What we learned so far from Sunday's Week 9 games

Here’s what we’ve learned so far from Sunday’s Week 9 games, which included the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC North showdown.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Baltimore Ravens 16

1. James Conner is the reason the Steelers (5-2-1) are on a roll as we dive into November. The running back broke 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game, and while he was kept out of the end zone on the ground, he was also Pittsburgh’s leading receiver through nearly two quarters. He finished second in receiving yards (seven catches for 56) and added a touchdown, becoming the first player in Steelers history to find pay dirt 10 times in the team’s first eight games of the season. Not much more needs to be said, but if that information doesn’t give you enough to be convinced, throw on the tape from a recent Steelers game and it will become overwhelmingly apparent that Conner is the lynchpin of this offense.

2. Other than Conner, the Steelers did enough to take a game that, for a moment, looked like it was teetering on the edge of getting out of hand. Pittsburgh took a 20-6 lead and appeared to be gaining a significant edge before allowing Baltimore back into it via an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. From there, the Steelers entered a mode that wasn’t quite playing not to lose, but playing to preserve the lead. Think of it as rationing supplies: Pittsburgh converted short third downs when needed, didn’t take too many chances and wisely handed the ball to Conner when it needed to burn clock. The defining moment of this approach: Roethlisberger took a sack inside two minutes instead of throwing the ball away on third down, keeping the clock running as Pittsburgh gave the ball back to Baltimore. It proved to be wise, and right now, wins — no matter the fashion — are and will continue to separate these Steelers from their divisional brethren as they trip over themselves as we approach Thanksgiving.

3. The heat is on John Harbaugh after the Ravens lost their third straight, and four of five. Baltimore hasn’t looked anything like the team that dominated Pittsburgh in Week 4, and it was most apparent in the fourth quarter, when on multiple occasions a third-down stop would’ve put them in decent position to attempt to tie the game. The final chance the Ravens (4-5) did get ended up being unsubstantial, as Baltimore wasted first down with a deep heave, took a sack on the ensuing play, burned around 20 seconds moseying back to the line for third down, was flagged for a false start, and then gave us a half-hearted series of laterals before accepting defeat. For a team that could’ve played the sidelines and moved within 40 yards of the end zone before needing a deep heave — and needed the win more than perhaps even it realized — it didn’t operate as if that was a chance. Everyone will point to Harbaugh to blame, but execution — not getting home on third-down blitzes or breaking up Roethlisberger attempts — was the bigger problem for a team that is reeling entering the bye week.

— Nick Shook

Minnesota Vikings 24, Detroit Lions 9

1. The Vikings’ front seven pulled a collective Jason Voorhees on Matthew Stafford, terrorizing the Lions quarterback in a truly dominant performance that once again heralded Minnesota as one of the NFC’s top teams. The Vikings’ front seven tallied a franchise-record 10 sacks on Stafford, snuffing out a Lions offense that saw a level of success — until it reached the red zone. Detroit failed to find pay dirt in its three trips to the end zone as Minnesota turned on the pressure and collapsed on Stafford with regularity. Danielle Hunter put in a memorable performance, tallying 3.5 sacks and 3 tackles in addition to scoring a 32-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery off a bumbled dump off from Stafford to Kerryon Johnson. Recent free-agent pickup Tom Johnson had 2.5 sacks and 3 tackles for a loss and Everson Griffen had 1.5 sacks. They managed to pull off this feat without Anthony Barr, who missed the game because of a hamstring injury. The performance underlined how dominant the Vikings (5-3-1) are up front and how much work the Lions (3-5) have ahead of them to fix their offensive line. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s animated sideline discussion with his O-line in the first half didn’t reverse the team’s fortunes.

2. Adam Thielen missed out on his chance for history. He was aiming to become the first player ever to record nine consecutive games with 100 or more receiving yards. Unfortunately, with Stefon Diggs not playing because of a rib injury, the Lions’ talented secondary found it easy to double-team Thielen and stay all over him in the slot. Thielen was limited to 22 yards on four catches, but he still made a big impact even if it wasn’t on the record book. He made a nice 2-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter and he took some pressure off routes for Laquon Treadwell, recent signee Chad Beebe and Kyle Rudolph. Dalvin Cook also was a threat in the short passing game, recording four catches for 20 yards to supplement the 89 rushing yards he tallied.

