What Have We Learned From Week 11 of the 2015 NFL Season

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Alex Smith

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith gestures towards fans after the Chiefs defeated the San Diego Chargers in an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in San Diego. The Chiefs won 33-3. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 11 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

                                                                                      Ups

  • After 1-5 start, Chiefs riding 4-game winning streak– What the Kansas City Chiefs have accomplished this season is hardly rare. What they can still accomplish is nearly unprecedented.With their 33-3 rout of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, the Chiefs have followed up a five-game losing streak filled with discord and disappointment with a four-game winning streak that has pushed them back into playoff contention with six games left in the season.

    It was just last season that Carolina lost at least five straight before rattling off four wins in a row. But you have to go back to 1970 and the Bengals to find a team that started 1-5 — or worse — and managed to make the playoffs. Cincinnati was 1-6 before winning its last seven.

    No other team has started 1-5 and made the playoffs, according to STATS.

    The Chiefs (5-5), still three games back of Denver in the AFC West but in the thick of the wild-card hunt, welcome the Buffalo Bills to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

    The rest of the schedule includes a return game against lowly San Diego, two against struggling Oakland, and games against down-and-out Cleveland and the Joe Flacco-less Baltimore Ravens.

    Kansas City likely will be favored in every game the rest of the way.

    “You know, 5-5 obviously is not the goal,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said, “but we have our goals set and we know what mission we’re on, so we’re going to keep striving for that.”

    The turnaround has hardly been a fluke.

    Start with the defense, which has allowed 18 points or less in six straight games. That stretch of sustained success reached its crescendo with Sunday’s game in San Diego, when the Chiefs held the Chargers to a season-low 201 yards and an average starting field position of the 15-yard line.

    San Diego never made it into the red zone.

    Things were so good for the defense that two of their players scored touchdowns. Justin Houston returned an interception 17 yards for a score, while 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe got into the game at fullback and scored his first career touchdown on a goal-line plunge.

    Asked what has changed the past four games, Poe replied: “We’re focusing. We’re not waiting for somebody else to make the play. We’re just putting it all on ourselves to make it.

    “As long as we keep doing that and playing together, we’ll be all right.”

    That may be true, but it helps that the offense is contributing to the cause.

    Despite losing Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury, the Chiefs have strung together their best performances all season in the past few weeks.

    Alex Smith extended his franchise-record streak to 253 passes without an interception, throwing seven touchdown passes during that same period. And while breakout running back Charcandrick West was hobbled by a hamstring injury on Sunday, the Chiefs showed their depth by inserting third-stringer Spencer Ware, who ran 11 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns.

    The result? A perfect record over the past four weeks, and an opportunity to live up to the lofty expectations the Chiefs had coming out of training camp in September.

    Notes: West was undergoing an MRI exam on his leg Monday, Reid told reporters on a conference call. There was no word on how long he might be out. … The Chiefs’ 30-point margin of victory was their best in San Diego since a 40-3 victory on Dec. 8, 1968. … OLB Tamba Hali had two sacks in the game. He needs two more to pass Neil Smith (86 1/2) for second-most in franchise history.

  • Indianapolis continues finding ways to win without Luck– The Indianapolis Colts keep finding ways to adapt.Andrew Luck gets hurt, they win. They change offensive coordinators, they win. Luck goes down again, they win again.

    And now, the AFC South co-leaders are coming back home with two straight wins, a boost of confidence, full of momentum, and facing a schedule that includes only one more team with a winning record.

    It’s a dangerous combination for a team that has so far underperformed.

    “This team knows how to finish,” coach Chuck Pagano said Monday.

    It also knows how to fight back.

    After starting 3-5, with no wins outside its own bad division, the Colts ended Denver’s perfect quest, and then on Sunday rallied behind a 40-year-old backup quarterback to come back from two 14-point deficits for a victory at Atlanta. They got two touchdown catches from the injury-prone Ahmad Bradshaw, who was re-signed a month ago, and an interception return for a score from 32-year-old linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

    The win allowed Indy (5-5) to stay atop the division and get back to .500 for the first time in almost a month.

    If there’s one thing these Colts know, it’s this: Nothing is going to be easy over these final six weeks.

    As players got an extra day off Monday, Pagano announced left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the best player on a line that has struggled to protect either quarterback this season, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He is listed as week to week, a designation that in Pagano’s lexicon usually means he’ll miss a couple of games.

    Indy adjusted Sunday by moving Joe Reitz from right tackle to Castonzo’s usual spot, moving Jack Mewhort from left guard to right tackle and inserting veteran Lance Louis at left guard.

