Running backs led the way Sunday, with Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler powering AFC squads to key victories. The Chiefs notched another high-profile win as well, seeing more defensive improvement, while the NFC wild-card race keeps expanding. Here are the Week 11 grades from around the NFL.
Week 11 byes: Broncos, Rams
Although multiple Giants offensive linemen are on IR, as Sterling Shepard remains out, reinforcements returned for Big Blue on Monday. Saquon Barkley, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney managed to finish a game together. Daniel Jones threw two INTs, one of them an ugly lob to a nose tackle, and averaged 4.4 yards per attempt. Jones now has nine TD passes -- one of them to a tackle -- this season, after he somehow totaled 11 in 14 starts last season. The top-10 pick has not improved under second-year OC Jason Garrett; Jones' QBR sits 26th. New York (3-7) ranks in the bottom fourth in points and yards (again). This setup is nearly out of time to display viability.
GIANTS GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Eagles (Sun.)
Brady enjoyed a cozy time ensuring the Buccaneers would prevail comfortably. Despite dropping back 47 times, Brady took no sacks and was barely touched. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs, center Ryan Jensen and the left guard tandem of Ali Marpet and Aaron Stinnie, who replaced Marpet, did not allow a pressure. Marpet's oblique injury aside, the Bucs (7-3) have enjoyed pristine health since this O-line formed after Wirfs' Round 1 arrival last year. Smith, Wirfs, Jensen and Alex Cappa have missed a combined one game since Week 1 of last season. This top-tier line's rare continuity has played a significant part in the Bucs' ascent.
BUCCANEERS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Colts (Sun.)
The Steelers gave up 533 yards in a Pittsburgh West backdrop Sunday night, the most they have ceded since Tom Brady lit up an on-its-last-legs group in 2013. Herbert accounted for 472 yards, finding open receivers -- Mike Williams being the most notable, foiling Pittsburgh's 27-point fourth quarter -- and wide running lanes all night. This outing without T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick -- not to mention Stephon Tuitt, out since training camp -- presents some optimism given the score. But Pittsburgh (5-4-1) obviously needs its troops back to do any real damage this season.
STEELERS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Bengals (Sun.)
Although outdone by Jonathan Taylor in Week 11, Austin Ekeler joined an exclusive club in Chargers lore as he led the way in the team's shootout win. The fifth-year running back's four touchdowns are the second-most in franchise history, tying a few backs -- including LaDainian Tomlinson, who got there five times -- and trailing only Kellen Winslow's five from a 1981 game. After missing much of last season with an ankle injury, Ekeler has resurfaced to help a Bolts team (6-4) that lacks skill-position consistency beyond Keenan Allen. Ekeler's 13 TDs are already a career-high. Keeping their dual-threat back healthy is essential for the Bolts' 2021 cause.
CHARGERS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Broncos (Sun.)
Led by Micah Parsons' runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year push, the Cowboys (7-3) did enough to minimize the Chiefs' offense to win. Amari Cooper's positive COVID-19 test and CeeDee Lamb's concussion effectively shut the visitors' offense down. Michael Gallup could not mount a WR1 takeover effort, and his sidekicks were non-threats. Still missing Tyron Smith as well, Dak Prescott did not move a top-tier offense into the end zone against a resurgent Chiefs defense -- one that caught another break two weeks after Aaron Rodgers' positive COVID test bailed out an inconsistent offense. A likely blip for a team cruising in the NFC East, but still a missed chance.
COWBOYS GRADE: C | NEXT: vs. Raiders (Thu.)
Anyone anointing Jeffery Simmons as an Aaron Donald-in-training must acknowledge Jones has been the best non-Donald inside rusher for years. Back at his three-technique position, after the Chiefs' misguided effort to use him on the edge, Jones delivered a scary reminder of his talents and Kansas City's newfound defensive capabilities. Lined up inside for each of his 3.5 sacks, Jones lived in the Cowboys backfield, adding a fumble recovery and a tipped pass that produced L'Jarius Sneed's game-sealing INT. Patrick Mahomes and his All-Pros on offense overshadow Jones, but he has led the Chiefs' defense since 2018. Similar to 2019, Steve Spagnuolo's unit has reawakened midseason.
CHIEFS GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Broncos (Dec. 5)
Despite rostering four Hall of Fame running backs -- Lenny Moore, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, and Edgerrin James -- and 1970s star Lydell Mitchell, the Colts had never seen a five-touchdown game. Taylor delivered it, rewarding fantasy GMs worldwide and the Colts for their second-round pick. Getting to 204 scrimmage yards, Taylor tied Mitchell and Tomlinson with eight straight games of 100-plus and a TD. The Colts (6-5) bludgeoned the NFL's No. 1 defense. While the Colts gave Taylor 35 touches and need to be careful, seeing Derrick Henry's breakdown, the NFL's leading rusher (1,122 yards) has led them back into the AFC race.
