The under-manned Los Angeles Rams have claimed a major win in the NFC West after beating the Arizona Cardinals 30-23 as Matthew Stafford threw three touchdown passes on Monday.

After scores were locked at 13-13 at half-time, Stafford threw TD passes for Van Jefferson and Cooper Kupp. Stafford completed 23 of 30 attempts for 287 yards for the Rams who had five players out with COVID-19 protocols.

Kupp had a career-high 13 catches for 123 yards for the Rams, who improve to 9-4 to sit second in the NFC West behind the Cardinals who slip to 10-3.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had no touchdown passes, completing 32 of 49 attempts for 383 yards with two interceptions, with James Conner scoring both of their TDs rushing while he also had nine receptions for 94 yards.

Stafford found Odell Beckham Jr for a second-quarter touchdown, with Conner rushing through the middle to square it up before half-time.

The Rams QB found Jefferson for a 52-yard TD before a pinpoint pass for Kupp to make it 27-13 at the final change.

Conner's eight-yarn touchdown run narrowed the margin before a late Matt Prater field goal and a Zaven Collins' onside kick recovery gave the Cardinals hope but Murray could not capitalize with Aaron Donald claiming his third sack for the game on the final possession.

Kyler Murray made his return for the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, and it was announced with a call back to one of the most famous statements in US sport.

Quarterback Murray had missed the last three games for the Cardinals with an ankle injury, but he returned for 9-2 Arizona's road game with the Chicago Bears.

And the Cardinals confirmed his participation for the game at Soldier Field with a social media post inspired by a Chicago icon.

Mimicking Michael Jordan's famous statement announcing his decision to end his retirement from the NBA in 1995, the Cardinals posted a Tweet with an image of a mocked-up document that read: "The following statement was released today by Kyler Murray, located in Chicago, IL, in response to questions about his playing status against the Bears: 'I'm back.'"

The Cardinals went into the game looking to further cement their grip on the top seed in the NFC playoff race with victory over the 4-7 Bears.

The return of Kyler Murray will be a game-time decision according to Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury who reiterated they will be cautious with their quarterback.

Murray has not played since sustaining a left ankle sprain in the Week 8 loss to the Green Bay Packers but is closing in on a return to full fitness and availability.

The Cardinals take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday holding a 9-2 record and top spot in the NFC West.

Arizona's winning record has enabled them to maintain a cautious approach for Murray's return, with his absence entering its sixth week.

"There's obviously some cat-and-mouse in this sport, but I mean, with a player like him, the position we're in, we were going to be overly cautious this entire time," Kingsbury told reporters on Friday.

"We still are and so we want to make sure when we get him back, he's playing at a high level, and he can't re-injure it to a point that we lose him for a substantial amount of time."

Kingsbury is also cognisant of the last season's tailspin after starting the season 5-2 before finishing 3-6 with injuries taking their toll and missing the postseason.

"I just think we want to finish the right way this season and we didn't last year," Kingsbury added. "So, we're just trying to be smart about it."

Meanwhile, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields will miss the game despite making progress in his return from broken ribs.

"Justin's making good progress, [he's] just not there yet medically for the clearance," Bears head coach Matt Nagy told reporters.

Fields, who practised on a limited basis three times this week, will be absent for a second consecutive game with Andy Dalton to start again as QB for the 4-7 Bears.

It's Week 13 in the NFL and the fantasy playoffs are on the horizon.

If you're near the bottom of your league's standings, it's probably game over, time to focus on Christmas shopping and plan for next year.

Yet if you're in the midst of a battle for a playoff spot or fighting to secure a top seed, it's never been more important to consistently nail your starting lineup selections.

Stats Perform is once again here with a helping hand, looking at four offensive players and a defense who deserve to be fantasy starters this week.

 

Quarterback: Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans

An otherwise explosive performance from Wentz, in which he threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was undermined by a pair of interceptions, though one of those picks came on a last-gasp Hail Mary attempt.

Turnovers could well be a problem again versus the lowly Texans, whose defense is fifth in the NFL with 20 takeaways, but that should not prohibit fantasy managers from slotting Wentz into their lineup against one of the league's worst teams.

The reverse fixture back in Week 6 saw Wentz average over 11 yards per attempt and, with his 20-5 touchdown to interception ratio the fourth-best in the league, the likely outcome is that the former second overall pick manages to avoid turnovers en route to a productive fantasy performance.

Running Back: Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

Mitchell is one half of a devastating two-headed monster leading the 49ers' running game, and he and ultra-versatile wide receiver Deebo Samuel have gashed teams at will over the course of San Francisco's three-game winning streak.

The Niners are averaging 130.9 rush yards per game, the sixth-most in the NFL, and racked up 208 yards on the ground in their Week 12 win over the Minnesota Vikings, sixth-round rookie Mitchell contributing 133 of them in his fourth 100-yard performance of the season.

This week, that aforementioned monster will be minus Samuel due to a groin injury, meaning potentially greater workloads for Mitchell and fellow tailback Jeff Wilson Jr. against a Seahawks team dead last in average time of possession. All signs point to San Francisco controlling the clock against a slumping Seattle outfit and setting up Mitchell to continue his outstanding first year in the league.

Wide Receiver: Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins vs. New York Giants

The Dolphins are surging, winning four in a row, and so is their first-round pick, whose performances over the last two weeks have made his status as the sixth overall selection look less dubious.

Having caught eight passes for 65 yards against the New York Jets in Week 11, Waddle exploded for nine catches, 137 yards and a touchdown as the Dolphins thrashed the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.

Waddle has been targeted at least eight times in five of his last six games and, even against a Giants defense that has been largely stingy of late, that share of the workload makes the speedster an intriguing play, especially in points per reception leagues.

Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Atlanta Falcons

Gronkowski appears to have shaken off the injury problems that have plagued his 2021 season and has 13 catches for 194 yards over the last two weeks.

Antonio Brown could finally return from an ankle problem to eat into Gronkowski's targets but, against a Falcons team that has conceded 40 points in each of the last two matchups with the Bucs, he should still thrive when targeted by Tom Brady to an extent that makes him an obvious starter in fantasy football.

Defense: Arizona Cardinals @ Chicago Bears

It still isn't clear whether quarterback Kyler Murray will return for the Cardinals after missing the last three games with an ankle injury, but the NFC's top seed should be able to lean on their defense to secure victory in Chicago even if Murray cannot go.

The Cardinals rank eighth in yards per play allowed with 5.27 and get to go against a Bears offense that has allowed the most sacks (37) in the NFL and could only manage 16 points against the Detroit Lions in a miserable Thanksgiving game.

Regardless of whether it is Andy Dalton or Justin Fields at quarterback for the Bears, the Cardinals' defense will be a strong fantasy play.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury deflected speculation linking him to the University of Oklahoma job, while he is hopeful of Kyler Murray's return.

The Oklahoma Sooners are reportedly targeting Kingsbury for their vacant coaching position, though the Cardinals coach is contracted through 2022, with a team option for 2023.

Kingsbury was asked about the rumours as the high-flying Cardinals prepare for Sunday's NFL matchup against the Chicago Bears.

"I don't get into those things," Kingsbury told reporters on Monday.

"My sole focus the last couple weeks has been the Chicago Bears and, after watching them on Thanksgiving, it needs to be, because they're a really good football team and had a big win, and so that's where my focus has been."

The Cardinals lead the NFC and Kingsbury – who was appointed in 2019 – added: "We're in-season, we're 9-2, Just not a topic I want to touch on right now."

Star Cardinals quarterback Murray has missed the team's last three games due to an ankle injury.

Murray leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.7) and passer rating (110.4), while he has thrown for 2,276 yards and 17 touchdowns.

"I am hopeful," Kingsbury said of Murray and DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring).

"I will leave it at that at this point because I want to see them move around, practice full speed, and see where they are at, and where their comfort level and their confidence is."

The Seattle Seahawks' loss to the Arizona Cardinals proved too much for head coach Pete Carroll, who ended his news conference early before returning on Sunday.

Seattle's struggles continued following a 23-13 defeat against the high-flying Cardinals in the NFL, a result that left the Seahawks 3-7 for the season.

The Seahawks have lost five of their past six games, having been sensationally shutout 17-0 by the Green Bay Packers last week.

Carroll has been in charge of the Seahawks since 2010 and won a Super Bowl in 2014, with the side's current record marking only the second time in his tenure Seattle have been four games under .500.

The 70-year-old was short on answers when he addressed the media post-game, cutting short his initial news conference, before re-appearing later on to complete the formalities.

"I'm just not any good at this [losing]," Carroll told reporters. "I'm not prepared for this. I'm struggling to do a good job of coaching when you're getting your butt kicked week in and week out.

"It's new territory, and I'm competing in every way I can think of. But I'm just unfamiliar with it. So if I leave early or if I make a mistake, I'm not on my best game right here ... I'm not making any excuses. And I don't want to get good at this."

Seahawks star Russell Wilson completed 14 of 26 attempts for 207 yards but no touchdowns – marking the third time in his 10-year NFL career he has had successive games without a TD pass.

The 32-year-old quarterback had missed three games prior to his return against the Packers due to a finger injury.

"It's really surprising now that we're back a couple weeks with Russ back in there that we had such a hard time scoring and moving the football," Carroll said.

Wilson added: "The ball is coming out of my hand just fine... I'm not going to make any excuses. I'm not an excuse kind of guy."

The Seahawks are next up against the Washington Football Team at FedExField, with Carroll remaining bullish about the franchise's prospects of turning around their fortunes.

"I feel like we're going to win next week and we're going to play a great game on the East Coast and come on back here and get ready for the next one," Carroll said.

"I don't have any other thought in my mind. I'm just disappointed that I've got to keep coming back in here and talk about the same stuff and don't feel like I have good answers for you because our answers so far have not turned it.

"It starts with me. I've got to get this done, and I've got to help my guys get it done."

Carroll also confirmed rookie cornerback Tre Brown had suffered a patellar tendon injury which he described as "pretty tough" without declaring it season-ending.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said "you can't ask for anything more" from Colt McCoy after leading the NFL high-flyers to a 23-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Kyler Murray's absence.

McCoy started for the third straight game in Murray's absence, due to an ankle injury, completing 35 of 44 attempts for 328 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.

The 35-year-old quarterback struggled in last week's 34-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, completing 11 of 20 throws for 107 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. He also picked up a pectoral injury but bounced back against the Seahawks.

"He was tremendous," Kingsbury said at the post-game news conference. "Last week was an overall struggle. The game plan, the execution was bad, everyone played poorly. That's hard to put anything on him.

"To be in his role and come in and get two divisional road wins against those teams like he did and play as efficiently as he did, you can't ask for anything more.

"He was tremendous. His leadership all week, the way he carries himself, he was awesome."

He added: "He's been through it. He's seen the ups, seen the downs. He knows he can play in this league and play at a high level."

"It's just my responsibility. That's how I see it," Arizona's backup QB McCoy said.

"I came here to be a part of this team and this group, and when your number's called, that's my role, and I'm proud to have won a couple games on the road."

The win moved the Cardinals to 9-2, sitting top of the NFC West division. Arizona also boast a 6-0 away record this season.

Arizona are the third team in league history to win their first six road games by double figures, joining the 1968 Cowboys and 1936 Bears.

"To not have those guys in November at all play, have the best record in football, be undefeated in the division, says a lot about that coaching staff and those player in the locker room," Kingsbury said.

"They continue to fight, continue to work hard, we've just got to continue getting better."

Despite an underwhelming Patrick Mahomes performance, the Kansas City Chiefs bailed out their star quarterback in a 19-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Mahomes did not throw or rush for a touchdown on Sunday, the former NFL MVP finishing 23-of-37 passing for 260 yards, an interception and a fumble.

But the Chiefs (7-4) leaned on their defence to take down Dak Prescott and the Cowboys (7-3) for their fourth successive victory.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for 63 yards and a touchdown in his return from injured reserve in Kansas City, where Chris Jones and the Chiefs made life difficult for Cowboys QB Prescott.

Prescott was held to 216 yards passing while he was intercepted twice on the road by the Chiefs, whose defence have allowed fewer than 20 points in four consecutive games.

The last time they achieved the feat was a five-game streak from Weeks 11-16 in 2019, and just over a month after that streak they won the Super Bowl.

 

No Murray, No worries for Cardinals

Kyler Murray sat out his third straight game, however, the high-flying Arizona Cardinals still topped the Seattle Seahawks 23-13.

In the absence of their star quarterback due to an ankle problem, backup Colt McCoy stepped up in an impressive performance as he threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns away to the Seahawks in Seattle.

Russell Wilson was outplayed by McCoy in his first home start since finger surgery, the Super Bowl champion completing 14 of 26 passes for 207 yards but no touchdowns, while he sacked on four occasions.

The Cardinals improved to 9-2 as the slumping Seahawks (3-7) lost for the fifth time in their past six games.

Will the NFL return to some form of normality this week? Maybe... or maybe not.

Even in this season of shock results without any clear Super Bowl favourite, Week 10 stood out for its sheer number of upsets.

The defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were stunned by the Washington Football Team, the Miami Dolphins overturned the Baltimore Ravens and the short-handed league-leading Arizona Cardinals lost to the Carolina Panthers.

When the San Francisco 49ers then beat NFC West rivals the Los Angeles Rams in Monday Night Football, it became the first week in NFL history in which four teams had won by double-digits having entered the week at least four wins behind their opponents.

Week 11 looks no easier to call, and there are plenty of intriguing matchups before even considering the potential for further setbacks for some favourites.

Dallas Cowboys (7-2) @ Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)

With Patrick Mahomes back on form, two of the best teams in the NFL should be set for a titanic tussle at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

Mahomes, setting aside his shaky displays to that point, threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions against the Las Vegas Raiders last week, becoming the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to have two games of 400-plus passing yards, five-plus TD passes and no picks in his career.

The 41-14 win represented the league-leading 10th time the Chiefs have scored 40 points in a game since the start of the 2018 season, yet they were topped by the Cowboys, whose 43-3 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons was their biggest since a 48-7 victory over Arizona in 2000.

The Cowboys have gone 5-2-1 all-time previously in games following a win of at least 40 points (including playoffs), but this was an unprecedented success. The team's 29 points in the second quarter in Week 10 were their most in a single quarter of any game in their history.

Indianapolis Colts (5-5) @ Buffalo Bills (6-3)

Neither the Chiefs nor the Cowboys can match the Bills' average winning margin of 26.3 points this year. That is the highest mark in the NFL, having been boosted by last week's 45-17 victory over the New York Jets, their NFL-leading sixth win by 15 or more points.

The Cowboys are ahead of the Bills in points per game, but Buffalo have given up the fewest points per game. The last team to lead on both offense and defense in this regard were the 2005 Colts.

The achievements of this year's Colts team have been rather more modest. Their five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 13-34 (.261).

Still, Jonathan Taylor has excelled, scoring a rushing touchdown in seven straight games – the last NFL player to reach eight was DeAngelo Williams in 2008. In fact, there is rushing talent on both sides of the ball, with the Bills last week having four different players score rushing TDs for the first time in team history.

Arizona Cardinals (8-2) @ Seattle Seahawks (3-6)

Another week, another big NFC West game. The Cardinals' form has tailed away a little since Kyler Murray's injury, but they are still unbeaten on the road and looking to start 6-0 away from home for only the second time in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have their starting QB back, but Russell Wilson did little to help their offense against the Green Bay Packers. He was shut out for the first time in his NFL career in his 166th start (including playoffs).

Seattle's problems on that side of the ball did not end there, though. They were held to under 100 rushing yards for a third consecutive game for the first time since the end of the 2016 season, while only twice in the 21st century have they seen such a streak extended to four games.

Whether or not the Seahawks recover this week, history suggests they are likely to be able to stick with the Cardinals. Six of the past 10 meetings between the teams have been decided by three points or fewer.

Elsewhere...

Cam Newton's Panthers face Ron Rivera's Washington, their first meeting since both left Carolina (Newton returned last week). This is the third time since 2010 a former MVP QB has faced the coach he won his award with, following Peyton Manning versus Jim Caldwell in 2015 and Tom Brady against Bill Belichick earlier this season.

The 49ers are now 4-1 when Jimmy Garoppolo's passer rating is above 100.0 this year (141.7 vs. the Rams) and 0-3 when it is not. He was helped last week by a season-high 156 rushing yards, keeping San Francisco's offense on the ball for just over 39 minutes. They should expect more of the same against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have failed to force a turnover in six games this season.

The Cincinnati Bengals need both of their former LSU stars to rediscover some form at the Raiders. Joe Burrow has thrown an interception in five straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL, while Ja'Marr Chase – surely not helped by his QB's struggles – has fallen short of 50 receiving yards in consecutive games after making that mark in his first seven appearances.

The Detroit Lions will hope to learn from next opponents the Cleveland Browns, who have returned to contention since in 2018 becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to end a losing streak of 10-plus games with a tie. Last week, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Lions became the second.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is "pretty close" to a return, having practiced on Wednesday.

Murray has missed the last two games, in which the 8-2 Cardinals have gone 1-1, because of an ankle injury.

However, there appears to be optimism he could play against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

"I'm pretty close," Murray told reporters. "I'm much further along than I thought I was going to be."

Murray has thrown for 2,276 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. His average of 8.89 yards per attempt leads the NFL while he also has three rushing touchdowns to his name.

Colt McCoy has deputised for the Cardinals in the last two games but suffered a chest injury in their loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10. 

The Carolina Panthers had been listless through the middle of the NFL season, losing five of their last six games entering Sunday's contest and lacking an identity on offence under quarterback Sam Darnold. 

Carolina's move to bring back franchise icon Cam Newton on Thursday electrified the fan base, with children all over Charlotte pulling old Newton jerseys out of their closets to wear to school on Friday. 

Once Newton stepped on the field against a one-loss Arizona Cardinals team, the feel-good story got even better, as he generated touchdowns on his first two snaps of the game and inspired the Panthers to a 34-10 rout.

After running the ball in from two yards out for a score on his first play of the season, Newton ripped his helmet off and screamed "I'm back!" at the television cameras.  

The Panthers could not have been happier, as they got back to .500 at 5-5 and steadied themselves in the NFC playoff picture, where they currently sit seventh. 

"The energy was crazy today," said Panthers linebacker – and former Cardinal – Haason Reddick. "It was on a different level." 

Newton was at the center of it, but the former MVP tried in his inimitable way to deflect credit after the game. 

"I'll put it like this: This time last week, I was eating a bowl of cereal. You feel me?" Newton told reporters. 

"So, that just puts things into perspective. After going to church, being with my children and really not even watching football; it was just about maximising the person I need to be and so for that it was just all a rush of emotions.

"But yet I know a lot of people in the media, the titles of the newspapers, the blogs, they want to make it about me and it's not about me and I keep saying this. This was an impeccable team win."

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule echoed the latter sentiment, praising quarterback P.J. Walker for his performance but declining to commit to giving him another start next week. 

"That was fun today," Rhule said. "Let's let it be fun." 

Considering the Panthers return home next week to host the Washington Football Team, led by long-time Panthers coach Ron Rivera, Bank of America Stadium would be at a fever pitch if Newton did indeed get the start after a full week of practice. 

The 32-year-old Newton played only eight snaps in Arizona but was the center of attention before, during and after the game. 

Asked how much of the Panthers' playbook he had a chance to learn in the handful of days since he signed, Newton replied, "Two touchdowns' worth." 

It took Aaron Rodgers a while to find his rhythm as he returned on Sunday, but the Green Bay Packers' defence eased the way for him in a 17-0 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. 

Rodgers missed the Packers' Week 9 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs after testing positive for COVID-19 and sat out practice all this week before being cleared to play on Saturday.

That rust was evident in his comeback as the Packers (8-2) could not find the end zone until AJ Dillon rushed for the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdowns with 10:37 to play in the game. 

Rodgers ended up completing 23 of 37 passes for 292 yards with an interception, but the good news for Green Bay was that Seahawks star Russell Wilson was even less effective in his own return.

Seattle (3-6) were shut out for the first time ever with Wilson at quarterback after he went just 20-of-40 passing for 161 yards with a pair of interceptions and was sacked three times.

Wilson's 39.7 passer rating was the fourth-worst of his 166 career regular-season and playoff games following his comeback from finger surgery.

 

Panthers pound Cardinals in Newton's return

Just three days after signing with his former team, Cam Newton made an immediate impact for the Carolina Panthers as they handed the Arizona Cardinals just their second loss of the season with a 34-10 defeat.

Carolina drove deep into Arizona territory on their first two possessions of the game and sent Newton in to replace starter P.J. Walker at quarterback, with the Panthers favourite running for and passing for touchdowns on his first two snaps. 

Those scores put Carolina (5-5) on the path to a 23-0 half-time lead and Arizona (8-2) could not find a way back with Kyler Murray still absent due to an ankle injury. While his backup Colt McCoy played well in a Week 9 victory, he completed just 11 of 20 passes for 107 yards with no touchdowns and an interception against Carolina. 

Walker was 22-of-29 passing for 167 yards with an interception for Carolina, while Christian McCaffrey led all players with 95 rushing yards and 66 receiving yards. 

Even at the midway point of the NFL season, it is difficult to make definitive judgments about many teams in the 2021 campaign.

The AFC is a jumbled mess with no clear frontrunner, though the Tennessee Titans may feel differently after surging to the top of the conference with a 7-2 record. 

In the NFC, it is easier to discern the elite, but picking the teams who will claim the last two Wild Card spots from a crowded field is not a simple task.

What we can do, however, is look at the standings and see which teams are either over or underperforming.

Stats Perform has done just that by assessing the records of every team compared to their power rating, a model that, using X-info data, looks at seven different facets of each team: quarterback, offensive skill players, run blocking, pass blocking, pass rush, run defense and pass coverage, and the player rates associated with each.

These seven facets are weighted according to modelled importance, and then aggregated to a team-level rating.

And that process has produced some clear standouts who either have more wins than the model suggests they deserve or are failing to live up to its expectations.

Overperforming

New Orleans Saints – Power rating: 29th

If Sean Payton isn't getting Coach of the Year hype come the end of the season, something has gone severely wrong.

Payton has the Saints in position to claim an NFC Wild Card berth at 5-3 despite a quarterback situation most would struggle to overcome, with Trevor Siemian stepping in to replace the injured Jameis Winston.

The Saints' most pressing issue beyond signal-caller is at wide receiver. Their most targeted receiver, Marquez Callaway, is registering a burn – or, in other words, winning his matchup with his defender when targeted – 56.4 per cent of the time, below the average of 60.6 for wideouts (min. 10 targets).

That has led New Orleans to lean on running back Alvin Kamara and the defense.

Kamara is unsurprisingly making the most of his significant opportunities as a receiver, his big-play percentage of 23.6 fourth among backs with at least 10 targets.

The defense is allowing a league-low 3.19 yards per carry and leads the NFL in run disruption rate, but comparative struggles against the pass (6.92 yards per play) and in getting after the quarterback could spell trouble if Siemian cannot maintain a surprisingly strong start to his time under center.

Cincinnati Bengals – Power rating: 23rd

The Bengals have been brought back down to earth with a bump over the past two games, losing to the New York Jets before being blown out by the Cleveland Browns.

First in the AFC before that slump, they are now last in the AFC North but, with a 5-4 record, they can still be considered to be outperforming expectations.

The problem area for the Bengals continues to be the trenches. Joe Burrow has been sacked eight times over the past two games, Cincinnati's struggles up front reflected by a ranking of 21st in pass protection win rate.

Things have been worse up front on defense, the Bengals 30th in pass rush win rate despite the best efforts of Trey Hendrickson, who has beaten a pass blocker on 28 of his 43 pressures.

Burrow has the best percentage of well-thrown balls among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He is delivering an accurate pass on 84.4 per cent of attempts.

His second-year leap is no mirage and has been aided by the outstanding rookie season of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, eighth among receivers (min. 50 targets) with 3.5 burn yards per route. Yet, without improvement in other areas, elevating the Bengals back to the postseason could prove too much of a challenge for that truly dynamic duo.

Arizona Cardinals – Power rating: 16th

The Cardinals being this low down the list may be difficult to reconcile given they are 8-1 and just convincingly beat the San Francisco 49ers with their backup quarterback.

Yet holes have emerged on a defense now without J.J. Watt, whose addition had proven so critical to the interior of the D-line.

Arizona's defense is allowing 4.81 yards per rush, the second-most in the NFL, with the Cardinals in 22nd in run disruption rate.

Their pass rush win rate position of 24th belies the production of Markus Golden (nine sacks) and Chandler Jones (six), with those numbers suggesting the Cardinals' strength against the pass is more a product of the impressive play of a secondary that has surpassed expectations.

Though there is reason for doubt when it comes to the Cardinals' defense, this is a team that will go as far as Kyler Murray and the offense.

Murray is firmly in the MVP mix with a well-thrown percentage of 81.3, and receivers DeAndre Hopkins (80.9) and Christian Kirk (79.2) are each in the top five among wideouts (min. 10 targets) for burn rate.

With an offensive line ranked eighth in pass protection win rate doing an excellent job of keeping Murray clean, the Cards have an offensive recipe well suited to winning in 2021.

Yet their power rating and performance on defense indicates this team is not as complete as their record suggests.

Tennessee Titans – Power rating: 18th

Five straight wins, including victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams, and the Titans are only 18th?!

It may be difficult to believe, but Tennessee's position in the bottom half of the NFL by power rating is one mirrored by the Titans' spot in Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) rankings.

EVE looks at several factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation and then compares the projected yards to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

The Titans are a disappointing 17th in EVE, despite Ryan Tannehill enjoying a season that has seen him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 83.5 per cent of his passes.

But Tannehill is now without his security blanket with Derrick Henry, who was threatening Eric Dickerson's rushing record and averaging 3.05 yards per carry on disrupted runs, and is throwing to a receiving corps that has just one member, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (63.6), with a burn percentage above 60.

Their stunning primetime win in Los Angeles was largely a product of turnovers and a startling amount of pressure from the defensive front, and the latter appears unlikely to be sustainable.

In the bottom half of the league in pass rush win rate (31st) and run disruption rate (27th), the production the Titans have got from the likes of Harold Landry, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons has not been the result of consistent dominance up front.

The story is the same for an offensive line ranked 29th in pass protection and 17th in run block win rate. Beyond Tannehill and Henry, areas where the Titans consistently excel are not obvious. The receivers will need to step up or the defense will need to prove a breakout performance against the Rams was not an anomaly for Tennessee to turn the doubters into believers.

Underperforming

Kansas City Chiefs – Power rating: 3rd

The uneven nature of the Chiefs' performances to this point makes them moving to 5-4 last week actually seem pretty impressive.

Yet, for all their issues on defense, and the doubts about an offense lacking the explosiveness of years gone by, the Chiefs should have fared even better over the first nine games, at least according to their power rating.

Though Kansas City only managed 13 points in their win over the Green Bay Packers, it is the Chiefs' offense that provides the most cause for optimism.

Patrick Mahomes' well-thrown percentage of 79 is above the league average of 78.5 for quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 attempts, and he is being well protected by the Chiefs' reworked offensive line.

The Chiefs rank fourth in pass protection win rate and first in run block win rate, with their rushing average of 4.62 yards per play the eighth-best in the NFL.

It is those game-changing downfield shots that are conspicuous by their absence for the Chiefs, with Tyreek Hill's underwhelming big-play percentage of 24.8 illustrating their struggles in that regard.

But this remains a team set up for offensive success, and if a defense that has not allowed a 300-yard passing game since Week 5 can continue making incremental improvements, Kansas City could yet enjoy the season many envisioned.

San Francisco 49ers – Power rating: 8th

A route to contention is not as easy to plot for the 3-5 49ers, who continue to beat themselves with mistakes that negate their overall efficiency.

The 49ers are eighth in EVE, with their position in offensive yards over expected (eighth) and yards allowed under expected (14th) painting the picture of a top-half team on both sides of the ball.

Yet a turnover differential of -9 that is superior to only that of the New York Jets (-12) makes a losing season a more realistic possibility for the Niners than a playoff push.

The offense is the primary source of hope. Deebo Samuel is on pace for over 1,800 receiving yards and his 4.1 burn yards per route are second for receivers with at least 50 targets, while George Kittle had a 100-yard game on his return from injury last week and ranks second among tight ends (min. 10 targets) with 3.1 burn yards per route.

With rookie Elijah Mitchell impressing at running back, Brandon Aiyuk emerging from Kyle Shanahan's doghouse and a line ranked in the top 10 in pass protection and run block win rate, the Niners theoretically have the offense to compete with anyone.

Poor execution has prevented them from doing so. If the Niners are to somehow stay in the hunt, the turnovers must stop, but change is also required on defense.

The 49ers have struggled to disrupt the run, and disappointing secondary play has limited the impact of a stellar season from Nick Bosa, whose adjusted pass rush win rate of 41.09 per cent is way above the average of 21.88 for edge rushers.

Time is running out for San Francisco to figure it out; if the Niners cannot do that, it will be another frustrating year for a team too talented to be struggling this much.

Minnesota Vikings – Power rating: 10th

It has been a typical Vikings season, with a talented and potent offense seeing their efforts go largely unrewarded as they have flirted with both triumph and disaster late in games on a near-weekly basis.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins might have an MVP case were the Vikings in a better position to contend. He has been extremely accurate, posting a well-thrown percentage of 81.8, and has generally avoided turnover-worthy plays, throwing just four pickable passes on 285 attempts.

Dalvin Cook's missed tackle per touch rate of 0.269 is the best among running backs with at least 50 carries, and Justin Jefferson is again one of the league's elite separators at receiver, as evidenced by his burn rate of 72.1 per cent.

Yet the Vikings are only 13th in offensive yards over expected, speaking to an issue that continues to hold this team back, with Minnesota again in the lower reaches of the league in pass protection win rate.

It has been a different story on the other side of the trenches, the Vikings seventh in pass rush win rate, though the absence of Danielle Hunter with a torn pectoral muscle may see them lose that position.

Soft against the run, allowing the third-highest yards per rush (4.77) in the NFL, the Vikings are a team whose lofty power rating is easily explained through a loaded passing game and a pass rush that has excelled through their first eight games.

But their 3-5 record is reflective of an incomplete team that maintains an obvious weakness in the trenches and lacks the defensive solidity to put games to bed. The Vikings may be a top 10 team on paper, but it is tough to trust them to perform to that standard consistently.

The New England Patriots and the Cleveland Browns head into week 10 off the back of impressive wins as both look to further improve their playoff chances when they face each other on Sunday.

Bill Belichick, who was the Browns' head coach from 1991 to 1995, has a 7-2 record against Cleveland since he became the Patriots' head coach in 2000, including winning all five home games against them.

The Arizona Cardinals boast the outright best record in the NFL right now at 8-1 after beating the San Francisco 49ers, and welcome the Panthers to State Farm Stadium as they seek to make it nine wins out of 10.

There has been a lot of talk about form, or lack thereof, when it comes to star quarterback Patrick Mahomes but he will be betting on himself to silence the critics as his Kansas City Chiefs make the trip to Las Vegas.

 

Cleveland Browns (5-4) @ New England Patriots (5-4)

The Patriots moved to 5-4 after a 24-6 win at the Panthers last week, while the Browns have an identical record following their emphatic 41-16 victory against the Bengals.

The Browns' 25-point margin of victory was their second largest in any game since the Cleveland franchise was revived in 1999. The Browns' biggest winning margin over the past 23 seasons was 38 points, in a 44-6 rout of the Cardinals in 2003.

Running back Nick Chubb has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his past three road games for the Browns. Jim Brown is the only other player in the franchise's history with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games on the road in one season, although he managed that feat three times (1961, 1963 and 1964).

The Patriots won their last home game 54-13 against the Jets in Week 7 after losing their first four at Gillette Stadium this season. The 41-point margin of victory was the Patriots' largest in a home game since 2010, when they beat the Jets 45-3.

Baker Mayfield will have to keep an eye out for J.C. Jackson, who made two interceptions in the Patriots' game at Carolina, including an 88-yard touchdown return. Jackson has a league-high total of 22 interceptions in his four seasons in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers (4-5) @ Arizona Cardinals (8-1)

The Cardinals will go into this one as heavy favourites but the Panthers have actually won their previous five meetings, including in the 2015 Wild Card and 2016 NFC Championship games.

After throwing three interceptions last week against the Patriots, Carolina have now turned the ball over in six consecutive games. The only team with a longer active streak of games with a turnover is the New York Jets (nine games, going back to last season).

However, with Sam Darnold out for the next few weeks with a shoulder injury, the Panthers are expected to start P.J. Walker at quarterback, despite Thursday's announcement that Cam Newton has re-signed with the franchise.

Walker has previously started just one game for Carolina, which was a 20-0 win over Detroit in Week 11 last season where he completed 24 of 34 passes (70.6 per cent). The only other Panthers QB to have their first start with the team and complete a higher percentage of their passes was Steve Beuerlein in 1996 (71 percent).

The Cardinals' victory over the 49ers was the third time this season they have gone on the road and gained 350+ yards without turning the ball over. Over the past 70 years, the Cardinals have never had more than two such road games in any season.

Arizona have completed 73.9 percent of passes this season. No team in the Super Bowl era has ever held a completion percentage that high over the course of an entire season, with the 2018 Saints coming the closest (73.4 percent). 

Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) @ Las Vegas Raiders (5-3)

All eyes will be on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who finished with 166 passing yards in last week's 13-7 win against the Green Bay Packers, the second-lowest total in his career. Interestingly, Kansas City are 6-0 when Mahomes has thrown for 200 yards or fewer.

Since 2013, the Chiefs are 13-3 against the Raiders. Two of the losses were on the road (2014 and 2017), and one came at home last season.

The Chiefs home victory against the Packers last week saw their fewest points in a win since a 10-3 success over San Diego in 2015. Having allowed an average of 32.6 points against in their first five games (2-3), they have averaged just 16 points against in their previous four (3-1).

The Raiders lost to the New York Giants 23-16 on the road last week. They have lost all three games in which they have managed fewer than 20 points this season.

Raiders QB Derek Carr threw one touchdown pass and two interceptions last week. It was his first game with more interceptions than touchdown passes since Week 13 of the 2019 season, which was a 40-9 loss in Kansas City.

 

Elsewhere...

The Green Bay Packers (7-2) will be hoping to get back on track against Seattle (3-5) after a rare defeat last time out and will be confident of doing so having won nine straight home games against the Seahawks dating back to 2003 (including playoffs). It is the Packers' longest home winning streak against any opponent since 24 straight against the Lions (1992 to 2014). The Hawks' last win in Green Bay was in 1999.

The Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) will be hoping for another big performance from quarterback Justin Herbert when they host the Minnesota Vikings (3-5). Herbert tallied 356 passing yards in last week's 27-24 win against the Eagles, going 32-for-38 (84.2 percent). It was the highest completion percentage all-time by any Chargers QB to throw for at least 350 yards.

The Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6) picked up a shock 9-6 win against the Buffalo Bills last week but may need to score more points against the Indianapolis Colts (4-5) if they want to succeed again. Last week's victory was the first time since the beginning of last season that a team was held under 10 points in a game and still won. Teams are now 1-59 in the past two seasons when scoring single digits.

After a bye week to clear their heads, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) will be looking to bounce back from their 36-27 defeat in New Orleans as they travel to Washington (2-6). Since Tom Brady joined the Buccaneers in 2020, Tampa Bay are 5-1 following a loss.

Arizona Cardinals star Kyler Murray is hopeful of being fit enough to face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Murray sat out last week's 31-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers due to a sprained left ankle – the first time the quarterback had missed an NFL game in his career.

The 2020 Pro Bowler, who did not practice on Wednesday, hopes to suit up for the Panthers clash.

"I think it's day by day," Murray told reporters midweek, with the Cardinals (8-1) this season. "I think we've got a great plan.

"I feel way better than I did when I talked to you last time, so, I think that's a plus and I'm excited."

Murray leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.7), while he has tallied 2,276 yards for seven touchdowns with a career-high 110.4 rating.

"I think I made crazy strides as far as in a positive direction since it happened," Murray added.

"I think I'm one of those guys that's able to kind of hone in and not be able to do that for maybe some time and get back out there and still play at a high level," Murray said.

"I think, obviously, for anybody, those reps are crucial, but I'm pretty confident in when I do come back that I'll be fine."

The Cardinals' victory over the 49ers was the third time this season Arizona went on the road and gained 350-plus yards without turning the ball over.

Over the last 70 years, the Cardinals have never had more than two such road games in any season, according to Stats Perform.

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