In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 11 of the 2023 NFL season, including:
But first, five teams that could should shake up the playoff picture ...
This is the point in the NFL season where you can start confidently projecting the teams that will reach the postseason. There's no mystery in places like Philadelphia, Kansas City and San Francisco, largely because we know what to expect from those franchises. They're going to get stronger as the weeks go by and they're going to end up with favorable playoff seeds. The only thing really up for debate is how many postseason games they'll get to play in their own stadiums.
On the other hand, there are those teams that emerge after midseason that require a closer evaluation in terms of potential. These are squads that have their flaws -- whether it's injuries, inconsistency or simply inexperience -- but they've also shown something promising. You wouldn't feel comfortable betting on their chances of reaching the postseason. You also keep seeing them collecting wins and making enough progress to remain viable in December and early January. We'll call these teams the wild cards, because that's exactly what they are. You don't know what to expect from them, but you also can't wait to see what they do next.
Heading into Week 11, here are The First Read's top five wild cards.
Nobody saw this team coming a month ago. Minnesota had one win in its first five games and seemed destined to look even less impressive with each passing week. The Vikings have rattled off five straight wins since -- making them the hottest team in football -- and they’re playing with even more confidence despite the loss of starting quarterback Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles and the absence of All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson due to a hamstring injury that has sidelined him throughout that entire winning streak. How are the Vikings doing it?
First, you have to give credit to head man Kevin O’Connell, who’s making a strong case for Coach of the Year. The Vikings have dealt with injuries to a number of other key starters over the past couple weeks and they simply keep rolling. The other obvious factor in their success is quarterback Joshua Dobbs. He showed up in a trade from Arizona 13 days ago, and Minnesota has won two games with him under center. O’Connell made it clear that the Vikes were interested in a mobile quarterback when Cousins went down, and Dobbs has provided exactly that.
Dobbs threw for 268 yards and ran for another 44 in Sunday’s 27-19 win over New Orleans. He’s clearly going to become more comfortable with more time in this offense, which is what makes Minnesota so suddenly dangerous. This team surprised plenty of people last year by generating a number of last-minute wins on its way to the NFC North title. This current group has just as much resilience, along with another great chance to return to the postseason.
The Texans are even more surprising than the Vikings because they’re so dang young. C.J. Stroud wasn’t supposed to be this good this early. Yet here he is, with 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions on the season -- and two consecutive game-winning drives under his belt. He’s already sewn up Offensive Rookie of the Year. The larger question now is whether he could win the league’s Most Valuable Player award in his first season. Those numbers say he has a real shot at this point, largely because most of the other big-name quarterbacks aren’t killing it. But Houston is more than just Stroud.
The Texans are one of the best teams in the league at protecting the quarterback (19 sacks allowed) and taking care of the football (eight turnovers). They don’t have any established superstars, but they do have a knack for making plays. Most importantly, they have some noteworthy wins, including blowouts of Jacksonville and Pittsburgh -- and most recently, Sunday’s last-second win over Cincinnati. This is far from the same Houston team that won 11 games combined across the previous three seasons and went through four coaches in that time. These dudes are for real. At 5-4, they’re poised to give Jacksonville a run for the AFC South crown.
We say it every week, and the Steelers do nothing to change the narrative: It’s hard to make sense of how this team keeps winning games. At 6-3, Pittsburgh is now a half game behind Baltimore for the lead in the AFC North. The Steelers have reached this point with an offense that ranks among the worst in the league and a defense that gives up its fair share of yards, as well. The one thing this team does really well is make the most of the critical plays it does get. The Steelers were outgained for the ninth consecutive time this season during their 23-19 win over Green Bay. But they harassed Packers quarterback Jordan Love, intercepted him twice and gained 205 rushing yards with their own offense. That ended up being enough to earn them another win.
We also know Mike Tomlin long ago established himself as one of the best head coaches in NFL history. The magic he’s worked with this current bunch only adds to his long list of credentials. We keep waiting for the Steelers to fall back to the pack. They keep ascending because their coach knows what he’s doing and the players have embraced the art of winning ugly.
