The Los Angeles Chargers secured a huge win in the hunt for AFC playoff places as they overcame the Cincinnati Bengals 41-22 at Paul Brown Stadium.

A spirited fightback from the Bengals almost led to the Chargers blowing a 24-point lead, but Brandon Staley's men responded in the fourth quarter to pull away from the hosts and put both teams on 7-5 for the season.

Quarterback Justin Herbert was at his effervescent best, throwing for three touchdowns and completing 26 of 35 passes for 317 yards overall.

The Chargers scored a touchdown from their very first drive of the game, bravely going for it on fourth and goal as Herbert fired a pass into Keenan Allen. The extra point was missed by Dustin Hopkins, though he did succeed with a 43-yard field goal attempt shortly after.

Jamar Chase thought he was in for a Bengals TD on the next drive but inexplicably dropped Joe Burrow's pass into the hands of Michael Davis to turn it into an interception, which proved costly as the Chargers secured another TD from the resulting drive as Herbert found Allen again.

The visitors' dominance continued at the start of the second quarter as Herbert executed a huge 44-yard pass into Jalen Guyton for another TD to make the score 24-0.

The Bengals began a comeback as Burrow threw a 29-yard TD pass to Tee Higgins, before running one in himself to cut the lead to 11 points at half-time, and that momentum continued in the third quarter as they pulled it back to an eight-point ball game with a 48-yard field goal from Evan McPherson.

A second fumble of the game for Chargers running back Austin Ekeler gave the Bengals the chance to cut the lead further, which they did as Joe Mixon ran in his first TD of the day, but a Mixon fumble at the start of the fourth quarter allowed Tevaughn Campbell to run it in from 61 yards. Ekeler then made up for his fumbles with a one-yard running TD to secure the victory for his team.

Brady and Gronk roll back the years for the Bucs

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured a comfortable 30-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons, with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski combining twice for touchdowns, the first time they had done so since Week 2.

Brady's arm had a busy afternoon as he threw 19 passes in the first quarter alone, with 51 overall, completing 38 for 368 yards and four TD passes, including the two to Gronkowski.

The Bucs move on to 9-3 while the Falcons and their fading playoff hopes go to 5-7, level with the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

Lions finally roar after late drama

The Detroit Lions finally won a game, 364 days since they last did so, sealing a dramatic 29-27 win against the Minnesota Vikings by scoring a touchdown in the last seconds of the game.

Two touchdowns and two field goals for the Lions in the second quarter gave them a 20-6 lead at half-time, and they had an eight-point advantage going into the fourth quarter.

It seemed like it would be a gruelling near miss though as touchdowns from K.J. Osborn and Justin Jefferson put the Vikings 27-23 ahead with less than two minutes remaining, but in their last play, an 11-yard TD pass from Jared Goff to Amon-Ra St Brown sent Ford Field into ecstasy. The Lions move on to 1-10-1 while the Vikings slip to 5-7.

The Los Angeles Chargers secured a huge win in the hunt for AFC playoff places as they overcame the Cincinnati Bengals 41-22 at Paul Brown Stadium.

A spirited fightback from the Bengals almost led to the Chargers blowing a 24-point lead, but Brandon Staley's men responded in the fourth quarter to pull away from the hosts and put both teams on 7-5 for the season.

Quarterback Justin Herbert was at his effervescent best, throwing for three touchdowns and completing 26 of 35 passes for 317 yards overall.

The Chargers scored a touchdown from their very first drive of the game, bravely going for it on fourth and goal as Herbert fired a pass into Keenan Allen. The extra point was missed by Dustin Hopkins, though he did succeed with a 43-yard field goal attempt shortly after.

Jamar Chase thought he was in for a Bengals TD on the next drive but inexplicably dropped Joe Burrow's pass into the hands of Michael Davis to turn it into an interception, which proved costly as the Chargers secured another TD from the resulting drive as Herbert found Allen again.

