.

For most of the year, Buffalo’s run defense has been stout but the pass rush has been silent. This weekend, both things failed miserably.

In April, the Bills spent first and second-round picks on edge rushers in Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham, respectively. Rousseau has flashed but has three sacks, while Basham has been active for only four games. It’s been too little production for such a sizable investment.

If the Bills are to reach their first Super Bowl since 1993, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier must figure out his pressure issue. If he doesn’t, Buffalo will be a dangerous but fatally flawed playoff team, and maybe even a wild card.

2. Packers lose, but their injuries are starting to overwhelm

The Green Bay Packers shouldn’t sweat losing to the Minnesota Vikings. They should be far more concerned about the continued injury issues.

In a 34-31 loss in Minneapolis, the Packers lost star guard Elgton Jenkins to what’s believed to be a season-ending torn ACL. This in addition to quarterback Aaron Rodgers sustaining a toe injury in the first half which he deemed “very, very painful” in postgame comments.

These ailments are in addition to the existing, which include running back Aaron Jones, left tackle David Bakhtiari, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and tight end Robert Tonyan among others. Green Bay has a chance to win it all, but the injuries, specifically to the offensive line, are becoming a major issue.

With the Los Angeles Rams up next, Rodgers and Co. have a brutal assignment before going on the bye week. It can’t get here soon enough for Green Bay.

3. Raiders in the tank again after another fast start

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, your’e the Raiders.

For the third consecutive year, Las Vegas is in the midst of a full-on meltdown. After starting 5-2, the Raiders have lost to the New York Giants, Chiefs and then the Cincinnati Bengals by a 32-13 count.

Last year, Las Vegas was 6-3 and finished 8-8. The year prior, 6-4 became 7-9.

On Sunday, Derek Carr and the offense continued their regression, failing to score 20 points in all three defeats. The defense held Cincinnati to 288 offensive yards, but two turnovers and seven penalties short-circuited all efforts.

At 5-5, the Raiders are still technically in the playoff picture, but it feels like the proverbial wheels are off. Next up? The Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

One wonders where this goes after the season, with Carr on a moveable contract and the rest of the roster, save a few stars, in need of an overhaul. The guess here? Las Vegas takes a long look at its draft options, doesn’t love the field and quietly burns the phone lines for veterans made available in a trade. This isn’t Carr’s fault, but something — almost everything — must change.

4. Eagles are a very viable playoff team with slate ahead

Here come the Philadelphia Eagles.

After plowing the New Orleans Saints, 40-29, the Eagles are ninth in the NFC at 5-6, a half-game back of the San Francisco 49ers, Vikings and Saints. However, their final six games include five NFC East battles … and the Jets.

On Sunday, Philadelphia’s powerful offensive line destroyed a proud Saints defense, rushing for 242 yards on 4.8 yards per attempt, including three scores. The Eagles’ passing game is inconsistent behind second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, but with the Washington Football Team and Giants coming up twice apiece, along with the Jets, Philadelphia has an excellent chance of getting to nine victories.

5. Justin Hebert does it all in Chargers’ win over Steelers

When you’re talking about elite quarterbacks, don’t forget about Justin Herbert.

In a wild 41-37 victory on Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Herbert led his Los Angeles Chargers with 382 passing yards and 90 additional ground yards, all while accounting for three touchdowns. It was an epic showing, one that has Los Angeles at 6-4 and only a half-game back of Kansas City in the AFC West.

The down side? Los Angeles needed such a performance from Herbert to beat the offensively-challenged Steelers, who were without T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick on their defense. Giving up 37 points to Pittsburgh is a football sin, but Herbert kept the Chargers from a disastrous defeat, and now readies for the Broncos off their bye week.

Gambler’s game

On Sunday, the New England Patriots are hosting the Tennessee Titans and laying 5.5 points. Bill Belichick is going to enjoy huge advantage in the defensive trenches, and it’ll lead to a long day for Ryan Tannehill. Eat the points, take the Patriots.