COLTS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: vs. Buccaneers (Sun.)
Consistency has eluded the Bills to the point their status as a playoff team can no longer be assumed. Taylor butchered Buffalo's defense, which has seen top-run defender Star Lotulelei land on the reserve/COVID-19 list with symptoms. And one-time MVP candidate Josh Allen could not remotely orchestrate a shootout. Throwing two INTs and fumbling, Allen lacks a competent run game and has seen the Bills (6-4) lose multiple O-linemen. The Patriots have passed them in the AFC East, and the Bills' attempt to hang onto their crown -- one they seemingly were set to hold often in the Allen-centric 2020s -- poses as one of the most captivating division races in years.
BILLS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Saints (Thu.)
Aaron Rodgers deserves tremendous credit for nearly leading the Packers to victory Sunday. The reigning MVP's four-TD, 385-yard effort came without five of the team's top seven players. Already down David Bakhtiari, Aaron Jones, Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith, the Packers (8-3) look to have lost versatile O-line dynamo Elgton Jenkins to an ACL tear. Rodgers is now battling an evidently significant toe injury. As their depleted defense folded in Minnesota, the Packers may have reached the point where the injuries have become too much to surmount. Recoveries must commence to reopen a Super Bowl window.
PACKERS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Rams (Sun.)
For a second straight week, Jefferson's dominance did the most to carry the Vikings past a favored opponent. After Jefferson's 1,400-yard rookie season included just 52 in two games against the Packers, the second-year star broke free frequently against an Alexander-less Green Bay secondary. On a fast track to becoming one of the NFL's premier receivers, Jefferson posted a season-high 169 receiving yards and two scores. His 11 100-yard games are tied for second-most through two seasons, behind only Odell Beckham Jr.'s 15. Left for dead as Jefferson slumped earlier this month, the Vikings (5-5) look to be on the scarier side of the NFC's wild-card derby.
VIKINGS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at 49ers (Sun.)
Down Chase Young and Montez Sweat, and using a backup quarterback after Washington's latest acquisition misfire at the position, Ron Rivera still exacted revenge on the franchise that booted him. Taylor Heinicke delivered a second straight quality outing, giving he and Washington's play-caller -- ex-Carolina OC Scott Turner -- a lesser revenge measure. The game coming down to fourth-down execution was on-brand for Rivera, whose undermanned defense stymied Cam Newton on two fourth-and-3s to close the effort while Heinicke converted both his fourth-down throws to set up scores. Washington (4-7) can loosely be considered in the NFC race, despite another 2-7 start.
WASHINGTON GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Seahawks (Mon.)
Certainly injecting more life into Carolina's offense than Sam Darnold, Newton should be praised for his three-touchdown day after less than 10 days back in the familiar building. But the Panthers went 3-for-12 on third and fourth downs in Newton's first start back, continuing to waste the talents of Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore -- not to mention an improved defense that will be relevant once Carolina acquires an upper-echelon QB. Newton's two failed drives at game's end reminded of Teddy Bridgewater's 2020 late-game shortcomings. It could get better for Carolina (5-6), as Newton reacclimates, but this is a tough 7-seed sell.
PANTHERS GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: at Dolphins (Sun.)
By far the best moment of a miserable season, the Texans (2-8) dirtied up the Titans' post-Derrick Henry shell of an offense. A former All-Pro who has now been on three teams in the past 13 months, King led the way with two interceptions -- his first picks since that 2018 All-Pro slate. The Titans acquired the ex-Charger slot stopper last year but chose not to re-sign him in March, and Tannehill's stat line suffered Sunday. King's end zone INT derailed a drive that would have put Tennessee in position to steal a win, and he won out against the AFC South leaders' replacement wideouts in Houston's five-turnover mess.
TEXANS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Jets (Sun.)
As rain pelted hood-refuser Mike Vrabel, his quarterback's turnover count piled up. Tannehill threw a career-high four INTs in Tennessee's two-score loss to the AFC's worst team, marking a shocking turn for a Titans team (8-3) that had beaten five straight 2020 playoff entrants. With three games of sample size to judge, the Titans offense is multiple levels below its Henry version. Julio Jones' absence and A.J. Brown's latest minor injury did not help, either. This kind of game has bitten contenders often in 2021, but Tennessee's effort should present bigger-picture concerns given what has changed for its offense.
TITANS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Patriots (Sun.)