The visitors' dominance continued at the start of the second quarter as Herbert executed a huge 44-yard pass into Jalen Guyton for another TD to make the score 24-0.

The Bengals began a comeback as Burrow threw a 29-yard TD pass to Tee Higgins, before running one in himself to cut the lead to 11 points at half-time, and that momentum continued in the third quarter as they pulled it back to an eight-point ball game with a 48-yard field goal from Evan McPherson.

A second fumble of the game for Chargers running back Austin Ekeler gave the Bengals the chance to cut the lead further, which they did as Joe Mixon ran in his first TD of the day, but a Mixon fumble at the start of the fourth quarter allowed Tevaughn Campbell to run it in from 61 yards. Ekeler then made up for his fumbles with a one-yard running TD to secure the victory for his team.

Brady and Gronk roll back the years for the Bucs

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured a comfortable 30-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons, with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski combining twice for touchdowns, the first time they had done so since Week 2.

Brady's arm had a busy afternoon as he threw 19 passes in the first quarter alone, with 51 overall, completing 38 for 368 yards and four TD passes, including the two to Gronkowski.

The Bucs move on to 9-3 while the Falcons and their fading playoff hopes go to 5-7, level with the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

Lions finally roar after late drama

The Detroit Lions finally won a game, 364 days since they last did so, sealing a dramatic 29-27 win against the Minnesota Vikings by scoring a touchdown in the last seconds of the game.

Two touchdowns and two field goals for the Lions in the second quarter gave them a 20-6 lead at half-time, and they had an eight-point advantage going into the fourth quarter.

It seemed like it would be a gruelling near miss though as touchdowns from K.J. Osborn and Justin Jefferson put the Vikings 27-23 ahead with less than two minutes remaining, but in their last play, an 11-yard TD pass from Jared Goff to Amon-Ra St Brown sent Ford Field into ecstasy. The Lions move on to 1-10-1 while the Vikings slip to 5-7.

The neutral has plenty to be thankful for in this thrilling 2021 NFL season.

But all that drama, driven by a series of stunning against-the-odds upsets, can make life miserable for fantasy players, even at this celebratory time of year.

Want to maintain your cheer through another seemingly unpredictable slate of games this Thanksgiving week? Turn to Stats Perform for the below data-powered picks.

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ New York Giants

The Eagles head into Week 12 rejuvenated, having won three of their past four games to improve to 5-6 ahead of a big NFC East matchup. Those three wins have all had one thing in common: Philadelphia have exceeded 200 yards rushing.

This run-heavy approach – with a league-high 49.6 rush percentage – wisely plays to the strengths of quarterback Hurts, who had three rushing scores last week against the New Orleans Saints as he surpassed 50 yards on the ground for the fifth straight game.

That was Hurts' 15th QB start. He ranks second through 15 QB starts since 1950 for rushing touchdowns (11 – behind Cam Newton, 14) and second through 15 QB starts since 1960 for rushing yards (890 – behind Lamar Jackson, 1,193).

The Giants – reeling from a bad defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – have given up 4.38 yards per rush play, ranking a mediocre 19th, and have not yet played any of the six best offenses in that regard. The Eagles' offense (4.99 yards per rush), led by Hurts, sits third and will be eyeing further big gains.

Running back: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Mixon is already enjoying a career year with nine rushing TDs, and the 2021 season might be about to get a whole lot better for the running back – and any fantasy players who can count on him – as the Bengals face an injury-ravaged Steelers defense.

Pittsburgh have now given up the most yards per rush play (4.76) after a tough two weeks in which their roster was hit by absences and it showed on the field. The winless Detroit Lions tallied 229 rushing yards and two TDs in their Week 10 tie, before the Los Angeles Chargers averaged 6.12 yards per rush as Austin Ekeler's two scores headlined a Week 11 win.