    Pagano wouldn’t say if that’s the lineup he’d use if Castonzo’s streak of 66 consecutive regular-season starts ends Sunday against Tampa Bay (5-5).

    The offensive line has been in flux most of this season and it has showed.

    Indy’s opening day lineup had Castonzo and Mewhort at tackle, Louis and Todd Herremans at guard, and Khaled Holmes at center.

    Since then, Herremans and Holmes have been demoted in favor of Hugh Thornton and Jonotthan Harrison, and Mewhort returned to his more natural spot at left guard.

    There aren’t even a lot of options for Pagano to currently consider. Rookie Denzelle Good is the only other tackle on the active roster, and the only other linemen are Holmes, Herremans and guard Ben Heenan, who is on the practice squad.

    That could lead to another busy week of personnel moves.

    Somehow, though, the Colts always seem to have an answer.

    When Luck missed the first two games of his career, Matt Hasselbeck responded with back-to-back wins against division foes.

    When the Colts replaced Pep Hamilton, one of Luck’s mentors, with Rob Chudzinski, one of Pagano’s longtime friends, the Colts responded with a quick start and a finishing flurry to beat Denver.

    When Luck was diagnosed with a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle during Indy’s bye week, the Colts brought in two quarterbacks and put Hasselbeck back in the starting lineup.

    “These are not perfect circumstances, you would love to have your starting quarterback playing,” Hasselbeck said after improving to 3-0 on Sunday. “You would love to have a lot of different things. We have got Chud calling plays now and doing a great job. It’s hard. It’s not how we envisioned this year going, but he is doing a great job.”

    The question is whether Indy can keep it up after losing another key component in the offense.

    “They keep grinding and scratching and clawing. They want to test your resolve and grit and perseverance every single week,” Pagano said. “But it’s quite a bunch. Got a ton of love and respect for everyone in that locker room.”

    NOTES: Pagano said he expects Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams (left ankle) and rookie receiver Phillip Dorsett (broken left leg) to be back on the practice field later this week, though Dorsett is only expected to do individual work. … The only other significant injury the Colts sustained Sunday was to cornerback Vontae Davis (hamstring). He is considered day to day.

  • Winston-led Buccaneers gaining confidence by the victory– A rare winning streak, a .500 record this deep into a season for the first time since 2012, and legitimate aspirations of creeping back into the NFC playoff race.There are plenty signs of improvement when it comes to the Jameis Winston-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have won four of six following a 1-3 start to — in the words of coach Lovie Smith — become “relevant again.”

    A 45-17 rout at Philadelphia gave the Bucs (5-5) consecutive wins for the first time in two years, and Winston is only one of the reasons Smith is confident his team can continue to climb.

    The No. 1 overall pick tied a rookie record with five touchdown passes against the Eagles, Doug Martin topped 200 yards rushing for the second time in his career, and Tampa Bay’s defense forced four turnovers in shutting down Philadelphia’s fast-break offense.

    Winston has thrown for nine TDs with just two interceptions in the past six games, with both of the turnovers coming during a victory over Dallas.

    The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner also is emerging as a leader in the locker room, as well as on the field, after deferring to established veterans such as Gerald McCoy, Vincent Jackson, Logan Mankins and Lavonte David early in the season.

    “To be a leader, first off, you have to be a good football player,” for teammates to buy into following, Smith said.

    “What I’m talking about is just that. He’s playing good ball, making all the right decisions, no one works harder than him,” the coach added. “Whatever you’re looking for, for the guy that’s out in front, he’s doing and he’s doing it well.”

    The Bucs amassed 521 yards of offense against Philadelphia, and Winston threw TD passes to five different receivers.

    Martin averaged 8.7 yards per carry while rushing for 235 yards — the most in the NFL since the fourth-year pro ran for 251 against Oakland as a rookie in 2012.

    Martin made the Pro Bowl that year, finishing third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage behind Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson. After being slowed by injuries the past two seasons, the 26-year-old running back is second in the league in rushing with 941 yards.

    The re-emergence of Martin comes after the Bucs declined a fifth-year option on his contract for 2016, meaning the 5-foot-9, 233-pounder who had runs of 58 and a franchise-record 84 yards against the Eagles could become a free agent after this season. Martin’s success has taken some of the pressure off Winston to carry the team. The rookie completed 19 of 29 passes for 246 yards against the Eagles, finishing with a season-best quarterback rating of 131.6.

