Sunday was effectively a playoff preview across the NFL.
It really isn't difficult, with the clocks turned back an our and the sun setting in the east coast well before 5 p.m. to close your eyes and envision it is January 5, and not November 5, as the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills all did battle in games that could easily be replayed in the postseason.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Raiders vanquished their demon, err, smoked cigars in the locker room after beating the New York Giants in their first game since head coach Josh McDaniels was relieved of his duties in the early hours of Halloween morning. Elsewhere, a quarterback traded at Tuesday's trade deadline, led his new team to a comeback victory, and C.J. Stroud had a performance for the ages, in a game for the ages, for the Houston Texans.
Here's a look at the biggest takeaways from a thrilling Week 9 of the NFL season.
First Down: Jalen Hurts Leads Eagles' Most Impressive Win to Date
Jalen Hurts has entered the MVP chat.
Amid persistent questions about his health, and the effectiveness of the Eagles' offense, despite Philadelphia entering Sunday third in total offense and in a statistical tie as the second-highest scoring offense in the league, Hurts put his team on his back and delivered a statement victory, 28-23 over the Dallas Cowboys.
Hurts wasn't perfect on Sunday, but he did deliver a couple of his most impressive throws of the season in the biggest moments of his team's biggest game of the 2023 campaign.
"Jalen is the same guy he was last year," an AFC scout told FanBuzz on Sunday evening. "Give him time, and he's an assassin back there. He needs to get fully healthy, so he can use his legs, too."
Maybe Hurts' best throw of the season came on a perfectly-placed throw to DeVonta Smith's back-shoulder in the corner of the end-zone for a 40-yard touchdown that pulled the Eagles to a 21-17 third quarter lead, a standout moment from a standout performance.
JALEN HURTS TO DEVONTA SMITH ?
— NFL (@NFL) November 5, 2023
In a have-to-have-it game against the rival Cowboys, Hurts completed 73.9 percent of his passes for 207 yards with two touchdowns, along with 36 rushing yards and another touchdown. All while battling through lingering questions about a possible knee injury that makes what Hurts has been able to do over the past month even more impressive.
The Eagles are in the midst of arguably the most grueling stretch of games any team will face this season; already having dispatched the Miami Dolphins, division rival Commanders and now the Cowboys, Philadelphia will return from the bye week with a Super Bowl LVII rematch in Kansas City against the Chiefs, home games against the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers before hitting the road for a rematch against the Cowboys, and a road date against the Seahawks in the next six weeks.
But, by surviving against the Commanders and Cowboys, the Eagles have created a 2.5-game cushion over Dallas while carrying momentum from week-to-week, stacking wins as the would-be top-seed in the NFC.
This season, Philadelphia has been able to largely stay healthy, Hurts has been largely consistent, and the Eagles seem to be creating separation between themselves and the rest of the contenders for homefield advantage in the conference.
Hurts has been instrumental to that success, and has been the most consistently dominant quarterback across the entire league over the past five games. During that stretch, 1,388 yards with 10 touchdowns to five interceptions. Maybe more impressive is the fact that in the past two seasons, Hurts has only lost two of the games he's started.
In a season where quarterback play has been mediocre and inconsistent at best league-wide, Hurts might quietly be playing his way into the conversation. If Philadelphia continues to thrive during this brutal stretch of games, he just might wind up the favorite and the Eagles the team to beat.
Second Down: Kansas City Chiefs' Defense Makes a Statement
This is a different kind of Kansas City Chiefs season than we have seen in recent memory.
Since the 2019 season, the Chiefs have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy twice and made three Super Bowl appearances on the back of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and one of the most prolific offenses assembled in decades.
But, as we saw once again in Frankfurt, Germany, as Mahomes' offense continued its search for some sort of identity, some consistent playmaker to fill the stat sheet alongside Travis Kelce, and pick up the slack when the All-Pro tight end isn't holding up his end, it's an opportunistic and stingy defense that's leading the charge.
Kansas City survived a title fight and arguably the biggest test the reigning champs have faced all season, 21-14, over the Miami Dolphins who might be the Chiefs' biggest threat in the AFC.
With Mahomes and the offense sputtering, Kansas City is flying back stateside with a win, largely because the defense all but shut down the Dolphins' offense that arrived in Germany leading the league in scoring, passing, and total offense.
The Chiefs' highlight was a forced fumble by cornerback Trent McDuffie that was recovered by Mike Edwards who flipped the ball to Bryan Cook who returned it for a 59-yard touchdown. Beyond one of the wildest touchdowns you'll see, Kansas City held Tua Tagovailoa to a season-low 194 passing yards, the Dolphins to just 117 rushing yards, and 17 points below their season average.
"They are led by a great leader up front in Chris Jones," former Chiefs defensive end Shaun Smith told FanBuzz has been the catalyst for the defense's success. "They are playing for one another, and holding each player accountable."