Mixon, who has rushing TDs in four straight games and last week ran for over 100 yards for the first time since Week 1, should get free rein against a Steelers defense that successfully disrupts the run on just 24.62 per cent of attempts.

Even if Pittsburgh can fix a problem that has persisted throughout the season and got worse of late, Mixon ranks 12th among running backs (min. 10 carries) with 3.74 yards per carry on disrupted runs.

Wide receiver: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers vs. Minnesota Vikings

A significant shift towards a run-heavy approach – the 49ers averaged 25.6 rushes per game through Week 9 but 43.0 per game since – would be an issue for most wide receivers, but Samuel is not most wide receivers.

It is his versatility that has helped accommodate a change that has potentially brought San Francisco back into contention.

Samuel caught only one pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week but rushed for 79 yards and a TD in the absence of injured rookie Elijah Mitchell. The previous week, with Mitchell involved against the Los Angeles Rams, Samuel had rushing and receiving scores in the same game for the first time in his career.

With the Vikings' rush defense matching the Steelers' in giving up 4.76 yards per rush, expect Samuel and the Niners to run the ball again and do it well.

Tight end: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons @ Jacksonville Jaguars

Pitts is the sixth-most targeted tight end this season (69) but has the third-most receiving yards (635), boosted massively by 100-yard games against the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins either side of the Falcons' Week 6 bye.

The schedule slowed that momentum somewhat – Atlanta were held to three points across defeats to the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots – but a trip to Jacksonville gives Pitts the opportunity to put his name up in lights once again.

The Jaguars have given up 7.20 yards per pass play in 2021, meaning this is unlikely to be the defense to keep Pitts in check. He has got open on 34.41 per cent of his 93 matchups, up on the tight end average of 18.10 per cent.

Defense: New England Patriots vs. Tennessee Titans

The Titans head into this week as the top seed in the AFC, but the Patriots may well take that spot from them over the next two weeks, hosting Tennessee before going to the Buffalo Bills in Monday Night Football.

While Mac Jones is enjoying a fine rookie year at QB, it will be New England's defense that puts them in contention, having given up only 5.07 yards per play while securing 21 total takeaways – ranking third in both regards.

And the Pats will expect to dominate the Titans, whose injury list has only grown since Derrick Henry went down. A.J. Brown is the latest offensive weapon to be unhealthy, while Julio Jones is not expected back for another two weeks.

These problems contributed to a woeful defeat to the Houston Texans last time out, when Ryan Tannehill threw four picks. Elsewhere in Week 10, New England caught four interceptions against the Falcons.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hailed his side's defense after their shutout 25-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday.

The Patriots improved to 7-4 across the season, extending their undefeated away run to five games, being one of two teams who remain unbeaten on the road.

New England also maintained their excellent defensive form, having allowed only 13 points in their past three games.

"I'm proud of the way our guys played on defense," Belichick said at the post-game news conference. "The coaching staff did a good job.

"I thought our defensive coaches really worked hard this week. It was a short week of preparation.

"[Falcons head coach] Arthur [Smith] is always giving us trouble, we had a lot of trouble with him at Tennessee. He gave us some problems tonight but fortunately we were able to get out of some of them one way or another.

"You've got to give the coaches and players a lot of credit. They did a good job."

The Patriots are second in the AFC East after winning their past five consecutive games, and defensive back Devin McCourty said they had discovered their "blueprint" but had to keep it up.

"We found our blueprint," McCourty told reporters. "It's hard work. It's putting in the hours practising hard. We can't let that slip up. End of November-December we have to stick to that.

"I think that's shown so far, when we stick that we have a chance to win a lot of games."

The New England Patriots continued their mastery of the Atlanta Falcons, riding a suffocating defensive performance to a 25-0 road win Thursday. 

It was the Patriots' fifth win in a row overall and seventh consecutive victory against the Falcons as New England (7-4) dominated the game despite scoring only one offensive touchdown. 

