Travis Kelce reigns; Cowboys bounce back; Rams, Jets fall flat: NFL notes and analysis

Another Sunday Fun Day is in the books with a number of teams and stars putting their stamp on Week 11. The reemergence of the Kansas City Chiefs as the top team in the league stands out as my top headline, but there are plenty of subplots to discuss as the regular seasons enters the stretch run. 

After taking some time to digest all of the action and compile some notes, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.

Three things I liked

1. Travis Kelce is the “GOAT” 

The term “GOAT” has been loosely tagged to any player with an extended run of spectacular performances or production in the NFL. But it is time for the football world to acknowledge that Travis Kelce is the best tight end we have watched in the modern era. 

Although Kelce lacks the imposing physical dimensions and destructive game of Rob Gronkowski, he is a pass-catching machine who is simply unstoppable on the perimeter. On Sunday, Kelce, in his 10th season with the Chiefs, passed Rob Gronkowski for the most 100-yard receiving games by a tight end in NFL history (33). Kelce is on the verge of posting his seventh straight 1,000-yard season despite facing double teams and bracket coverage each week.

In addition, the veteran pass-catcher remains a dominant red-zone weapon with a knack for finding pay dirt on an assortment of crafty routes from the slot or out wide. Kelce utilizes his combination of skill and savvy to outmaneuver linebackers and defensive backs to snag balls in the corners like an MLB third baseman. 

In racking up another 100-yard game in a heated battle with a division rival, the seven-time Pro Bowler displayed a polished game as a route runner/playmaker that will serve as teaching tape for coaches around the country. With Kelce poised to dominate the league for the next few seasons as the premier player at the position, it is time to get the gold jacket and crown ready for an all-time great who continues to dazzle between the lines. 

2. Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott are a problem 

At a time when hot take shows are debating which running back should occupy the RB1 spot for America’s Team, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy has wisely split the workload between Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. 

Instead of making the Cowboys’ running game a “one-man” show built around the talents of the No. 1 back, the grizzled head coach has forced opponents to prepare for a dynamic tandem that meshes power with finesse. 

Although Pollard has certainly shown opponents over the past few weeks that he is more than capable of carrying the load as a workhorse runner, it is more effective when he is able to come in and out of the game as a change of pace back. The fourth-year pro provides the Cowboys with instant offense as a big-play threat as a runner and receiver, as evidenced by his 189 scrimmage yards against the Vikings on 21 touches. 

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Meanwhile, Elliott is comfortable punishing opponents between the tackles as the team’s designated sledgehammer in the running game. While it is not sexy or sizzling to watch the veteran grind out three- and four-yard gains against eight-man boxes, the cumulative effect of tackling a 230-plus-pound runner eventually wears down a defense over 60 minutes. 

With each back thriving in roles catered specifically to their talents, the Cowboys have created headaches for opponents tasked with defending a diverse offensive attack featuring a pair of backs with complementary skills.

3. Taylor Heinicke is the man for the job 

Credit Ron Rivera for handing the Washington Commanders‘ starting job Taylor Heinicke after the journeyman earned it by guiding the team to three wins in his first four starts. The fifth-year pro has steadied an offense that lacked an identity with his gritty demeanor and efficient play. 

While Carson Wentz might be viewed as a better starting quarterback candidate based on his superior physical dimensions and arm talent, there is something about the spunky playmaker that works for this team. Whether it is his unshakable confidence or his crafty improvisational skills, Heinicke makes the plays the team needs in critical moments while ingratiating himself to his teammates with his toughness and humility. 

In a leadership position in which the team values the person more than traits, the Commanders made the correct call to hand the ball to the player who possesses the “it” factor at quarterback. With Heinicke earning another win in Week 11, it is apparent that Rivera made the right call while navigating around a tricky situation. 

Three things I did not like

1. Zach Wilson‘s immaturity could derail the Jets

Maybe the Jets’ QB1 does not know that the clock is ticking on his tenure if he continues to underachieve on and off the field. Wilson has not only been disappointing as a passer between the lines as a prospect who was expected to blossom into an elite player, but he has failed to display the leadership qualities and intangibles that are expected of a franchise player. 