Kansas City has now held seven opponents under 20 points as Steve Spagnuolo's unit has picked up the baton and carried the Chiefs' offense to a 7-2 record and the top spot in the AFC.
Mahomes went a step further than Smith, in assessing where Kansas City's defense is at the moment.
"I think they've got a chance to be the best defense in the NFL," Mahomes told NBC Sports' Peter King following Sunday's game.
At the very least, the Chiefs defense has developed into a worthy complement of the offense, and given Kansas City yet another way to win. When the margin for error is much thinner than ever for this team, with the Baltimore Ravens, Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals all looking capable of mounting a Super Bowl charge, that balance could prove invaluable and maybe the missing link to this team's third Lombardi in five years.
"K.C.'s secondary of theirs is really jelling," Smith said. "That defense is going to help them win another Super Bowl, even though Mahomes is a special talent."
Third Down Down: It's Time to Ask The Arthur Smith Question
Now that Josh McDaniels became the first head coach fired this season, it's time to legitimately wonder aloud if Arthur Smith might soon be next.
If Sunday's 31-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, led by rookie quarterback Jaren Hall, and later veteran journeyman Joshua Dobbs, shows anything, it is that there might not be a head coach in the league who misuses his personnel worse than Smith.
Never was that more evident than the Falcons seemingly forgetting that the No. 8 overall pick in the draft, dynamic and electrifying rookie running back Bijan Robinson is on the roster.
Smith called only 11 carries for Robinson, all game, with three of them for 16 yards not coming until the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, matchup nightmare tight end Kyle Pitts was only targeted five times the entire game.
Somehow, the Falcons made two trips into the red zone, and didn't target Pitts once or give Robinson a carry.
While it's fair to point out that running back Tyler Allgeier scored for Atlanta on a five-yard run, it's mystifying that Robinson is averaging just 11.4 rushing attempts per game. The electrifying rookie from Texas has played in 10 games for the Falcons, but has logged just nine red-zone carries.
Someone make it make sense.
"It doesn't seem like he knows how to use his players," an AFC Scouting Director told FanBuzz. "I'm not sure what's happened to him."
Dobbs came on in relief of Hall, just four days after arriving in Minnesota in a trade deadline deal, tossed a pair of touchdowns for the Vikings and orchestrated a 31-28 win over Atlanta.
Following Sunday's loss, the Falcons sit at 4-5, and have a legitimate path to the postseason, facing the league's easiest remaining schedule. But, for a team whose coach seems to find ways to lose, and is playing its games with veteran backup Taylor Heinicke at quarterback, it feels like that could be an uphill battle, even in an NFC South that has no clear favorite nine weeks in.
More likely, it feels like Smith is going to coach each of his remaining games in his third season as head coach, on a hotter seat than he entered the week before. At least and until owner Arthur Blank has seen enough of his dynamic personnel misused in the hands of a playcaller who boasts a middling 18-24 record with no clear identity as a play caller, or who has shown an ability to get the most out of his most gifted players.
Fourth Down: The Bears' Tyson Bagent Problem
This was the definition of a one step forward, two steps back type of week for the Chicago Bears' rebuild.
Tuesday morning, hours before the NFL trade deadline, Bears general manager Ryan Poles did what the Atlanta Falcons couldn't; get the Washington Commanders to engage in trade talks for edge rusher Montez Sweat. The Bears acquired Sweat, and his 35.5 career sacks, in exchange for a second-round pick.
Some panned Poles' aggressiveness, and trading what will likely be a top-40 selection for Sweat. But, with a mediocre draft class of edge rushers and Sweat likely set to become the premier edge rusher in a thin crop of free agents at the position, Poles filled a glaring long-term need and followed the trade up with a four-year $105 million extension for Sweat three days after his arrival to the Windy City.
But, with one big need filled for the Bears, the biggest of all remains, at quarterback.
That's where the steps backwards begin.
Sunday could not have gone worse for the Bears' hopes of securing the No. 1 overall pick, and thus the right to select wunderkind USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
Not only did the New York Giants, 2-6 lose to the Las Vegas Raiders in blowout fashion but they also lost quarterback Daniel Jones, potentially for the season, with a possible torn ACL. Likewise, the New England Patriots coughed up a touchdown lead to the Commanders to fall to 2-6, as well. And, the Cardinals dropped to 1-7, after trading veteran quarterback Josh Dobbs earlier in the week.
Suboptimal for the Bears.
To make matters worse, backup quarterback Tyson Bagent led the Bears to victory in Week 7 over the Las Vegas Raiders. Given the Bears' current trajectory, and of the teams around them near the top of the draft board, that win may prove to have come at the ultimate cost.
If the season ended today, the Cardinals with own the No. 1 overall pick, with the Bears making the next two selections.