Mac Jones hit Nelson Agholor on a crossing route for a 19-yard TD early in the second quarter that gave New England a 10-0 lead, as the rookie quarterback again showed impressive efficiency in completing 22 of 26 passes for 207 yards. 

It was a different story for Atlanta's veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 19 of 28 passes for 153 yards and saw his team rush for just 40 more in another disastrous performance.

The Falcons' last four drives of the game ended interceptions, including Kyle Van Noy picking off backup QB Josh Rosen and returning it 35 yards for a touchdown with 1:23 remaining. 

Kicker Nick Folk accounted for the rest of New England's scoring with four field goals from as many attempts, while Younghoe Koo missed his only try for Atlanta. 

The Falcons (4-6) were shut out for the first time since a 38-0 loss at the Carolina Panthers in December 2015, and on the heels of their 43-3 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in the previous game, they have been out-scored 89-6 since their most recent touchdown early in the fourth quarter of a 27-25 victory over the New Orleans Saints on November 7. 

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers overcame the loss of kicker Chris Boswell for the whole second half as they beat the Cleveland Browns 15-10 on Sunday.

D'Ernest Johnson rushed 10 yards for the game's first touchdown in the third quarter to put Cleveland seemingly in control at FirstEnergy Stadium.

The Steelers' chances were already damaged by the loss of Boswell to a concussion following a huge hit from Browns tackle Jordan Elliot, but Najee Harris' touchdown closed the gap to a point.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two yards on fourth down for Pat Freiermuth to earn the decisive score with a little over 11 minutes on the clock.

Browns defensive end Myles Garrett came in costume as the Grim Reaper to mark October 31, his cape inscribed with the names of his sacked quarterbacks, but it was the Steelers' trick play that proved far from a treat in the first half: Boswell took a direct snap from 28 yards and, after rolling right and throwing for the end zone, he took a powerful hit from Elliot.

After rookie Harris had dragged Pittsburgh back into contention following Johnson's score, Roethlisberger, who is now 24-3-1 in career starts against the Browns, made his mark.

The 38-year-old, who finished 22 of 34 for 266 yards, almost saw his two-yard pass fumbled by Freiermuth but the tight end recovered to land both feet in the end zone.

By contrast, Jarvis Landry's handling let him down as he was stripped by Joe Schobert with a little over six minutes left.

The 4-4 Browns will hope for better next time out against the 5-3 Bengals, who were stunned by a New York Jets 34-31 comeback win in which Mike White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns on his first NFL start.

Rams rout Texans, Lions looking toothless

The Philadelphia Eagles ran in four touchdowns as they snapped a two-game losing streak to crush the Detroit Lions.

As coach of the NFL's only winless team after eight straight defeats, Dan Campbell will head into a bye week to try to arrest a terrible run of results that culminated in Sunday's 44-6 loss, in which the Lions only got on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

The Houston Texans (1-7) are faring little better, their 38-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams (7-1) looking only a little more respectable after they ran in 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, Davis Mills throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns.

49ers down Bears through sensational Samuel

The San Francisco 49ers improved to 3-4 after a 33-22 defeat of the Chicago Bears in which Deebo Samuel set pulses racing with a spectacular 83-yard catch-and-run.

After being denied an apparent touchdown for being ruled out of bounds, Samuel's run still allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to score from two yards out just a handful of plays later to cut the Bears' advantage.

Not only did Samuel produce the Niners' longest play of the season, he passed Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards for the franchise across the first seven games of an NFL season.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley is taking a break from his NFL career to give attention to his "mental wellbeing", the 26-year-old announced on Sunday.

Ridley missed the 19-13 defeat to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, with his team declaring Ridley inactive earlier in the day.

In a message posted on Twitter, Ridley said: "These past few weeks have been very challenging and as much as I'd like to be on the field competing with my teammates, I need to step away from football at this time and focus on my mental wellbeing.