3. Kirk Cousins found moderate success against the Lions defense, but struggled to find rhythm for stretches of the game. He connected on 18 of 22 passes for 164 yards, and a touchdown. In addition, he was picked off by Darius Slay — a play that eventually led to a Lions field goal. Not having Diggs on the field certainly played a factor in limiting Cousins’ effectiveness. Stafford connected on 25 of 36 passes for 199 yards while under a constant barrage of pressure that always intensified as the Lions crept deeper into Vikings territory. With Johnson limited to 37 yards, the Lions had no reliable way to break through Minnesota’s stellar defensive effort.

— Austin Knoblauch

Atlanta Falcons 38, Washington Redskins 14

1. The strength of the first-place Redskins (5-3) has been in the trenches, yet the Falcons (4-4) won up front on both sides of the ball. Already playing without left tackle Trent Williams, Washington saw right tackle Morgan Moses and both starting guards go down with injuries during the game. The remaining linemen were guilty of back-breaking penalties, putting Alex Smith and Adrian Peterson behind the eight-ball. Peterson had no room to run, too often taking hits in the backfield before he could gather momentum.

A stout defense that had held Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley under 100 rushing yards combined was gashed by the tandem of Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith, surrendering more than 7.0 yards per carry through the first three quarters. A team built to jump out to an early lead and take the air out of the football simply doesn’t have the firepower to play catchup after falling behind 28-7.

2. No one is calling for the head of Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian this season. Matt Ryan’s attack found the end zone on four of its first five possessions, with a red-zone interception as the lone exception through the first two and a half quarters. Redskins coach Jay Gruden acknowledged at halftime that his third-down defense was "a joke," but the Falcons do this nearly every week. They are converting roughly half of their third-and-long attempts, including Sunday’s 40-yard touchdown to Calvin Ridley. They have also reached pay dirt on 17 of their last 20 trips to the red zone going back to Week 2. Coleman and Smith amassed 148 yards on the ground against a defense that was allowing just 80 rushing yards per game. This is one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, with Ryan playing at a level similar to his 2016 MVP season. Riding a three-game winning streak — with star linebacker Deion Jones eligible to return from injured reserve in two weeks — the Falcons maintain realistic hopes for a wild-card berth.

3. Julio Jones’ scoreless streak is over! Jones broke a Ha Ha Clinton-Dix tackle at the goal line to finish off a 33-yard screen play in the fourth quarter. He nearly scored on a bomb the previous possession, but Josh Norman tackled him with the ball in the air for a 47-yard pass-interference penalty. Jones had his way with Norman, hauling in seven passes for 121 yards and the touchdown against the struggling coverman. For all of the attention over his scoreless streak, Jones is leading the NFL with 116.5 receiving yards per game.

— Chris Wesseling

Kansas City Chiefs 37, Cleveland Browns 21

1. Coming off a week bathed in total off-field chaos, the Browns (2-6-1) found themselves in a fix against the Chiefs (8-1). After interim head coach Gregg Williams deactivated safety Damarious Randall, Cleveland saw rookie cover man Denzel Ward leave with a hip injury before E.J. Gaines was ruled out with a concussion. The paper thin secondary was overwhelmed right away, giving up chunk plays of 50, 40, 25, 25, 23, 21 and 19 yards in the first half alone. With 375 yards and three touchdowns on the day, Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes crossed the 300-yard barrier for the eighth game in a row, tying him with Andrew Luck for the longest single-season streak in league lore. Kareem Hunt lashed Cleveland for 141 yards off 19 touches while scoring twice by land and again through the air. Travis Kelce piled up 99 yards and two touchdowns off nine grabs, while Tyreek Hill, Spencer Ware and Sammy Watkins made plenty of plays against a Browns squad that refused to tackle.

2. With his mentor Bruce Arians up in the CBS booth, newly appointed Browns play-caller Freddie Kitchens emphasized quick throws for Baker Mayfield. Kitchens also tried to play keep away from the Chiefs with an early 12-play, 75-yard march that milked seven-plus minutes off the clock with eight gallops by the hard-running Nick Chubb (22/85/1). Nice idea, but the Chiefs flew down the field on the following drive to go up 21-9 and shove the Browns into a hole. This was quietly one of Mayfield’s better games, with the first-overall pick hitting 29 of 42 throws for 297 yards and two touchdowns. The rookie led a beautiful two-minute scoring drive before the half, but also threw a less-than-pristine pick in garbage-time. We finally saw Duke Johnson get involved with two touchdowns and 86 yards off 10 touches. The Browns aggressively went for two after all three of their touchdowns, but failed each time and felt largely doomed after a blocked punt led to a quick Chiefs touchdown and the 34-15 lead.