The Texans aren’t the only team in the AFC South that is turning heads. The Colts improved to 5-5 with their win over New England on Sunday in Germany, and their schedule sets up nicely for a run at their own postseason spot. Their last seven games include winnable matchups against opponents like Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Atlanta and Las Vegas. Indianapolis also has an offense that has quietly been one of the better attacks in the league, even with rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson out for the season following shoulder surgery. Gardner Minshew has provided stability at quarterback, while the running game boasts two backs who can be productive (Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss).
The Colts obviously have dealt with their issues on defense, but they’ve also shown an ability to hang around and find wins. That’s a critical skill in this league, especially in the second half of the season. These Colts definitely aren’t the most impressive team in this group. However, they might be in the right division for a squad that is hoping to find its way into the playoffs.
It’s enticing to take the Raiders (5-5) in this slot, considering they have a better record than the Chargers (4-5). It’s just more sensible to place more confidence in the Bolts. For one, they have more talent. Quarterback Justin Herbert just threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-38 loss to Detroit and could generate those kinds of numbers on any given week. He also has running back Austin Ekeler, wide receiver Keenan Allen and an offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore who has elevated the QB's play.
The real problem with this team, as is often mentioned in this space, is the defense. The Chargers have the worst pass defense in the league, which defies logic given how many Pro Bowl-caliber players they employ on that side of the football. If this team can find a way to get stops more consistently, then it can climb back into the race for a wild-card spot. Los Angeles has some favorable games coming over the next couple months, as opponents like Green Bay, New England, Las Vegas and Denver (twice) are all beatable. It really comes down to whether the Chargers can find a way to win more close games. Four of their five losses have come by a margin of three points or fewer.
Prescott is easily the most scrutinized quarterback in the NFL, but even his biggest critics should be showing him love these days. He’s been lighting up opposing defenses for most of the past month, with the Giants becoming his latest victim. Prescott threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s 49-17 win. He has averaged 338.5 passing yards over his last four games while throwing 12 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons was defending Prescott against the QB's vocal critics a few weeks back. Parsons should have nothing to complain about when it comes to comments made about Prescott this week. The quarterback has never looked this good.
St. Brown enjoyed a career day in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers, as he finished with 156 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. He’s also been one of the hottest receivers in football over the past month. St. Brown now has four straight games with at least 100 receiving yards, which makes him the first Lions receiver to accomplish that feat since Calvin Johnson. He’s also on pace for 123 receptions and 1,551 yards. Not bad for a fourth-rounder who can name every receiver -- all 16 of them -- selected ahead of him in the 2021 NFL Draft.
San Francisco's new defensive coordinator faced some criticism lately, as the team's vaunted D failed to live up to its lofty standards during a three-game losing streak. That all changed in Sunday’s 34-3 win over Jacksonville. The Jaguars came into that contest with five straight victories and a top-10 scoring offense. They left with a firm understanding that any talk of the 49ers’ impending demise is premature. Wilks called a defense that surrendered just 221 total yards, forced four turnovers and generated five sacks. This is the San Francisco D we’re used to seeing, one that looks even scarier with Chase Young and Nick Bosa chasing opposing passers together.
There’s not much left to say about what’s been happening in New England, except that it’s hard to see how it can be any worse than what we’ve already witnessed. Belichick already has benched quarterback Mac Jones in three different games, including in the final minutes of Sunday’s 10-6 loss to Indianapolis in Germany. The offense is so inept that it’s produced just 141 points through 10 games. The defense has lost key playmakers. Belichick has managed just two wins, and there’s only one opponent left that New England should beat (the Giants after the Week 11 bye). This is basically what a train wreck looks like.
The Jaguars were supposed to receive a substantial boost to their offense with Ridley finally playing after serving a yearlong suspension for gambling. We’re still waiting to see when that occurs on a consistent basis. Ridley has produced a couple impressive games, going over 100 yards in wins over Buffalo and Indianapolis, but there’s been little else aside from that. He only has 13 receptions for 138 yards in his last four games. He had two catches for 20 yards in Jacksonville's blowout loss to San Francisco on Sunday. There’s no doubt the Jags have a lot going for them as a team. They’d be even more impressive if their best receiver could find a larger role in the offense.