"This will help me be the best version of myself now and in the future. I want to thank my teammates, the entire Atlanta Falcons organisation, our great fans, my friends, and my family for all of their support during this time."

Ridley missed the recent trip to London to face the New York Jets at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with a personal matter also being cited by the team on that occasion.

The circumstances behind his off-field struggles have not been disclosed.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was asked after the Panthers game about Ridley's situation and said: "I'll let Calvin speak for himself. It's a personal issue.

"Calvin's dealing with something personal and it's going to remain personal my end."

Ridley was the 26th pick in the 2018 draft and has had 31 receptions for 281 yards and two touchdowns so far in the 2021 season, playing five games to date.

With the NFL approaching the midway point of its season, time is running out to stack fantasy wins and make a run at the postseason.

Whether you're right in the mix or on the outside looking in, now is the moment to go on a run and ensure you will be playing in the championship bracket.

The best way to do that is to identify the players with the opportunity to produce a performance that can serve as the backbone of a matchup-winning effort.

Here Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are well-positioned to do just that in Week 8.

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

Hurts is developing a reputation as the king of garbage time stats and, though fantasy owners may not have the benefit of him playing from behind in garbage time this week, he does have an extremely favorable matchup to exploit.

Through his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback, Hurts has accounted for 2,077 yards of offense and 15 touchdowns so far this season.

He is averaging 245.1 passing yards per game and 51.5 yards on the ground. Going against a Detroit defense ranked 30th in yards per play, Hurts is a strong candidate to deliver gaudy fantasy numbers.

Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

On the surface, Jones' matchup with a Cardinals defense ranked eighth in opponent yards per play allowed is a tough one.

However, only the Los Angeles Chargers are allowing more yards per rush than the Cardinals (4.97), and Jones should see a heavy workload on the ground and through the air.

Indeed, with Davante Adams a doubt after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Allen Lazard out for the same reason, Jones - who is second on the Packers behind Adams with 26 receptions - could see a bump in targets from Aaron Rodgers.

Always a must-start as Green Bay's lead back, Jones' performance on Thursday could be a decisive one for fantasy owners, especially those who play in points per reception leagues.

Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots

The Chargers will be out to get back on track as they return from a bye week following their Week 6 shellacking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.

And they will be hopeful of hitting on several explosive plays against a Patriots defense that has given up its fair share.

The Patriots have conceded 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh-most in the NFL.

That should be music to the ears of Williams, who has eight receptions of 20 yards or more, four games with at least seven receptions and a touchdown and two 100-yard performances. Expect this big-play threat to exploit a vulnerable New England secondary to a significant extent.

Tight End: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers

The Falcons are surging, and much of that is down to the play of rookie tight end Pitts, who is living up to the reputation that saw him picked fourth overall in this year's draft by Atlanta.

Pitts has at least eight targets in each of his last three games and goes into Week 8 on the back of successive 100-yard performances.

Having clearly earned the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan, Pitts is receiving the target share and delivering the production to make him a must-start regardless of a tough matchup against a Panthers defense allowing the third-fewest yards per play in the NFL.

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

The 49ers are firmly in must-win mode having dropped to 2-4, and the foundation for a winning effort in Chicago appears more likely to be laid by the defense.

San Francisco forced a pair of turnovers in the Week 7 loss to the Colts and the Niners' chances of adding to their takeaway tally seem strong with Chicago's rookie quarterback Justin Fields having thrown at least one interception in four of his seven appearances.

Fields committed five turnovers in Chicago's blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last time out and a 49ers' front led by one of the NFL's premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa should be confident of forcing him into more.

Time flies when you're having fun, as the old cliche goes, but you don't need to have been enjoying yourself to notice how quickly we got to Week 7 of the NFL season.

Fantasy managers who have enjoyed strong starts may already be casting their eyes towards the playoffs and a run at the title.