Middle

  • 3 teams send reminders they should not be dismissed– Like Dikembe Mutombo waving his finger at anyone so unwise to challenge him in the paint, several NFL teams sent reminders Sunday that they’re still viable in the playoff race.Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis delivered the messages loud and clear.

    The most emphatic statement was made by the Packers, on the road against a quality opponent and archrival that had overtaken the Pack in the NFC North. Green Bay physically slammed around the Vikings; it was the Packers’ best performance in more than six weeks.

    Green Bay (7-3) had lost its previous three and Minnesota (7-3) had won five in a row.

    “We have a lot of veterans around here, so we knew how to approach a game like this,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “We have been so used to being the hunted in the division, and now that we were the hunters it feels good to have come out on top in this one.”

    The Packers held Adrian Peterson to 45 yards on the ground and the Vikings to 94 yards rushing in all. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gained 43 of those on frantic scrambles. He also was sacked six times and harassed a whole bunch more.

    With the ball, Eddie Lacy re-emerged with 100 yards rushing, Aaron Rodgers was efficient enough despite several dropped passes, and there were no turnovers. Mason Crosby made all five field goal tries.

    Point well made by the Packers: We’re still in charge here.

    “We’ve been taking it in the chin the last couple weeks, rightfully so the last few weeks,” Rodgers said. “We had a couple real poor performances. This was an important week for us, we stuck together.

    “We had some good conversations about what it’s going to take to get this ‘W,’ and be standing here and have this feeling right now which is a great feeling to be back in first and kind of control our own fate from here.”

    The Colts are in the same position in the AFC South: tied with Houston at 5-5, and in control because they have a victory over the Texans and are 3-0 in the division.

    Indianapolis’ past two wins were its most impressive of what has been a disappointing 2015. The Colts beat Denver in likely Peyton Manning’s last regular-season visit, went on a bye, then rallied in a big way to take down the Falcons in Atlanta.

    The latter win came with Matt Hasselbeck, probably the NFL’s best backup quarterback, moving to 3-0 this season when standing in for an injured Andrew Luck.

    “I think we just keep scratching and clawing and doing what we can,” said Hasselbeck, who never envisioned playing such a key role at age 40 on a team that has progressed one step deeper in the playoffs the past three years with Luck.

    “These are not perfect circumstances, you would love to have your starting quarterback playing. You would love to have a lot of different things.”

    What the Colts have is a solid system built by coach Chuck Pagano, and enough depth to overcome some key injuries. They’ll need to be as healthy as possible for the stretch run, but they reminded everyone in their past two games that they’re still around.

    Indeed, they get Houston at home and only Pittsburgh on the remaining schedule has a winning record.

    Seattle (5-5) is the most dangerous .500 team in the league. Considering that Tampa Bay is the only other 5-5 club in the NFC and Atlanta is fading quickly, the two-time defending conference champion Seahawks certainly bear watching.

    It’s highly possible that Sunday’s demolition of San Francisco is the beginning of Seattle’s revival for a second straight season. With Marshawn Lynch ailing, the Seahawks have found a clone in rookie Thomas Rawls. Russell Wilson comes off his best passing game of the season and is using all of his targets. The offensive line has been a problem that still must be solved.

    And the defense needs to step up the way it is capable of doing in a closing stretch that features tough opponents in Pittsburgh, Minnesota and NFC West leader Arizona.

    But there’s a feeling that these are still the resourceful and ultra-aggressive Seahawks, despite their recent issues.

    “We need to find the consistency that gives you a chance to make some noise later on,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We’re OK about starting right now.”

Downs

  • Johnny Manziel benched by Browns for off-field behavior– Dropped from starter to third-stringer — without playing a game.Johnny Manziel partied his way out of the lineup during Cleveland’s bye week.

    Browns coach Mike Pettine benched the polarizing quarterback on Tuesday for his off-field behavior, a move that could signal Manziel’s days with the team are numbered.

    Pettine said Josh McCown will start Monday night’s game against Baltimore in place of Manziel, who was recently handed the starting job but couldn’t keep it while the team had a week off.

    Manziel’s benching comes in the wake of a video surfacing of him holding a bottle of champagne and rapping profane lyrics last weekend in an Austin, Texas, nightclub.

    He had promised not to bring any embarrassment to the team during its week off, and did just that and Pettine, who has been supportive of Manziel in the past, has had enough.

    “Everyone in this organization wants what is best for Johnny just like we do for every player in our locker room. I’m especially disappointed in his actions and behavior because he has been working very hard,” Pettine said.

