What We Learned From Week 11 in the N.F.L.

This season, bludgeoning running attacks have paid off.

Defenses have turned to deploying two-deep safety looks to diffuse the big-play potential of the league’s most potent quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray. N.F.L. front offices have also started drafting lighter, quicker defensive players capable of reacting to their improvisation.

So the smart offensive minds are countering with the run.

That pivot absolutely makes the Indianapolis Colts dangerous down the stretch. Sunday’s 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills made this week’s biggest takeaway clear:

Jonathan Taylor has entered the M.V.P. chat.

One year ago, he struggled to even stay on the field as a rookie. This season, it has taken a good two months for Taylor to calibrate with the Colts’ powerful offensive line.

But Taylor’s full repertoire was on display at rainy, windy Highmark Stadium in Western New York, and the Colts shoved the Bills’ top-ranked defense around behind the running game, as Taylor finished with 185 rushing yards on 32 carries with five total touchdowns.

Indianapolis fed Taylor from the start. He carried the ball on six of the 11 plays of opening drive, scoring his first touchdown sliding behind a block by tight end Jack Doyle and carrying Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White on his back on a 3-yard run.

His second score, a 23-yard reception that put the Colts ahead, 14-0, had Taylor again toting White over the goal line.

His third touchdown came late in the first half, with Taylor going over the line to punch in a score.

But Taylor saved his best to put the Bills away. In the third quarter, Buffalo Coach Sean McDermott’s bizarre decision to have Tyler Bass attempt a 49-yard field goal backfired with a miss.

On first-and-10 from midfield, Taylor had a dazzling 40-yard run in which he used a high-step hesitation to zoom past Bills safety Jordan Poyer. Then on the next play, he froze cornerback Levi Wallace with a shoulder dip and knifed inside for his fourth score to put the Colts up, 31-7.

For the heck of it, Taylor plunged ahead for a fifth touchdown shortly after.

Monday morning will be a physically painful one for every defensive player in Buffalo, and the No. 1 reason, of course, was Taylor.

He is a fascinating thinker, a philosophy major in college who thought about attending Harvard before choosing Wisconsin, because he dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist. Taylor’s mind operates at a different level. When he wasn’t blasting Big 10 Conference defenses, he was studying the works of the German metaphysician Immanuel Kant or tending to a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without using the box as a guide.

Now, he’s driving N.F.L. defenses mad and, with Titans running back Derrick Henry out, working his way into the most valuable player race.

The Vikings’ enduring faith in Kirk Cousins can still pay off.

Everyone knows how this rivalry usually plays out. Minnesota competes for a while, then Aaron Rodgers heats up. Whoever is quarterbacking the Vikings withers, throwing a pick, losing a fumble, or committing some brutal mistake that leads to another loss.

On Sunday, however, Kirk Cousins took Rodgers’s best shots and responded with one of the best wins of his career, in a thrilling 34-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Cousins finished 24 of 35 passing for 341 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 128.4 passer rating.

Into the fourth quarter, the same old N.F.C. North bullying had started to break out again. Rodgers pulled the Vikings’ underpants over their head yet again with a signature 94-yard touchdown drive that gave the Packers a 24-23 lead with 7 minutes, 49 seconds to go.

For once, however, the Vikings responded. A hearty blend of run and pass melted some time off the clock, as Cousins hit wide receiver Justin Jefferson for a 23-yard touchdown with pressure up the middle.

Most of his career, Cousins has wilted in that moment. That blitz arrives with the game on the line, and he panics. Yet Cousins didn’t flinch on this throw and a 2-point conversation put the Vikings up by 7 with a just over two minutes remaining.

Rodgers dealt another haymaker — a 75-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling — and Cousins put together an 8-play, 64-yard field goal drive to win it.

The worst thing any N.F.L. front office can do is talk itself into its good quarterback being great. But Sunday’s win showed why it’s OK for the Vikings to believe in Cousins a little longer. At 5-5, they’re still 2 ½ games behind Green Bay in the N.F.C. North and in position to reach the postseason for the fourth time in Coach Mike Zimmer’s eight seasons.

Zimmer’s old-school, hard-driving style is not for everyone, but the combination of Cousins and Jefferson has been nothing short of phenomenal. Jefferson’s speed, size and ridiculous wingspan were all on display Sunday through a 169-yard, two-touchdown receiving clinic that harkened back to Randy Moss’s dominance of the Packers. Zimmer deserves credit for not interfering with the offense like he has in years past.

Cam Newton remains must-see TV.

Playing his first home game since rejoining the Panthers, Cam Newton had three total touchdowns in a loss.Credit…Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This was a reunion of necessity, the Carolina Panthers rolling out the red carpet for Cam Newton once more.

A series of brutal decisions at the most important position in sports gave the Panthers no other choice but to call Newton, the 2015 M.V.P., who departed Carolina in 2019 after nine seasons with the team.

Carolina lost to the Washington Football Team on Sunday, 27-21, and now has a 5-6 record. But if nothing else, we know this out of Week 11:

The quarterback who tore through the league in 2015 for 45 touchdowns en route to the Super Bowl is no more but it’s also true that Newton, 32, had no business waiting for a job until mid-November. After scoring two touchdowns in a limited role last week, Newton started at home on Sunday and did not disappoint with three total touchdowns and 189 yards on 21 of 27 passing.

Of course, the numbers alone never do Newton justice. His arrival itself injected the Panthers with hope out of nowhere. When he was introduced on Sunday, the team blared “Coming Home” by Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey over the loudspeakers. As smoke clouded the tunnel, Newton took a moment to bask in this improbable return before screaming at the top of his lungs and sprinting onto the field.

Since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, Newton’s energy has been contagious and his unique swagger, on and off the field, gave the entire franchise an identity. But as he accrued injuries in Carolina, it looked as if Newton’s arm was officially shot.

He spent the 2020 season in New England struggling to throw the football, with only eight touchdowns in 15 starts. And after losing a training camp battle to the rookie Mac Jones this past summer, he was released.

Carolina’s post-Newton quarterback plans simultaneously crumbled.

After one season with Teddy Bridgewater as their quarterback, the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, who stormed out to a 3-0 start this season then regressed each week before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. On Nov. 11, the Panthers essentially said, “Why not?” and signed the most beloved player in franchise history.

The team’s margin for error is now minuscule but Newton’s presence alone will bring a glimmer of hope and, bare minimum, a ton of excitement.

His touchdowns on Sunday were vintage Newton. Punctuating the game’s first drive, he stepped up as if he would run upfield, stopped, and jumped to throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver D.J. Moore.

Late in the second quarter, off a play fake, Newton raced to the left edge of the Washington defense and outran multiple defensive backs to the pylon, putting the Panthers up, 14-7. Newton then sprinted to midfield to perform his trademark “Superman” celebration.

In the end, Carolina’s leaky defense spoiled his return.

Taylor Heinicke threw for three touchdowns and Washington ran for 190 yards on 40 attempts. For the Panthers, the game was a crash to reality in a cluttered N.F.C., but given that Newton prepared as a starter for all of one week in a completely new, complex offensive scheme run by coordinator Joe Brady, Newton was impressive.

Carolina will keep opening that playbook for Newton and hope he still has some pixie dust.

One thing’s for certain: The N.F.L. is a lot more fun with Newton in it.

Around the N.F.L.

Houston’s Tyrod Taylor ran for two touchdowns in the Texans’ first win since Week 1.Credit…Wade Payne/Associated Press

Texans 22, Titans 13: Houston, 10 ½-point underdogs, shocked Tennessee on the road behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s two touchdown runs and a defense that forced four Ryan Tannehill interceptions. Three of those picks came in the fourth quarter. Injuries are piling up for the Titans, who lost top receiver A.J. Brown in the third quarter with an injured chest.

49ers 30, Jaguars 10: A trendy Super Bowl pick in August, the 49ers seemed dead by October. But as they get healthier, they’re rediscovering their bruising identity and are now right in the thick of the playoff race at 5-5. A string of winnable games is lined up and, each week, it seems like Coach Kyle Shanahan dusts off a new play for do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel. He rushed eight times for 79 yards and a touchdown.

Ravens 16, Bears 13: M.V.P. candidate Lamar Jackson was a late scratch with an illness and it wasn’t pretty offensively with Tyler Huntley at quarterback. However, Devonta Freeman bashed ahead for a 3-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left to improve Baltimore’s record to 7-3.

Eagles 40, Saints 29: Trevor Siemian has struggled mightily through three straight losses for New Orleans. He threw 18 incompletions and two picks on Sunday, while Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni’s decision to lean on the rushing attack continues to pay off. Philadelphia blasted the Saints for 242 yards on 50 attempts with three touchdowns.

Dolphins 24, Jets 17: Miami needs to see as much of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as it possibly can the rest of the season to make a franchise-defining decision heading into 2022. He was solid against a bad Jets defense, completing 27 of 33 passes for 273 yards with two touchdowns.

Browns 13, Lions 10: Nothing like a date with Tim Boyle to get your defense back on track. The Browns’ passing game wasn’t sharp, but the Lions’ was worse, as Boyle threw for all of 77 yards on 23 attempts in place of an injured Jared Goff. As a long as the Browns can feed Nick Chubb (130 yards), they’ll have a shot against anyone.

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