Meanwhile, those owners who are mired near the bottom of their league might be wondering where it all went wrong and paying a dwindling amount of attention to their line-up.

Either way, there are plenty of players with matchups this week who can help deliver a win for your squad. Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are primed to make a significant impact in Week 7.

 

Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons @ Miami Dolphins

The Falcons have had the bye week to rest after their win over the New York Jets in London and now get the chance to exploit another vulnerable AFC East defense.

They face a Dolphins team that will be playing only seven days removed from their game in the United Kingdom, and a defense that gave up 319 passing yards in their loss to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ryan has two 300-yard games to his name this year and has thrown for multiple scores in every game after drawing a blank in the season opener.

Atlanta and Miami look like two teams heading in different directions, expect Ryan and the Falcons to take advantage and the 2016 MVP to record a big fantasy day.

Running Back: Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals vs. Houston Texans

Edmonds has been something of a frustrating case so far this season.

He is averaging six yards per carry but has not consistently received the workload to be a viable fantasy option.

That looks likely to change this week when the unbeaten Cardinals face the 1-5 Texans, who are allowing 4.74 yards per rush attempt, the fifth-worst average in the NFL.

With the Cardinals widely expected to get out to a big lead in a hurry, Arizona should be able to take the pressure off Kyler Murray and lean on their backs if the game gets out of hand, meaning Edmonds could be in store for plenty of garbage time yards.

Wide Receiver: Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens

Chase is a fully fledged fantasy darling having exploded out of the gates as a rookie for 553 yards and five touchdowns.

He might be expected to hit a block in the road against a Ravens defense that only gave up six points to the Los Angeles Chargers last week.

However, Chase is tied for the league lead with eight receiving plays of 25 yards or more and only six teams have allowed more passing plays of 20 yards or more than the Ravens (24).

Keep the faith and look for Joe Burrow and Chase to connect on at least one big one to vindicate his starting spot in fantasy line-ups.

Tight End: Dallas Goedert @ Las Vegas Raiders

With Zach Ertz out of the picture following his trade to the Arizona Cardinals, expect a bump in targets for Goedert, who is averaging 14.4 yards per reception this season.

That increase in his share of the workload could hardly come at a better time for Goedert fantasy owners, as he and the Philadelphia Eagles travel to visit a Raiders team allowing the most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends.

Defense: New England Patriots vs. New York Jets

This one isn't too difficult. The Jets have committed nine giveaways this season, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and four of those came from Zach Wilson interceptions against the Patriots at MetLife Stadium in Week 2.

Wilson and Co. have got themselves in the win column since then, but there is nothing to suggest that a Jets offense still without left tackle Mekhi Becton should succeed in avoiding turnovers in this week's return fixture in Foxborough.

The Green Bay Packers went 4-1 for the 2021 season after Mason Crosby's overtime field goal secured a dramatic 25-22 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Crosby missed two field goals in the final quarter as Cincinnati pegged back the visitors at 22-22, with the Packers #2 then squandering another chance early in overtime.

His third miss came sandwiched in between Bengals rookie Evan McPherson twice hitting the post with field goal attempts of his own.

Yet a brilliant pass from the superb Aaron Rodgers – who threw for two touchdowns to take him into outright fifth place in the all-time list for quarterbacks with 422 – to Randall Cobb teed up the game-winning moment.

Bengals QB Joe Burrow also threw for two touchdowns, having got Cincinnati started when he picked out Samaje Perine from close range in the first quarter. 

Burrow collected his second TD pass of the game in style, throwing 70 yards (the longest pass of his NFL career) for Ja'Marr Chase to cross.

Chase's score came after Rodgers had propelled the Packers ahead with passes to Davante Adams and AJ Dillon, and although Joe Mixon forced OT, Crosby held his nerve at the fourth time of asking.

Brady downs Dolphins

A week on from breaking Drew Brees' NFL passing record, Brady was at his imperious best again for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, throwing for five touchdowns and 411 yards in a 45-17 win over the Miami Dolphins.

