NFL Week 11 takeaways: Browns defense is ‘special’; 49ers appear to be back –

NFL Week 11 takeaways: Browns defense is ‘special’; 49ers appear to be back

Cover 7 | Sunday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Sunday, three of The Athletic’s NFL writers react to the biggest news, plays and performances from the day’s games.

If it weren’t for a meaningless late-game pick six, six of the eight games in the early window Sunday would have been decided by one score. There may not have been any major upsets — six of the eight home teams were victorious — but we saw a defensive slugfest in the AFC North, a big-time comeback from the Detroit Lions and several coaches’ seats get hotter with disappointing losses.

In the late window, the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills cruised to expected wins, while the Los Angeles Rams eked out a victory thanks to a missed field goal by the Seattle Seahawks with three seconds remaining.

The Athletic NFL writers Mike Jones, Ted Nguyen and Dan Pompei share their thoughts on the top headlines from Sunday.

The Cleveland Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 13-10 in an ugly, defensive AFC North showdown. Baltimore appears to be the cream of the crop in the division, but the Cleveland defense can play with anybody. Without the injured Deshaun Watson, can the Browns be legit contenders in the AFC?

Jones: I won’t call them legit contenders in the AFC. While Dorian Thompson-Robinson did a solid job of managing the game against Pittsburgh, you’re going to need more to go toe-to-toe with the elite teams in the conference. The Browns will certainly give some teams problems because of their defense. But let’s not act like they just neutralized a high-powered offense. Kenny Pickett is a shaky quarterback, and the Steelers offense is anemic.

Nguyen: Thompson-Robinson did some encouraging things against a tough Steelers defense. Obviously, he needs to progress rapidly for the Browns to truly be contenders. The defense is special, and it’ll keep them in games. If Thompson-Robinson can do enough to get them into the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out, but they won’t be favored against the AFC’s top teams. They’ve put themselves in a good position at 7-3, but it’ll be a tough road the rest of the way. Realistically, they’ll just be a team no one wants to see late in the season or in the playoffs.


Dorian Thompson-Robinson ‘came through’ when Browns needed him most vs. Steelers

Pompei: No matter the quarterback, the Browns’ formula for winning is to play good defense and run the ball. So they shouldn’t be dismissed. Watson was not the quarterback responsible for two of their seven victories. Their ceiling is lower without Watson, without a doubt. And ultimately, the Browns will need their quarterback to do more than Thompson-Robinson did Sunday. Their schedule down the stretch isn’t the most challenging and should help the Browns remain in the hunt in December.

Despite being eight-point favorites, the Lions trailed 26-14 in the fourth quarter before coming back with two late touchdowns to beat the Chicago Bears. Were you more impressed by Detroit’s grit in bouncing back to win a tough divisional game, or more worried about Jared Goff’s ball security looking ahead?

Jones: Despite his three interceptions, Goff’s poise and confidence was most impressive. Remember when Sean McVay had such little trust in the then-Rams quarterback that he micromanaged to the point of overloading him with last-second instructions on the helmet mic just before every snap? Goff has grown tremendously since those days and was as cool, calm and collected as could be. He never flinched, kept executing and marched his team downfield to score that game-winning touchdown with the same expression and pace as if he were directing a drive in a scoreless game. I never doubted Goff and the Lions’ ability to deliver that game-winning drive.

Nguyen: Goff had some unlucky interceptions with a tipped pass at the line and one on which illegal contact probably should have been called. But he also got lucky when Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson dropped what looked like a sure pick six on the goal line. Goff hasn’t put the ball in harm’s way a lot this season, so I don’t think we’ll see many games like this. I was impressed with Justin Fields and his big-play ability, but ultimately, Goff collecting himself and leading the Lions to two late scores to win it all was the most impressive part of this game. In the past, he might have spiraled, but he showed some real mental toughness.


Lions show vs. Bears to never count them out: ‘If you think it’s over, it’s not’

Pompei: It was one of those games for the Lions when just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, yet they still found a way to win. That’s the type of performance that should build the Lions’ confidence, not erode it. Goff and the offense stepped up when necessary, and the defense also came through with a strip-sack/safety from Aidan Hutchinson. And ball security shouldn’t be an issue for Goff moving forward. As Ted said, two of his interceptions were a little fluky. Goff is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.