Zach Ertz can max out at just 11 games with the Cardinals this season; he is already on pace for the most receiving yards in the franchise's Arizona history. Lacking a 600-yard tight end since moving in 1988 , the Cards did well landing Ertz. The three-time Pro Bowler came through again for his new team, hauling in nine passes for 88 yards -- his most since 2019 -- and two TDs to lift Arizona (9-2) to another win without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Ertz's stock tumbled in his final year and a half in Philly, but the 31-year-old talent's presence creates tantalizing possibilities for a full-strength Cards receiving corps' potential post-bye.
CARDINALS GRADE: A | NEXT: at Bears (Dec. 5)
The most successful head coach in Seahawks history, Pete Carroll has earned the right to go through a bad season. But, after years of trotting out low-ceiling contenders since the Malcolm Butler scene, Seattle has sunk to a new place. Carroll's 12th Seahawks team is now 3-7, with Wilson's return from finger surgery producing two letdown games. Seattle went 2 of 10 on third down, keeping them as the NFL's worst third-down team, and struggled to threaten the Cardinals or avoid sacks. Wilson took four. A week away from his 33rd birthday, Wilson has seen matters worsen since his offseason demands surfaced. The next seven weeks could determine the Seahawks' outlook for years.
SEAHAWKS GRADE: D | NEXT: at Washington (Mon.)
After a six-game 2020, in which the Bengals kept pushing his timetable back before a quiet ending, Mixon has re-emerged for the most relevant Bengal squad in six years. Cincinnati (6-4) still has not equipped its standout back with too much on the O-line, but the fifth-year starter moved the needle for a team desperate to stay in the mix after two ugly losses. Mixon averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the first half but came alive for 97 yards in the second, eclipsing 100 rushing yards (123) for the first time since Week 1 and lifting a Bengals attack scuffling through the air to a decisive win.
BENGALS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Steelers (Sun.)
Tracking toward ending an 18th straight season with a bottom-half scoring defense, the Raiders did not cave in until late on that side of the ball this week. Their offense has not been the same without Henry Ruggs, despite the since-cut wideout not contributing much to Derek Carr's cause last season. Las Vegas' yardage figure resided below 150 entering the fourth quarter, and the team managed one scoring drive without being gifted red zone starting field position. Carr blame should be applied carefully, given the unusual Ruggs and Jon Gruden exits and the team gutting his O-line in March. But he is presiding over a third straight second-half swoon.
RAIDERS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: at Cowboys (Thu.)
A slew of unfortunate midweek developments left the Ravens without not only Lamar Jackson but wideouts Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay and DBs Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett. Confident enough in Tyler Huntley that Robert Griffin III became a coveted announcer commodity, the Ravens (7-3) won with the undrafted QB out of Utah. Huntley took six sacks and could not lean on an increasingly unreliable backfield corps, but his recognition of a late-game coverage bust -- to close out a game in which he accounted for 259 yards -- saved the Ravens from a losing streak they could not afford.
RAVENS GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Browns (Sun.)
Sunday's loss gave a decent snapshot of the Matt Nagy era. Fleeting promise -- as displayed by Andy Dalton's effective relief work -- and flashy defense (Robert Quinn's 3.5 sacks) led to a loss. Nagy is coaching out the string at this point, having seen his 2018 Coach of the Year campaign morph into a Mitchell Trubisky-accelerated quagmire. The Bears were missing their top defensive staples in Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson, but losing to a Ravens team missing Lamar Jackson -- after holding a lead in the final two minutes -- represents another domino for the soon-to-be-fired HC.
BEARS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Lions (Sun.)
The NFL has added Flex games on Sunday nights and will introduce that option for Mondays. The league is set to give a team a short-week playoff assignment by adding a Monday wild-card game. As the Lions attempt yet another post-Barry Sanders rebuild, league execs cannot be pleased with the first leg of its Thanksgiving status quo. With either Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, or perhaps David Blough set to face the Bears, this sets up one of the bleaker Thanksgiving games in memory. Undercutting another big D'Andre Swift game, Boyle followed Goff by entering a Rust Belt fourth quarter with fewer than 50 passing yards.
LIONS GRADE: C | NEXT: vs. Bears (Thu.)
Baker Mayfield rebounded from the Freddie Kitchens season, producing the Browns' first playoff win since 1994. That version of Mayfield is not presently taking snaps in Cleveland. Mayfield endured another shaky outing Sunday, and his two (bad) INTs and 52% completion rate may have cost the Browns (6-5) a win against almost any other team. His shoulder issue is clearly a problem. If no late-season health improvement can be projected, Case Keenum needs to play. Only Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota played into their fifth-year option seasons at quarterback. Though his long-term potential should not be discarded, Mayfield suddenly looks on that path.
BROWNS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Ravens (Sun.)