From his lack of accountability for his performance and the offense’s failures to his questionable self-awareness within the locker room, the second-year pro is on the verge of losing his spot as the face of the franchise. Against the New England Patriots, it was a combination of his play and lack of humility that created a buzz on the airwaves regarding his preparedness for his role. 

Instead of owning his unit’s disappointing play, Wilson deflected questions and failed to take any ownership of a situation that could derail the Jets’ playoff chances if it continues. As the anointed leader of the team, he must use inclusive language when discussing the team’s successes while falling on the sword for the Jets’ failures, particularly on offense. The quarterback must exhibit championship-caliber leadership qualities to earn the respect of his teammates and coaches, and Wilson’s lack of accountability is far from what franchises expect of their top players. 

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Maybe the young quarterback will eventually heed some advice from some of the elders in the locker room and acknowledge his contributions to the team’s failures instead of putting up a macho front that only undermines his credibility among his peers. 

2. Sean McVay cannot fix the Rams 

It was fun while it lasted, but the Rams’ dominance of the league is over. The Rams will not join an exclusive list of repeat champions at the end of this season due to Sean McVay’s inability to fix the team’s offensive woes. 

From the lack of run-pass balance to the misuse of personnel to the poor performance of the offensive line, the Rams’ head coach/offensive architect has failed to fix the issues that are keeping the defending champs from lighting up the scoreboard. Against the Saints, the Rams’ offensive woes were compounded by Matthew Stafford‘s departure due to a suspected concussion. 

Without an elite trigger man at the controls, the Rams could not move the ball consistently or threaten the defense in the second half. Moreover, the Rams could not threaten a New Orleans defense that had struggled in the weeks leading up to the contest. 

While injuries to Cooper Kupp and Stafford are certainly tough to overcome, the Rams’ offensive woes have been an issue from the start of the season, and McVay has failed to come up with a workable solution to remedy the problem. As an offensive guru with a reputation for creating beautiful play designs, the lack of creativity has certainly led to questions about his adaptability as a playcaller and team builder. 

3. The Browns continue to disappoint

It is hard to win in this league without a franchise quarterback, but the Cleveland Browns‘ struggles during Deshaun Watson‘s suspension is one of the biggest disappointments in the league. As a team that was expected to compete for a division title and playoff berth, the Browns have more than enough talent to compete against the heavyweights in the league, but their flawed game plans and underachieving defense have resulted in five losses in their past six games. 

Sure, it is challenging to build a game plan around a backup quarterback with limitations, but the Browns feature several blue-chip players (Nick Chubb, Amari Cooper, Joel Bitonio, Kareem Hunt and David Njoku) with the individual and collective talent to elevate the play of QB Jacoby Brissett. With a more run-centric game plan that puts the ball in the hands of the team’s top playmakers, the game should become easier for the backup to flourish in a managerial role with a handful of play-action passes directed toward a talented wideout and tight end. 

However, we have not seen the Browns stick to a plan that emphasizes the strengths of the team while masking the quarterback’s flaws. Despite Brissett’s 300-yard game against the Bills on Sunday (28-of-41 for 324 and three touchdowns), the pass-centric plan fails to match the identity of a unit that is at its best bludgeoning opponents between the tackles. Moreover, it exposes an underachieving defense to too many plays against an elite opponent. 

Considering Watson is poised to return in a couple weeks, it is fair to wonder if Kevin Stefanski can build out a complementary plan that helps the Browns climb back into the race as a playoff contender. 

My top 10 teams

1. Kansas City Chiefs: The Patrick Mahomes‘ Factor makes the Chiefs the odds-on favorite to claim the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The former NFL and Super Bowl MVP continues to chalk up wins with his late-game heroics. The Chiefs are never out of a game with No. 15 on the field, and that makes them downright scary as a title contender.

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2. Philadelphia Eagles: The resilience displayed by the Eagles in another hard-fought win could serve them well down the stretch. Jalen Hurts‘ ability to make plays in the clutch as a runner and thrower makes the Eagles’ offense tough to defend in “gotta have it” situations. 

3. Miami Dolphins: The league’s most dynamic offense could carry the Dolphins to a division title and a top seed in the postseason. With Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert anchoring an improved running game, the Dolphins have the capacity to win with power or finesse in a shootout. 