    “The improvements from last year to this year have been tremendous, but he still has to consistently demonstrate that he has gained a good understanding of what it takes to be successful at the quarterback position on this level,” he said. “It goes well beyond the field.”

    Manziel will not only move back behind McCown, but he’ll also be below Austin Davis on the depth chart.

    Pettine met with Manziel following practice Tuesday and informed him of his choice to bench him for the foreseeable future. Pettine, whose job could be in jeopardy if the Browns (2-8) don’t demonstrate some progress the rest of this season, said owner Jimmy Haslam and general manager Ray Farmer support his decision.

    The 22-year-old Manziel has developed on the field during his second NFL season.

    However, despite saying he had learned from his past mistakes, Manziel, who spent 70 days during the offseason in a rehab facility specializing in alcohol and drug treatment, has not shown the maturity the Browns are looking for from their quarterback.

    Before Tuesday’s practice, Pettine expressed both disappointment and frustration with Manziel, who passed for a career-high 372 yards in a recent loss to Pittsburgh. As he got ready to turn his players loose last week, Pettine spoke to Manziel about being responsible and was given assurances by the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner that he would behave.

    Manziel didn’t make his plans known, but pledged that he would not become a distraction.

    “I don’t think they’re going to have to worry about me this week,” he told reporters.

    But it was hardly shocking when the video and photos appeared of Manziel, who entered the league with a reputation for enjoying his free time.

    This time, though, the Browns weren’t so willing to excuse Manziel’s conduct.

    Pettine said much of his displeasure in Manziel stemmed in him not seeming to understand that his behavior was a reflection on the team.

    “You have a vision of what you want the team to look like, how you want them to handle themselves when they’re out of the building,” he said. “It’s not just pure football here, it’s truly player development on and off the field.”

    “We always say to whom much is given, much is expected, and that’s true for all of our players,” he said.

    McCown has finally recovered from a serious rib injury, which had initially vaulted Manziel into the starting lineup.

    “My hope for him is, whatever those choices that he’s making, that they’re healthy choices and they’re good for him as a person,” McCown said. “When you’re in that room with somebody and spend as much time as we do together, there’s a connection there.”

    Along with his penchant for partying, Manziel was recently investigated by the NFL for a domestic dispute. He was questioned by police in Avon, Ohio, after an in-car argument with his girlfriend.

    The league announced on Nov. 17 that it did not find sufficient evidence that Manziel violated its personal conduct policy during the incident.

    Still, it was another red flag for Manziel, who has made some positive steps, but just not enough of them.

    “He’s done everything that’s asked as far as meetings and studying and trying to improve as a quarterback,” McCown said. “We’ve seen that. There are obviously things away from the facility that maybe people aren’t pleased with and maybe need to get cleaned up.

    “It’s a work in progress. But I feel like I always see and believe the good in people. There’s some youth involved in some of the decision making that might not be the best, but I certainly don’t count him out by any stretch.”

  • Falcons’ promising season in freefall after 3rd loss in row– A team that wins its first five games almost always makes the NFL playoffs.The Atlanta Falcons are in danger of bucking that trend.

    Now, rookie coach Dan Quinn has to make sure a season that began with such promise doesn’t spiral totally out of control.

    After losing three straight and four of their past five, the Falcons returned to their training complex Monday for a series of meetings, trying to figure out what went wrong. If there’s any sense of panic, Quinn and his players won’t acknowledge it.

    “The bear is not loose here inside the building. I want to make sure we’re really clear on that,” Quinn said. “We’ve got a really talented team and a coaching staff that really believes in these guys.”

    When the Falcons began 5-0, they looked like a lock for the playoffs. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, 66 of 72 teams — a staggering 92 percent — have gone on to the postseason after getting off to such a strong start, according to STATS.

    But Atlanta’s once-comfortable position is now threatened after three losses by a total of seven points, the latest a 24-21 setback to the Indianapolis Colts in which the Falcons squandered a pair of two-touchdown leads. Two other teams, Seattle and Tampa Bay, have climbed within a game of Atlanta for the second NFC wild card.

    Winning the division is unlikely with Carolina on top at 10-0.

    At the beginning of the season, the Falcons (6-4) were winning all the close games. But they’ve slipped to 3-3 in contests decided by four points or less, largely because of puzzling breakdowns on the offensive side and, more specifically, the struggles of quarterback Matt Ryan.

    In Sunday’s loss, Matty Ice threw a crucial interception from his end zone that was returned 6 yards for a tying touchdown by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The Colts won 24-21 on Adam Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal with 52 seconds to go.