The depth chart present for the Saints' two-score win over the Buccaneers was a cut below their final Drew Brees-led squads. The one that took the field in Philadelphia was considerably worse. Now down both its starting tackles, with Ryan Ramczyk joining Terron Armstead in street clothes, the Saints featured few reliable starters on offense. Trevor Siemian handed Darius Slay his third touchdown this season and, with Alvin Kamara missing another game, may still be playing over his head given the Saints' skill-spot limitations. Losers of three straight, the Saints (5-5) look like one of the least imposing teams in this NFC wild-card chase.
SAINTS GRADE: D | NEXT: vs. Bills (Thu.)
The jury likely will remain out on Hurts as a passer going into 2022, which stands to create a high-stakes decision for the Eagles. But their run-oriented quarterback made enough throws, adding to this three-touchdown day on the ground, against a high-end Saints defense it makes the Eagles (5-6) resemble a playoff threat. (The schedule: not a staunch impediment.) Philly rushed for 200-plus yards (242) for a third time in four games, as Hurts' audition transitions from QB-by-default to potential 2022 starter. With a good chance to have three first-round picks -- QB trade ammo as an iffy draft class awaits -- the Eagles still need more information.
EAGLES GRADE: A | NEXT: at Giants (Sun.)
Of players who have had their bye week, Bosa leads with 32 pressures. The 49ers' top performer picked up his ninth and 10th sacks in Jacksonville, completing a week in which San Francisco outscored its opponents 61-20. Bosa led the way in changing the 49ers' trajectory in 2019, turning a forgettable defense into a Super Bowl-caliber crew. His presence has certainly restored this unit after a forgettable 2020. Bosa should be receiving more Comeback Player of the Year attention, hitting this gear quickly after an ACL tear. The 49ers (5-5) may still be difficult to trust, but they can clearly hang in this muddled wild-card mix.
49ERS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Vikings (Sun.)
Jacksonville's defense going from awful to occasionally imposing matters little in the grand scheme. This season's stretch run must be about Trevor Lawrence making strides. Because the No. 1 overall pick is falling from his already-low rookie-year peak. Seventy-three of Lawrence's 158 passing yards came in the fourth quarter when the Jaguars (2-8) trailed by four scores. Lawrence has completed 56% of his passes over the past four games. He is not alone among struggling rookie QBs, but the makeup of his coaching staff and supporting cast creates difficulties in envisioning how this will improve much without another overhaul.
JAGUARS GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: vs. Jaguars (Sun.)
In the Ben Simmons-esque spot of carrying on after his team attempted an in-season trade for someone better, Tua Tagovailoa has quietly improved since returning from his initial 2021 injury. The second-year southpaw missed on just six passes Sunday, throwing for 273 yards on 8.3 a clip, and added two TD tosses for a Dolphins team still missing DeVante Parker and Will Fuller. Yes, the Jets were the opponent, but any growth is positive given Tua's early-career hurdles. The Dolphins (4-7) should still lead the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes in 2022, but Tua leading a limited team to back-to-back wins deserves credit.
DOLPHINS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: vs. Panthers (Sun.)
The Jets (2-8) look to have found one surefire piece for their more relevant future teams. Despite New York hanging onto veteran slot receiver Jamison Crowder at the deadline, Elijah Moore has become a fixture -- well, since Zach Wilson went down. The second-round rookie caught eight passes for a career-high 141 yards. The Jets' modern receiver-development record almost rivals their post-John Abraham edge rusher-grooming resume. Moore, who has TDs in his past three games, belatedly making good on his training camp promise represents a late-season subplot of note in another lost year. Can this run continue with Wilson?
JETS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Texans (Sun.)
Dropped after one season in Miami, Van Noy took a pay cut to return to New England. He led the way in the revitalized Patriots' demoralizing win over the Falcons. Van Noy notched two sacks and finished off Atlanta with a pick-six for his third touchdown as a Patriot. The previous two-game in his first Pats stay. The Pats (7-4) saw their overhauled defense muzzle Matt Ryan and his overmatched offense. Van Noy, Matt Judon, and Co. give this Patriots' defense capabilities that far outpace last season's unit, and as a previous defensive nucleus did for a young Tom Brady, this one is providing Mac Jones with tremendous support.
PATRIOTS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Titans (Sun.)
Sitting on one of the NFC's wild-card bracket lines after their upset win in New Orleans, the Falcons reverted to their early-season form. Arthur Smith's bunch has been outscored 68-3 over the past two weeks. Seeing three quarterbacks throw an interception in one game -- something no team had done since 2000 -- the Falcons (4-6) were shut out for the first time since 2015. Smith interviewed with six teams this offseason. The one he chose looks to have a long road ahead.
FALCONS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Jaguars (Sun.)
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.