3. The game featured just three punts all day, while the Chiefs reminded us they simply cannot be slowed on offense. Quick strikes, deep shots and passes into the flats with no defender within a mile all helped the Chiefs do what they’ve done all year. With a cupcake affair against the Cardinals next week, we’re likely to see a 9-1 Kansas City juggernaut roll into Los Angeles to face the Rams in Week 11. The two squads resemble each other in their ability to simply pour on the yardage and points. The defense is concerning, but this Chiefs attack can put up 40 points in their sleep.

— Marc Sessler

Carolina Panthers 42, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28

1. Cam Newton’s always been a good winner, and the Panthers’ performance should give Newton reason to smile. Newton and the Panthers sliced up Tampa Bay for a franchise-record 35 first-half points behind a balanced effort punctuated by a stout ground game spearheaded by Christian McCaffrey. The second-year running back churned out 79 yards on 17 carries and had two touchdowns. He also netted 78 yards on five catches. Newton had a solid game, completing 19 of 25 passes for 247 yards and two TDs. Carolina’s effort in the second half wasn’t as impressive as Tampa Bay clawed back into the game, but ultimately this was a game the Panthers (6-2) always should have won handily, and they did. The Panthers’ third consecutive victory underlines their candidacy for the NFC South title.

2. Newton’s offensive supporting cast put on Super Friends-esque performance in the victory. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel channeled his inner Flash when he scored arguably the most amazing touchdown of the season in the second quarter on a well-executed reverse that zigzagged completely around and through a bumbling Bucs defense. In scoring the 33-yard TD, Samuel hit the line of scrimmage at more than 20 mph before running a grand total of 103.85 yards on his pay to the end zone, per Next Gen Stats.

Curtis Samuel covered a total of 103.8 yards on his 33-yard double-reverse TD run against the Buccaneers in the 2nd quarter.

This is the longest distance covered as a ball carrier on a rushing play this season. #TBvsCAR #KeepPounding pic.twitter.com/R3Cen6ACep

Later in the first half, tight end Greg Olsen made a spectacular one-handed catch while double-teamed in the end zone on a perfectly threaded 24-yard pass from Newton. There were other nice plays — Devin Funchess repeatedly squeezed out extra yards on gutsy second efforts on catches and McCaffrey made a spectacular mid-play leap over a defender on a 32-yard reception in the second quarter. When Norv Turner’s Carolina crew is clicking, they’re just as fun to watch as they are devastating for opponents.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s latest ascension to Bucs starter wasn’t anywhere close to Jameis Winston’s four-interception disaster last week. He managed to resuscitate a stillborn offense that had been more or less dormant since Week 3 even if a defensive tourniquet was just as badly needed. The veteran quarterback finished with 24-of-40 passing for 243 yards, four TDs and two interceptions. The performance should keep Fitzpatrick embedded as the starter ahead of Winston — for now. Still, incremental progress on offense isn’t enough to reverse the Buccaneers’ litany of woes. Tampa Bay’s defensive feebleness is remarkable considering some of the notable names the team brought in during the offseason, but the utter lack of a running game is just as troubling. Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers were held to a combined 45 yards rushing on 13 carries for the Buccaneers (3-5).

— Austin Knoblauch

Miami Dolphins 13, New York Jets 6

1. This wasn’t a game for those who don’t enjoy punts, offensive miscues and defenses that occasionally stumbled into turnovers. I know, it doesn’t sound appetizing to read about, either, but sometimes that’s the way this sport plays. Sunday was a grind-it-out affair between two AFC East teams that probably won’t be in the hunt in late December. The Dolphins (5-4) are the better of the two right now, but the margin wasn’t as wide as one might expect. Brock Osweiler was frequently pressured and struggled to a line of 15-of-24 passing for 139 yards and a passer rating of 78.3. New York tied a season high with four sacks of Osweiler. On the other side of the field, the Jets (3-6) rushed for 3.8 yards per carry as a team. Their first third-down conversion didn’t come until 1:29 in third — and it was by a facemask on a sack of Sam Darnold. The only thing worse than all of this was, well…

2. Sam Darnold. The rookie served up a pair of his classic interceptions both early and late, throwing a bullet into the gut of linebacker Kiko Alonso, and then trying to toss a ball over linebacker Jerome Baker but not putting enough on it, resulting in a crushing pick-six. Darnold also threw an interception that again demonstrated his struggles with seeing underneath defenders in a mistake that was all too reminiscent of past errors. The fourth and final interception was ugly, but out of desperation, so we’ll take some of the blame off him. The credit I’ll give Darnold in this forgettable game is for both A) still giving it the ol’ college — er, professional try, and B) showing improvement in the department of ball security. On two sacks by Wake, Darnold looked just like he did when he would get sacked and fumble while at USC. He instead held onto the ball, including while he was rolled back onto his head. That’s encouraging. The rest of Sunday — including a passer rating of 31.8 — not so much.

3. The good thing for the Dolphins is they won a game they easily could’ve lost, securing a victory over a team they should beat. Their defense bounced back after getting ripped to shreds by Deshaun Watson and the Dolphins, and will have those four interceptions to hang above their mantle like a prized catch. The offense, though, leaves plenty to be desired. Tannehill Watch continues as Osweiler shows he’s an average quarterback at best, and as the Dolphins rely heavily on Frank Gore to a less than three-yards-per-carry average. This offense needs a jumpstart. Its defense was enough in Week 9.

— Nick Shook

Chicago Bears 41, Buffalo Bills 9

1. The Bears smothering defense entered Buffalo with a decisive advantage against a lost-at-sea Bills offense. Vic Fangio’s unit played to the expectation, clobbering the bevy of underneath tosses and forcing four turnovers, including two first-half defensive touchdowns. Safety Eddie Jackson stripped Bills tight end Jason Croom and dashed for a 65-yard score. Linebacker Leonard Floyd later took a tipped pass to the house. The two scores were more than enough to blow the game open. Corner Kyle Fuller was arguably the most impressive defender on the day, including an interception and three passes defended. On the day, a dominant Bears D generated four takeaways, four three-and-outs, and gave up just nine measly points. The Bears again rested beastly pass rusher Khalil Mack, who is dealing with an ankle injury. It was a smart decision by Chicago. The Bears didn’t need Mack this day. Despite not getting overwhelming pressure on Buffalo (zero first-half sacks; four on the day), Chicago has enough playmakers in the secondary to make an offense like Buffalo pay. Getting Mack healthy for the stretch run is the key as the Bears (5-3) continue to lead a hotly contested NFC North.

2. The Bills offense is a wheel-less wagon stuck in a sinking mud. Quarterback Nathan Peterman got the start. With the barren collection of offensive weapons, a porous offensive line and zero run-game, it matters not who starts under center. The turnover-maestro tossed three interceptions, including a pick-six. The first two INT’s weren’t completely Peterman’s fault. The first was bobbled by newly added receiver Terrelle Pryor and popped into a defender’s hands. Pryor did nothing to aid the Bills attack (2/17). On the pick-six, receiver Zay Jones was hit at the line of scrimmage as the ball arrived and bounded into the hands of linebacker Leonard Floyd who galloped for the score. Peterman shied away from difficult throws, opting to a smorgasbord of quick, short tosses that did little to keep offensive rhythm. With no deep threat, the Bears could squat on short routes, which led to the three interceptions. A garbage-time QB sneak for a score ended a streak of 39 possessions over 12 quarters without a touchdown for Buffalo. Futility knoweth thy name.

As depressing as Peterman’s play was the lack of ground game is as concerning for Buffalo. LeSean McCoy continues his putrid play behind a line that can’t open holes. The running back generated 1.0 yards per carry 10 totes. McCoy’s dancing style isn’t conducive to positive plays in this offense.

3. Facing a very good Bills D, the Bears offense wasn’t asked to do much and didn’t need to with its own defense dominating. Chicago had just 190 total yards and 11 first downs on the day (conversely the Bills’ sad offense netted 264 yards and 22 first downs). Jordan Howard scored two rushing touchdowns in the first half, and Anthony Miller has become a reliable target for Mitch Trubisky. The quarterback missed a few throws otherwise the Bears might have put up a 50-burger on the day. Despite not getting much on offense and earning 14 penalties for 129 yards, the important thing for Chicago is that they won a road game they were expected to dominate. Dominate the defense did.

Now the schedule heats up for Matt Nagy. The Bears have three straight division tilts, facing the Lions, Vikings and Lions in the next three games. Down the road, matchups with the Rams, Packers and Vikings again loom in what should be a wild ride for the division-leading Bears.

— Kevin Patra

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