4. Baltimore Ravens: Do not judge the Ravens based on style points or margin of victory. The team’s run-heavy approach leads to close games, but it also makes Baltimore’s opponents spend 60 minutes fighting in a phone booth against an ultra-physical squad built to play “bully ball” in the trenches. Considering how the Ravens are able to take opponents out of their comfort zone with their style of play, John Harbaugh’s squad could emerge as a tough out in the playoffs. 

5. Minnesota Vikings: Kevin O’Connell will need to rebuild the confidence of his squad after suffering a 60-minute beat down in front of a home crowd. The whipping exposed some of the team’s flaws and raised concerns about the team’s inflated record. With a short week before a Turkey Day battle with the Patriots, the rookie head coach will need to fix the mistakes on the run before the league identifies those errors as a trend that could lead to future losses. 

6. Tennessee Titans: Toughness and physicality never go out of style. That’s why Mike Vrabel’s squad can compete with the elites without a roster loaded with blue-chip players. The Titans’ wins are not always pretty, but they still count in the standings. 

7. Buffalo Bills: After a few lackluster performances, the Bills got back on track despite dealing with challenging circumstances, playing away from home due to the snow in Buffalo. As a tough-minded squad with a superstar quarterback, the Bills remain a dark-horse contender despite suffering a few hiccups. 

8. Dallas Cowboys: The bounce-back performance from America’s Team suggests that Mike McCarthy’s squad is a legitimate contender in the NFC. The emergence of Tony Pollard as a reliable big-play threat has added a dimension to an offense that is balanced and explosive. With Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence anchoring a disruptive defense, the Cowboys are rounding into form as an elite squad. 

9. New York Jets: Robert Saleh’s defense is good enough to spark a championship run, but a struggling offense is keeping the Jets from maximizing their potential. Zach Wilson’s ineffectiveness and the lack of a consistent running game could derail this team’s playoff chances. 

10. New York Giants: Maybe the clock has struck midnight on the Giants’ Cinderella run. The lack of offensive weaponry outside of Saquon Barkley makes it hard for the G-Men to consistently hit the 20-point mark against good teams. The defense will always keep the game close, but Brian Daboll will need to find a way to scratch out a few more points to notch wins against a few heavyweights down the stretch. 

Week 11 Game Balls

Most Valuable Player of the Week: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Mahomes is a lock to win the NFL MVP award based on his recurring appearance on this list. Despite losing a top-five receiver in the offseason, Mahomes continues to direct the most explosive offense in the game. The Chiefs not only lead the NFL in scoring but also rank first in total offense and pass offense due to Mahomes’ wizardry from the pocket. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, the gunslinger completed 20 of 34 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes engineered the 12th game-winning drive of his career with a spectacular series of passes that showcased his superior arm talent and ultra-cool demeanor. Given his ability to keep the Chiefs offense humming with a revolving door at wideout, the NFL’s QB1 deserves this honor this week and every week of the 2022 season. 

Offensive Player of the Week: Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders

Credit Adams for single-handedly ending the Raiders‘ three-game losing streak with a sensational performance against one of the best defenses in the league. Against the Broncos on Sunday, the superstar wideout totaled 141 yards on seven catches with a pair of touchdowns while displaying exceptional route-running ability and ball skills on the perimeter. Adams’ ability to outmaneuver top cover cornerbacks playing in a scheme designed to limit his touches speaks volumes about his dominance as a premier playmaker. 

Defensive Player of the Week: Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys

Parsons’ name is already etched on the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Award due to his weekly dominance. The second-year pro enhanced his résumé with a standout performance against the Vikings (four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble) that showcased his skills as a disruptive force off the edge. Parsons’ energy, effort and enthusiasm set the tone for a Cowboys’ defense that absolutely dominated the Vikings from beginning to end. 

Unsung Hero of the Week: Marcus Jones, New England Patriots

Jones’ walk-off punt return touchdown earns him a spot on this list. The rookie zig-zagged through the Jets’ coverage unit on an 84-yard scamper with five seconds left in the game to seal a win for the Patriots. Considering that Jones scored nine kick/punt return touchdowns as a collegian (at Houston and Troy), it is not a surprise to see the Patriots returner make a house call with the game on the line. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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