    The Falcons, who host Minnesota next Sunday, jumped to leads of 14-0 and 21-7 with three drives covering at least 80 yards. After that, it looked like a totally different offense.

    Atlanta had only 52 yards over its final seven possessions, with as many turnovers as first downs (three each). Two of the drives were snuffed out on their very first play, one by Tevin Coleman’s fumble, the other by Ryan’s devastating interception.

    There’s no chance of the Falcons making a change at quarterback. Not with Sean Renfree as the top backup.

    So it all rests with Ryan.

    “If there’s decisions to be made in terms of where to go (with passes), how to feature him, we’ll do that,” Quinn said. “But there’s a lot of things he’s doing well, too. It kind of gets overlooked sometimes when an interception of that magnitude takes place.”

    Indeed, Ryan threw a season-high three touchdown passes against the Colts, two of them to little-used fullback Patrick DiMarco. Overall, the quarterback has 15 touchdown passes and is on pace for the most prolific yardage season of his eight-year career.

    But that doesn’t excuse some huge blunders.

    Against the Colts, Ryan squandered a scoring chance early when he overthrew Roddy White in the end zone, allowing Dwight Lowery to make a diving interception. Then, looking like a rookie instead of a veteran who prides himself on preparation, Ryan was totally fooled by Jackson with the Falcons backed up inside their 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. The linebacker faked as though he was coming up to stuff the run, then dropped back into pass coverage.

    Ryan threw it right to the Colt, who returned it for a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    “It’s a throw he just should not have made, one he could’ve easily checked down into the flat,” Quinn said. “Those are the decisions we count on him like crazy for us. For all those things he did in the game very well, that’s one he’d like to have back.”

    The loss ruined DiMarco’s career day. The fourth-year player had only one career touchdown coming into the game; in fact, he’d never scored two touchdowns in a game at any level of football.

    He had both balls in his locker Monday and plans to get them engraved. But the moment was overshadowed by the bitter defeat.

  • Eagles not looking good & going into a short week in Detroit– A short week gives the Philadelphia Eagles no time to dwell on a bad loss, and little time to figure out their problems.The Eagles (4-6) were back on the practice field Monday preparing to play at Detroit (3-7) on Thanksgiving Day. They’re still reeling from a 45-17 loss to the Buccaneers, but must rebound quickly.

    “If we allow (the loss) to affect us on Thursday, then shame on us,” coach Chip Kelly said. “I told those guys: ‘You better have a short memory.’ Every single person in that room contributed to that loss.”

    Going on the road after home losses to Miami and Tampa can’t hurt. The Eagles are 2-5 in Philadelphia since last December. They heard plenty of boos on Sunday, many fans left early, and some are calling for Kelly to be fired.

    “These fans deserve to see better football,” linebacker Connor Barwin said.

    Despite the team’s miserable performance the past two weeks, the Eagles are only one game behind the New York Giants (5-5) in the mediocre NFC East. A win over the Lions coupled with the Giants losing at Washington next Sunday would mean a three-way tie for first place in the division.

    “We can’t worry about what other teams are doing,” Sanchez said. “We just have to keep playing and keep improving.”

    The Eagles were awful on defense against the Buccaneers. They allowed Jameis Winston to tie a rookie record with five touchdown passes and gave up 289 yards rushing, including 235 by Doug Martin.

    Their biggest issue was getting off the field. Tampa was 10 for 16 on third down and 1 for 1 on fourth down. Three of Winston’s TD passes were on third downs.

    “I didn’t call it well and I didn’t prepare them well,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “We got a whooping, and we have to move on.”

    The Eagles have been inconsistent since Week 1. They’ve lost some games because their offense didn’t perform well. They’ve lost some games because the defense didn’t do its job. And missed kicks and blocked punts on special teams cost them a couple games, too.

    Kelly took a 4-12 team he inherited from Andy Reid and turned it into a division champion in 2013. But Philly missed the playoffs after a 9-3 start last year and is only in the hunt this season because the East is so bad.

    Kelly’s bold offseason moves after taking control of personnel decisions seem to have backfired. His up-tempo offense was much better before he got rid of 2013 Pro Bowl quarterback (Nick Foles), a two-time All-Pro running back (LeSean McCoy), a three-time Pro Bowl receiver (DeSean Jackson), 2014 Pro Bowl receiver (Jeremy Maclin) and a two-time Pro Bowl guard (Evan Mathis).

 

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