Two cents

No team is more depressing than the Chicago Bears.

Sure, the Detroit Lions are worse. The New York Jets more of a crapshow. The Seahawks more disappointing. Check, check and check. But none are more depressing than Chicago.

No team plays less to win and more to lose than the Bears, who somehow lost 16-13 to the Baltimore Ravens on a day with Tyler Huntley replacing the ill Lamar Jackson. Chicago got a gift when Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale brought a Cover 0 blitz on 4th and 11 in the final two minutes, leading to Andy Dalton throwing a 49-yard touchdown.

Leading 13-9 with 101 seconds remaining, Huntley seemed in an impossible spot. That’s until the Bears were called for a 21-yard pass interference penalty. Next play, 21 yards to Devin Duvernuay on a quick reception. Four plays later, a busted coverage on 3rd and 12 and a 29-yard throw to Sammy Watkins. Then, a 3-yard touchdown plunge.

The Bears are 3-7 and have no identity. The defense is alright, the offense stinks and the coaching is miserable. Case in point? Check out this sequence.

Matt Nagy had 3rd and 1 at midfield, had Andy Dalton throw a go ball, and then sends out the punt team. Then, calls timeout before sending out the offense again.

Then, finally, the Bears snap the ball in wildcat and lose yardage.

Quite the process.

— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) November 21, 2021

If Chicago loses to the Lions on Thanksgiving, Nagy should be left on the tarmac. Give him a turkey leg and some mashed potatoes in a Tupperware container, and head home.

Inside the league

The Cleveland Browns would never publicly say it, but they have to be thinking about what to do with Baker Mayfield.

We’ve written in this space before about the pending decision to either extend Mayfield or simply play out his fifth-year option. Watching this season, there’s no real dilemma. Mayfield is going to have his option exercised and brace for 2022.

However, talking to executives around the league over the past month, there’s a strong belief we’ll see a quartet of veteran quarterbacks on the trade block including Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson (pending his legal situation) and Jimmy Garoppolo.

While Garoppolo is a lateral move for Cleveland, the other three are massive upgrades. And with a quality head coach, good weapons and a passable defense, general manager Andrew Berry would be wrong not to consider all options.

Should the league-wide talk become reality and Rodgers, Wilson and Watson become available, the Browns have to be involved. They have all their draft picks and could throw Mayfield in any deal, giving the other team a bridge quarterback with upside and only a year remaining on his deal.

Cleveland is a decent team. Mayfield is a decent quarterback. At what point do we get evidence the latter will ever become more?

History lesson

Almost 27 years ago — Nov. 27, 1994 — the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins met at the Meadowlands.

The Jets were 6-5 and fighting for a playoff spot, while the Dolphins were 7-4 and trying to maintain control of the AFC East. Ultimately, the game came down to the final seconds, with Miami trailing 24-21 with 38 seconds remaining and the ball on New York’s 8-yard line. From there, the famous Dan Marino Spike Play. 28-24.

What’s more incredible is the Jets’ fall in the coming seasons. After losing to Marino in stunning fashion, New York went 4-32 over the remainder of ’94 and the following two campaigns under head coach Richie Kotite.

Incredibly, only two years later, the Jets were in the AFC Championship Game guided by coach Bill Parcells.

Parting shot

Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

These last two years have been brutal for everyone. The loss of life, the emotional and in some cases, physical tolls on people. Last year, so many of us didn’t gather on holidays. This time last year, my wife was recovering from COVID. Six months later, we lost our son, Ben. It’s been rough.

And yet this is a time to say thanks. Thanks to those who make us who we are, who make us happy, who make us whole.

On Thursday, I hope you’re sitting around a table with friends and family. I certainly will, and then plan to race home and erect our Christmas tree. Yes, I’m that guy.

Lastly, I want to say thanks to all of you. Your readership, your loyalty and your commentary has been a blessing, even in critique. Hell, especially in critique.

Thank you so much. Happy Thanksgiving.

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