With the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans both winning, which team do you see having the edge in the AFC South? And could either make a serious run in the postseason?

Jones: It may sound crazy, but I give the Texans the slight edge. They’ve beaten the Jaguars once already, and they have made significant improvements since that 37-17 victory in Week 3. I like their chances again when they meet in Houston next week. There’s something about the Jaguars that makes it hard to believe in them. Maybe it was the way they struggled so mightily against a legit contender like San Francisco. Maybe it’s the hot-and-cold nature of Trevor Lawrence, who has only 11 touchdown passes on the season. Maybe it’s Jacksonville’s 35.3 percent success rate on third downs. I just don’t see them making a serious run in the postseason. That’s not to say the Texans will either, but I have more confidence in Houston’s ability to win the division.

Nguyen: This is a tough one. The Jaguars looked to have found some real, replicable answers on offense against a Tennessee Titans defense that kept them in games all season. Lawrence started playing really well around this time last season. If he can avoid the blunders, the Jaguars are my team to beat in the AFC South. Their defense is a much better unit than the Texans’ right now as well. However, Houston is improving on both sides of the ball. C.J. Stroud had some uncharacteristic turnovers Sunday, but he’s clearly a top-10 quarterback right now. The Texans are trending up, but it’s hard to say they’re a better team right now than the Jaguars, who also have a high ceiling.

Pompei: We will get a better idea next Sunday. The Texans won the first game between these teams handily, but the Jags probably should be considered the favorites at this point. Given this is Jaguars coach Doug Pederson’s second season and Trevor Lawrence’s third — while this is the first year for Texans coach DeMeco Ryans and Stroud — the Jaguars are further along in their development. They could both make the playoffs, though. It’s probably too soon to expect a Super Bowl appearance for either team, but no opponent would be excited about facing Stroud in the postseason.

Coach Ron Rivera and the Commanders fell to 4-7 with Sunday’s loss to the lowly Giants. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

With the Washington Commanders, Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers all losing, which coach’s seat should be the hottest right now: Ron Rivera, Brandon Staley or Frank Reich?

Jones: This is a neck-and-neck race between Rivera and Staley. Reich should receive more time because his roster doesn’t have a lot of talent. The same can’t be said about Rivera or Staley, whose Chargers consistently fall short. But I give the edge to Rivera, who has sorely disappointed. His teams haven’t exhibited meaningful signs of growth, and they consistently disappear in the biggest moments. They needed to beat the New York Giants earlier this season and instead wet the bed. They really couldn’t afford to lose to them in the rematch this week. But they again looked awful — in front of their home fans — and got embarrassed in a turnover-plagued affair.


Commanders hit new low vs. Giants, but don’t assume this is rock bottom

The Giants have topped the 30-point mark only once this season, yet delivered a 31-19 victory behind undrafted rookie free agent quarterback Tommy DeVito, who recorded three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Rivera — when asked about job security this week — tried to hang his hat on having found a quarterback, but through 12 career games, Sam Howell hasn’t displayed the consistency of a franchise QB. He may have entered this game with the league lead in passing yards, but he threw three bad interceptions Sunday when his team needed him most. The Commanders need a change, no question.

Nguyen: Staley and Rivera have had a lot of time to get things right and just can’t. They are both defensive-minded coaches, yet neither of their defenses is playing well. The Chargers wasted another big game from quarterback Justin Herbert. You can’t lose this much with an elite quarterback and keep your job. Howell was bad, but overall his play has been encouraging. The Commanders, meanwhile, made DeVito, who has been terrible this season, look like a legit NFL QB. The Chargers and Commanders have been embarrassing. Reich is in his first year. He still might get fired at the end of the season, but he has some time to show his offense can improve.


Defensive issues of Brandon Staley era encapsulated in Chargers’ loss to Packers

Pompei: They are all about as hot as you can get, but for different reasons. The Commanders have a new owner who’s going to want to put his stamp on the team. The Chargers have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game but can’t make the plays they need to make on defense even though their head coach has a defensive background. And the Panthers’ owner has acted impetuously on multiple occasions. Many expect him to repeat the behavior even though Reich hasn’t even had a chance to show what kind of coach he is in Carolina.