Boyd dropped the potential game-winning pass in Sunday’s 30-27 loss to Houston, which is ironic given that he produced his best overall game of the year (eight catches for 117 yards). That miscue embodied a season that hasn’t been what the Bengals have come to expect from the veteran receiver. Boyd has a decent number of receptions (44), but he’s averaging a career-low 9.5 yards per catch. With Tee Higgins battling a hamstring injury and Ja’Marr Chase playing through a sore back, Cincinnati needs more from Boyd in critical situations. That didn’t happen in a narrow home defeat.
SUNDAY'S BIGGEST SURPRISE
The Ravens blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in loss to Cleveland. No team has been more dominant when it's had opponents on the ropes this year than Baltimore. The Ravens bludgeoned the Lions and Seahawks at home by a combined score of 75-9, and they had the Browns down, 31-17, in the fourth quarter on Sunday. That's when a strange thing happened. The Ravens imploded -- aided by a pick-six from Cleveland cornerback Greg Newsome II -- and the Browns walked away with a huge 33-31 road victory. This could end up being just a fluky defeat in what's been an otherwise strong year for Baltimore. But this is the same team that also had an issue blowing leads last season. The Ravens definitely don't want to start that habit again.
- Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: Cleveland wins on a last-second field goal after Baltimore blows a fourth-quarter lead.
- Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals: C.J. Stroud leads his second consecutive game-winning drive in this last-second win over Cincinnati.
- Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Chargers: There was plenty of offense in this shootout, one that ended with a last-second field goal by Detroit.
MOST INTRIGUING GAME OF WEEK 11
This Super Bowl LVII rematch -- in the standalone viewing window of Monday Night Football -- will tell us plenty about both teams, as each one is coming off a bye week. The Chiefs boast an elite defense for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era. Unfortunately, they also are dealing with the most frustrating offense the star quarterback has ever operated. The Eagles have the league’s best record and Jalen Hurts proving once again he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. Their problem is a pass defense that has been shaky (at best). Whether this is a shootout or a defensive struggle is anybody’s guess.
One question answered by an unnamed team source.
What's your opinion of Brock Purdy now that the 49ers have snapped their three-game losing streak?
NFC personnel executive: "You saw some of his limitations in those defeats, but that shouldn't be surprising. He's not there to dominate defenses. He's there to run the offense, distribute the football and avoid turnovers. He's a true game manager and he's really not trying to make plays on his own. That's why he struggled when they got behind in those games. (Wide receiver) Deebo (Samuel) was hurt and (left tackle) Trent Williams was out and it affected that offense. But when they're whole, he has everything you need. Deebo is the bully, (wide receiver) Brandon Aiyuk is the skilled route runner, George Kittle is the stud tight end and Christian McCaffrey is the do-everything back. Purdy isn't over-thinking things when he has all those guys available. He actually reminds me of Kirk Cousins in a lot of ways. Kirk isn't such a great deal when he's expensive, but he's a terrific deal when he's cheap. That is what they're doing with Purdy. He was put into the driver's seat of a really nice sports car when the season started and he drove 150 mph with it for a while. I think he'll get back on track now that everyone is healthy and the defense is playing better."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 11 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 8:30 a.m. ET on Nov. 13):
- Caesars odds: +2500
- Weeks in top five: 1
- Next game: vs. Cardinals | Sunday, Nov. 19
- Caesars odds: +850
- Weeks in top five: 2
- Next game: at Ravens | Thursday, Nov. 16
- Caesars odds: +4000
- Weeks in top five: 1
- Next game: at Panthers | Sunday, Nov. 19
- Caesars odds: +350
- Weeks in top five: 4
- Next game: vs. Bengals | Thursday, Nov. 16
- Caesars odds: +280
- Weeks in top five: 10
- Next game: vs. Eagles | Monday, Nov. 20
My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bengals.
Previous picks ...
- Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
- Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
- Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 4: 49ers over Bills
- Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 2: 49ers over Bills
- Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins