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What to care about from Week 9

Five things I care about

The Bengals look playoff-ready

After their Sunday night win over the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals would now qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. The same could be said for all of the AFC North teams, actually, but there are few operations I feel better about than the Bengals right now.

The early season era of panic around the Bengals was real. It was deserved. Their quarterback was playing like a shell of himself and the entire team is built around the concept of him being a difference-maker. When he’s not right, it’s cast asunder. That is no longer the reality we live in.

With 348 yards and two scores on 44 pass attempts against the Bills in Week 9, Joe Burrow has now stacked back-to-back pristine performances after dicing up the 49ers last week. He looks like a healthy and rejuvenated player the further we get out from the team’s bye week. As long as he’s playing like this, Burrow is back to being the man he was considered before the season. He’s an MVP-candidate type of player and a top-five fantasy quarterback.

The offense also got a predictable rebound game from Tee Higgins. While Ja’Marr Chase missed a few opportunities for big plays, Higgins delivered in a positive matchup. With Higgins and Chase working together at their peaks and Burrow in full form, the Bengals offense is once again a nightmare. Never mind the fact they got a handful of big plays from the ancillary players in this attack. That’s how you know a scoring unit and passer are feeling it.

Lastly, what makes me so bullish about the Bengals is that with their offense now not in such a hurry to get off the field, we’re seeing the greatness of Lou Anarumo. Perhaps one of, if not the very best, defensive game-plan designers at work right now, few coordinators are as capable of pitching a heater against great quarterbacks. Anarumo put a roof over the Bills offense and frustrated Josh Allen and co. all evening. When the defense is working in harmony with the offense, greatness ensues.

Every AFC team has flaws right now. What we know about these teams today may not be true a month and a half from now. However, it’s hard to not think the worst days are behind Cincinnati and the best is yet to come. This team looks postseason-ready in every phase.

C.J. Stroud’s star-level performance

We have been treated to some fantastic rookie quarterback performances in recent years. As good as so many of them have been, very few passers have ever come out and screamed with more authority, “I am the guy!” quite as loudly as C.J. Stroud has with the Texans this season. His Week 9 performance was his magnum opus.

Stroud broke the rookie passing record, threw for five touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over. Best of all, he led his team back to an improbable come-from-behind, late-game win. It was a showing of true dynamism. He did it by firing the ball downfield consistently, not taking little Mickey Mouse routes or any layups.

The Texans have talent at the skill-position spots. Nico Collins is a bona fide X-receiver who wins at all the most difficult aspects of the position. Tank Dell is a slasher on vertical routes with A+ field awareness. Dalton Schultz has given Stroud a solid outlet man and even Noah Brown showed up for big plays on Sunday. Stroud is making these guys good but make no mistake — he is elevating them all to production heights they wouldn’t reach with some average caretaker.

That’s my favorite part of Stroud’s game. He’s no game manager. While he has the smarts and savvy of a veteran field general, he is an aggressive passer who shoots the ball downfield and threatens every blade of grass. What Stroud is doing has typically been reserved for rookie quarterbacks who take their team deep into the postseason. That may not happen for Stroud but that’s how good he has been.

I won’t act like Stroud was some underrated prospect — he went second overall in the draft — but we absolutely know he had to shovel a ton of crap in the pre-draft process. So much of his game was picked apart and strawmen were created about his play simply because … who knows? Folks were bored? Evaluators still struggle to isolate talent from other talent? They glorified some weird big-brain quiz? I am really not sure.

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Stroud was this guy throughout his entire college career. He is that dude right now in the NFL and it was clear he was going to be it from snap No. 1 in the league. Week 9 just provided yet another searing exclamation point in the case.

Good for the Texans and good for all of us — we have another franchise-changing talent to watch.

The Raiders and vibes

Energy vampire Josh McDaniels is out the door — enter vibe-creator Antonio Pierce, installed as the Raiders head coach. Everything about that team has looked and felt entirely different since Wednesday morning. That includes the most important part: game-day results.

Look, I know the Giants are a nearly unserious operation but the Raiders have absolutely been in that same boat during the McDaniels days. You wipe the floor with an NFL team like the Raiders did to the Giants in Week 9 and you have to take notice.

The way the team celebrated in the locker room after the proceedings tells you all you need to know.

This is a team that’s buying what the new man in charge is selling. A group of men who felt their former captain was doing nothing but steering a sinking ship. Whatever the Raiders were in the first eight weeks, I don’t think they’ll be that team any longer.

One other note: while I thought this was going to be a game where the Raiders would go out of their way to make Davante Adams feel the love, the game script didn’t really play out in a way where they needed to throw. It did work for Josh Jacobs, however, as the running back carried the ball a whopping 26 times.

As frustrated as Adams has been you could argue that Jacobs has been even more aggrieved during the McDaniels era from the fifth-year option decline, to the 2022 Hall of Fame game embarrassment, to the contract holdout this offseason. Perhaps Pierce and co. went out of their way to get the juice back into Jacobs. Fantasy managers who took both Raiders players early in draft hope there are more games where both can shine.

I feel confident saying those days will come.

Dolphins can’t beat good teams

It feels like a cheap narrative. I’m sure some inside the Dolphins organization will want to duck it. Perhaps some in the big-brain media will roll their eyes at it. But sorry, right now, it’s a reality.

Miami has lost three games this season. Those contests have featured the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles and now, after falling to the Super Bowl champs in Germany Sunday morning, the Kansas City Chiefs. While this Week 9 loss was closer than the others, all three have been by at least a touchdown.

Each of these defenses has done it a different way but all three units have been able to snuff out at least one aspect of the dynamic Dolphins offense. The Chiefs conceded some production on the ground, especially in the second half, but they were determined to not get beat by chunk passes — and they succeeded.

Part of the beauty of Miami’s offense is how simple and concentrated it is. It dresses up staple NFL concepts with a ton of motion and speed. We often know where the ball is going between the running backs and the two star receivers. However, when a defense (or injuries in the case of Jaylen Waddle on Sunday) starts to chip away at one of those three pillars, Miami’s offense quickly wilts. We can’t even point the finger at Miami’s sometimes beatable defense. That side of the ball gave the offense enough chances to win, holding the Chiefs to 14 points. Mistakes and stalls by the Miami scoring unit are to blame for this result.

Kansas City’s defense is legitimately one of the best in the league (more on them later). There’s not exactly any shame in getting into a slugfest with this version of the Chiefs but the result is still somewhat damning. These are the exact types of games Miami needs to win if it wants to be considered among the best in the conference — or the entire league. Right now, there’s a gap between the Dolphins and the true big boys in the NFL.

Ravens’ run game

It will certainly be frustrating for Lamar Jackson fantasy managers to see the Ravens score 37 points while the quarterback finishes outside the top 15 scorers at the position. The lone passing touchdown on the day came from backup Tyler Huntley in the fourth quarter. Whether he was in the game because Jackson was slightly banged up or because the Ravens were blowing out the Seahawks isn’t entirely clear.

Regardless, Baltimore didn’t need much from Lamar and co. because it was running all over the Seahawks.

Seattle ranked fourth in rushing success rate allowed coming into this week. You wouldn’t know it the way the Ravens operated. They had an outrageous 298 net rushing yards in Week 9 and every back got into the mix.

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Bulldozing back Gus Edwards scored twice and averaged a whopping 10.4 yards per carry. He’s been on a tear lately and, despite the low workload on Sunday, looks like a locked-in fantasy starter. Justice Hill didn’t offer a ton of explosive carries but he led the running backs in carries. He helped close the game out with six rushes in the fourth quarter.

The real man of intrigue, though, was undrafted rookie, Keaton Mitchell.

The explosive back took his nine carries for 153 yards and a score. There’s been a good bit of buzz around Mitchell when he made the roster out of preseason but was placed on IR to start the real games. He just started getting work recently and this certainly counts as his breakout game. This wasn’t a garbage time boost either, as he had four carries in the first half, the same as both Edwards and Hill. He looks like he’s earned a spot in this rotation going forward.

For all the talk around the Ravens offense this offseason, the strength of this team is once again the defense. It’s a suffocating unit that brings fierce pressure and intense coverage on the back end. With that in mind, it’s critical that this team can run the ball and salt away opponents when the defense carries the day. The more Ravens games we get, the more comfortable I feel about that being the case.

Five things I don’t care about

The Bills’ turnovers

You’ll never be a totally clean offensive operation with Josh Allen as your quarterback. He’s a truly elite player but that reality just is what it is with No. 17.

The Bills brass cannot be shocked when he tests cover-two and throws a pick like he did against the Bengals on Sunday night. It’s just going to happen. As is random turnovers like the one that happened to Dalton Kincaid. Sometimes you’re going to have a rookie tight end flying through the air on a wild tackle and a veteran linebacker like Germaine Pratt is going to punch the ball out. It’s the NFL. These things just come to pass.

The Bills have successfully walked this tightrope with the Josh Allen-led offense for years. This is nothing new. Sunday night wasn’t one of the games where he circles the drain; he played more than good enough to win that game and frankly, the offensive transition to a spread attack where he’s in control looked great for the second straight week.

The problem is on the other side of the ball where this is a new development for Buffalo. There have been ebbs and flows but I’m not sure the Bills have ever had a bad defense in the Sean McDermott era.

That’s exactly what they have now.

Allen can’t get enough time to break big plays to make the mistakes worth living through if his defense is just guiding the opposition down the field all night. The Bengals had almost 37 minutes of possession. Buffalo only ran 55 offensive plays. Never once did it feel like Joe Burrow was under enough duress to be thrown off his course.

The defense has just suffered too many injuries to critical players. When long-time safety Micah Hyde went out with an injury midway through Sunday Night Football, it was a reminder of how many ghosts have passed through this unit. It’s no longer even a reminder of the Week 1 group that took the field. As long as that’s the case for the Bills, they won’t have the same margin for error they usually possess in the Allen era.

Currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, the Bills must know this is true in their heart of hearts. A remade spread offense will have to be nearly flawless down the stretch for this team to be what it wants to be this season. All evidence shows us that is a lot to ask.

Worrying about the Chiefs’ passing game

The Chiefs are in a different age than the one they existed in in the early Patrick Mahomes era. The offense is still a top-flight unit from an efficiency standpoint — top-five in DVOA prior to Week 9 — and is more than good enough to win. But that’s not the only reason I’m not interested in obsessing over the passing game on a weekly basis.

The Kansas City defense is one of the stories of the season and has now shifted to become the driver of this bus.

The Chiefs’ defense has established, front-line big names (like their offensive counterparts) like Chris Jones. However, they have more successful supporting characters. Unlike the offense, some of the free-agent defensive additions have hit big with guys like Mike Edwards and Justin Reid. In a stark departure from the offense, the young drafted players have become instant impact players with Trent McDuffie, George Karlaftis, Leo Chenal and others taking that ferocity on that side of the ball to a new level.

The Kansas City Chiefs are a winning organization. They are good enough to get where they want to go. There’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s on us to adjust the way we talk about this team on the outside. When they need to put the ball in the hands of Patrick Mahomes to win a shootout, there is all the reason in the world to imagine No. 15 can do just that. The more games we watch this defense take over, however, the less I think they’ll need to win like that so often.

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The Seahawks in the last two weeks

Maybe I’m being flippant. Perhaps I’m just burying my head in the sand. But I still think brighter days are ahead for the Seahawks offense.

The unit hasn’t hit its stride yet this season, there’s no doubt about that. Much of the panic will come in the face of the results of the last two weeks, especially Week 9. We need to keep some context.

There is truly no more difficult assignment than what Seattle has dealt with the last two weeks. The Browns’ ferocious defense gave them all they could handle in Week 8. Seattle escaped with a game-winning drive after a hard-fought game against Myles Garrett and Cleveland’s ultra-aggressive unit. Week 9 provided no respite as they had to travel cross-country to take on the Ravens, who may have an even better overall stop unit. The Seahawks weren’t up to the task. You’d like them to not fall as hard as they did, losing 37-3. However, Baltimore is going to put a ton of passing games in a bind. Seattle didn’t prove to be an exception.

I’m not going to overreact to this result, as bad as it was, and still think the Seahawks are just a few self-inflicted errors away from being a quality unit. Geno Smith must clean up the mistakes, though. Smith has thrown three picks and fumbled twice over the last two weeks. Again, don’t overreact, because plenty of quarterbacks have struggled against these units and Smith has had much better days. I’m more interested in how they will play the next two weeks, rather than what they offered up the last two.

The Rams without Matthew Stafford

The Rams have been more than plucky at times this season — they’ve been downright fun to watch and dangerous offensively. Even during that stretch, there’s no question the offense never fully stuffed the scoreboard and turned their great concepts into points.

And all that was true with Matthew Stafford playing at a high level and throwing heaters every week. When he got hurt, it was worth wondering if there was enough infrastructure to survive without him.

We got a definitive answer in Week 9.

The Green Bay Packers are an utterly beatable opponent and yet they made light work of the Rams in a 20-3 win. Los Angeles truly could not do anything offensively. No running back averaged more than 3.0 yards per carry, no receiver cleared 50 yards or seven targets and backup quarterback Brett Rypien completed 46.4% of his passes. It looked like a unit without direction. A group that knew it was sunk before the game even began.

Stafford looks to have avoided IR for now. We may see him again soon. The team he will come back to is now 3-6 coming into Week 10 and is all too dependent on him being an otherworldly passer to function. The night is growing quite dark for this Rams team, one that is destined to carry major questions into the offseason.

The Arthur Smith experience

I’ve been a fan of how Arthur Smith has designed offenses dating back to his days as the Titans play caller. Some of his ideas in Atlanta have been downright inspired. All that can be true — and it can still be more than apparent that we’re reaching a critical mass with everything else about his tenure as the Falcons head coach.

All of the way he handles himself with the media — from the constant eye rolls in the press conferences to the downright thin-skinned response to Kurt Warner’s critiques of the offense — is looking more foolish by the moment. It’s fine if your best players aren’t being deployed to their optimal usage when you’re winning games.

When you drop to 4-5 and you lose to a quarterback who just arrived on his team and didn’t even know his teammates’ names, you don’t have that kind of shield.

I am not like every fantasy football analyst who has been berating Smith for almost 20 months just to try and justify my Kyle Pitts takes or something like that. Remember that as you’re reading this. I have been really complimentary of some of his coaching processes. But I’m starting to have my faith tested on those beliefs. And either way, at some point, you need results. The results aren’t there to this point and the blame for that starts with Smith.

Arthur Smith is a good offensive coach. But there’s a lot more to handling the big chair than being good at the job that got you there. I’m starting to wonder if we are ever going to get any evidence Smith possesses those skills.

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