Chicago's best hope is that the Panthers, 1-6, wind up with a worst record than the Cardinals, because the Bears own that selection from last spring's blockbuster trade for the No. 1 overall pick that became Bryce Young. However, the Bears no longer control their own destiny at quarterback, with eight weeks remaining.
Week 9 MVP of The Week: Joshua Dobbs, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Joshua Dobbs might be the hero the Minnesota Vikings need, and deserve.
Dobbs had only been a Viking for around 96 hours, when he was pressed into action against the Falcons Sunday afternoon, but he just might have kept Minnesota's season afloat.
After arriving in a deadline trade in the aftermath of Kirk Cousins tearing his Achilles tendon, Dobbs came on in relief of Hall, and got his first glimpse of meaningful professional football as a starter. Dobbs met the moment, rose to the occasion, and walked triumphantly into the locker room after the game as the winning quarterback.
Before being greeted by the post-game cheers of his teammates and coaches, Dobbs efficiently managed the offense, passing for 158 yards with two touchdowns and rushing for 66 more yards and another score.
Dobbs added his signature to the victory by leading an 11-play and 75-yard game-winning drive that included a 22-yard scramble on 4th and seven that started with him side-stepping pressure in the pocket and ultimately hitting Bilal Powell for a six-yard game-winning touchdown.
The definition of a journeyman backup, Dobbs previously appeared in 16 games in spot duty for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, with eight starts for the Arizona Cardinals this season before being thrust into a situation where the Vikings are making a second-half push for a playoff berth.
If the season ended today, Minnesota would be in the postseason as the final NFC Wild Card. Now, it's up for Dobbs to actually get them there.
For Dobbs and the Vikings, so far, so good.
Week 9 Team of The Week: Houston Texans
The Houston Texans might be The Most Entertaining Show on Turf.
Where else can you see a backup running back take over the kicking duties only to split the uprights on the go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter, a rookie quarterback lead an assault on the rookie quarterback single-game passing record, and a rookie wide receiver catch the two biggest catches of the game, including the game-winning touchdown, all on one Sunday afternoon?
Houston, that's where.
This has been the season of Stroud for the Texans.
C.J. Stroud has rapidly ascended into the ranks of the NFL's top quarterbacks, after being chosen No. 2 overall in this spring's NFL Draft, and in a game where his team needed him the most, delivered the most impressive performance of his young career.Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Stroud passed for 470 yards with five touchdown passes, including a cool-as-ice game-winner to fellow rookie Tank Dell on a 15-yard strike, 39-37, ballgame, Stroud's first fourth-quarter comeback in the books.
Never has Stroud looked more like a superstar, the franchise quarterback the Texans are so optimistic he becomes for the next decade, than calmly orchestrating a game-winning scoring drive that traversed 75 yards, in six plays and :46 capped by his touchdown pass to Dell.
"It's impressive how poised he is in big moments," an NFC executive told FanBuzz, of Stroud. "He has elite size, he's accurate, and has plenty of arm. You saw all of that today."
Sunday wasn't a fluke, for the rookie quarterback or for rookie head coach DeMeco Ryans' team.
Houston improved to 4-4 on the season, with the victory, have already knocked off the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this season, and have the look of a hard-charging playoff contender.
Afters surviving a scare against the Buccaneers, the Texans face the sixth-easiest remaining schedule in the league, including a chance to sweep the season-series against Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars. If Houston rallies and makes the postseason in the AFC, it will be easy to look back on Sunday's victory as a catalyst.
Week 9 Breakout Star: Keaton Mitchell, RB, Baltimore Ravens
On a star-studded offense that includes the likes of All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews, star receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Rashod Bateman and Zay Flowers, it would be easy for a defense to lose a rookie running back, especially when that backfield already includes explosive bruiser Gus Edwards.
But, Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, the Seattle Seahawks experienced the peril of underestimating undrafted rookie running back Keaton Mitchell.
Mitchell ran roughshod over the Seahawks, taking his first seven career carries for 78 yards, including shrugging off a tackler in the backfield before sprinting 40-yards untouched for his first career touchdown to lift the Ravens 30-3.
The former East Carolina standout's speed inflicted major damage on Seattle's stout run-defense, and perhaps offered a glimpse of his role as finisher, later in games, in a committee that includes Edwards and Justice Hill.
The Ravens rushed for 298 yards against the Seahawks, with Mitchell accounting for 138 of them.
Mitchell fits the bill of the type of running back built to thrive behind Baltimore's road grating offensive line. Especially after running the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.37 seconds at the NFL Combine last spring, only to land with the Ravens after falling out of the draft.
Baltimore has the look, and temperament, of a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Sunday afternoon, Mitchell looked the part of a legitimate contributor capable of carving out a role for himself on a roster loaded with talent.
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