A stadium takeover, a 3-TD loss for Panthers. Is history about to repeat itself?

With both the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills winning convincingly, which team/quarterback combination is more “back” as it looks to move past its recent struggles?

Jones: It’d be easier to declare one or the other “back” if these lopsided wins came against quality opponents. But both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets have serious limitations. However, the 49ers look sound on both sides of the ball once again. Brock Purdy has his key weapons back, and equally important, he has All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams back. Purdy looks dramatically more confident and effective when he has his full supporting cast. And, of course, the 49ers defense is dominant. That three-game losing streak was a bit worrisome, but all appears to be right in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, although the Bills won, I’m not all that impressed. They should thump the Jets. Is Buffalo back? Check back after its next two games on the road against the top teams in the NFC (Philadelphia) and AFC (Kansas City), respectively, and I’ll have a better answer.

Nguyen: The 49ers had some fixable issues during their losing streak, and they did a great job of addressing them during the bye week. You no longer see the coverage busts that led to quick completions during that losing streak. They backed off the Bucs in the second half when they had a big lead, but when they needed to, they tightened up and got stops.

Offensively, this may end up being the best offense coach Kyle Shanahan has had in San Francisco. Purdy is a huge upgrade over Jimmy Garoppolo, and Brandon Aiyuk, who had 156 yards and a touchdown Sunday, gives them a true No. 1 receiver.

The Bills’ win over the Jets was impressive, but New York’s quarterback problem snowballed Sunday. Obviously, the Bills can score points with Josh Allen, but the defense has been nuked by injuries and might have lost Taylor Rapp, too.

Pompei: Neither team’s victory, nor the manners in which they were achieved, was surprising. The Bills still feel a little unsettled, however. Despite winning Sunday, they have lost two of their last three and three of their last five. Check back on the Bills after their next three games against the Eagles, Chiefs and Cowboys.

The 49ers have clicked in their last two games, and even the doubters have to give Purdy his props. This is a good time of year for a team to start building momentum for a December/January peak, and the 49ers could be doing that. They are looking like one of the NFL’s best.

Which player or coach that we haven’t mentioned deserves a shout-out for his Week 11 performance?

Jones: Give a game ball to Tyreek Hill for his 10 catches on 11 targets for 146 yards and a touchdown in the Miami Dolphins’ 20-13 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Toss another game ball to Micah Parsons for his 2.5 sacks in the Cowboys’ 33-10 thumping of the Panthers. And give one to Jordan Love for his 322-yard, two-touchdown day in Green Bay’s comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The Packers absolutely had to have that game, and their young quarterback delivered in the clutch in a big way.

And I know it was a loss, but Antonio Pierce deserves credit for how the Raiders continue to look under his leadership. Josh McDaniels’ Raiders likely would have gotten trounced by the Dolphins, but Pierce had his squad playing hard and physical once again. He’s 2-1 as the interim head coach, and the former linebacker is making a strong case for having that interim tag removed at the end of the season.


Raiders can’t overcome Aidan O’Connell’s 3 interceptions in loss to Dolphins

Nguyen: Purdy threw for 333 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, averaged 13.3 yards per attempt and finished with a perfect quarterback rating. Shanahan helped him scheme up some wide-open receivers, but Purdy also made some high-level throws. On his 76-yard touchdown pass to Aiyuk, it looked like he saw man coverage, made a check and threw a perfect ball. The second-year quarterback appears to be getting better every week.

Pompei: The Dolphins almost certainly would have lost to the Raiders if not for Jalen Ramsey. The cornerback intercepted Aidan O’Connell in the third quarter, which set up a field goal, then did so again in the end zone with 25 seconds remaining. What’s more, the confidence the Dolphins have in him allows Vic Fangio to be flexible, creative and unpredictable with his defensive calls. Ramsey is just getting rolling, and he’s likely to be a significant factor in the coming weeks.

(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)

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