His 72 touchdown passes against the Dolphins mean he is the joint-leader, alongside Dan Marino (72 v. the New York Jets) for TD passes against a single opponent in the Super Bowl era, while his 62-yard pass for Antonio Brown on Sunday was the longest he has thrown while at the Buccaneers. 

Pitts stars in London

The NFL returned to London on Sunday, with the Atlanta Falcons overcoming the New York Jets 27-20. Rookie receiver Kyle Pitts was the star of the show at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, taking nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown, the first of his NFL career.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley will miss the Atlanta Falcons' showdown with the New York Jets in London for personal reasons.

The absence of Ridley is a big blow for the Falcons, as he is the team's leading wide receiver with 255 yards this season.

Atlanta are 1-3 ahead of the Week 5 game at Tottenham Stadium on Sunday and their chances of improving that record have taken a hit with Ridley unavailable.

A Falcons statement said: "Due to a personal matter, Calvin Ridley will not travel to the Falcons game in London this weekend. We are in support of Calvin during this time and will respect his privacy on the matter."

Wideout Russell Gage (ankle) and defensive end Marlon Davidson (ankle) are also out of the game against the 1-3 Jets.

Olamide Zaccheaus will be expected to step up with Ridley not making the trip to England.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw plenty of room for improvement even after a 48-25 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons that featured five touchdown passes by superstar Tom Brady. 

NFL Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers held a 28-10 lead following the opening drive of the second half, but watched Matt Ryan and the Falcons narrow the deficit to three by the end of the third quarter on Sunday.

Brady's final TD pass of the game and a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Mike Edwards in the fourth period accounted for the lopsided final score, but the Buccaneers did not sound satisfied afterward. 

"The defence made some huge plays, that's the great thing," Brady told reporters. "Fourth quarter, three-point game and they make a huge stop and [we] went down there and scored, which was good. Then a few big turnovers, so that was great to see.

"Offensively, we grinded out and found a way but obviously we all wish we could have done some things to be more productive. It was a good team effort."

Brady improved to 9-0 in his career against the Falcons and broke one of his own NFL records in the process. 

The 44-year-old has already thrown nine touchdowns through two games this season – a new career-high after two games of a season.

Brady has thrown for at least four passing touchdowns in four successive regular-season games, dating back to last term. It ties Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the NFL's second longest streak since 1950 – one shy of Peyton Manning's streak of five straight games.

Including the playoffs, Sunday was the ninth straight game in which the Buccaneers won while scoring at least 30 points, breaking the league record of eight previously shared with Brady's 2007 and 2011 New England Patriots. 

On the heels of a tense 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, Tampa Bay are grateful to be unbeaten but do not believe they have found a rhythm. 

"We left points out there," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. "Obviously we got 14 out of the defence but we left points out there offensively.

"I haven't seen us getting close to playing consistently yet. Hopefully we'll get there next week because we're going to have to."

The Buccaneers will face the high-powered Los Angeles Rams in Week 3 in their first road game of the season, and Brady agrees that the offence will need to do more going forward. 

"What I think and I'm sure other guys feel the same way is I think we can do better," Brady said. "I really do. I think we have the opportunity, the way the games are flowing and the opportunities we're getting with the ball we can maybe have even more opportunities.

"We were a little loose with the ball, some penalties at different times that have knocked us out of some scoring drives. Some missed throws that I've had, some missed reads. I certainly wish I had made a few better throws tonight.

"But, again, it's good to get the win. We're 2-0 and there's a lot to build on."

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan insisted the team's Super Bowl LI meltdown has "no bearing" on Sunday's NFL clash with Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brady was part of the New England Patriots team that completed the largest comeback in Super Bowl history after rallying past the Falcons in 2017.

Ryan's Falcons surrendered a 28-3 lead as the Patriots sensationally prevailed 34-28 in overtime.

Falcons veteran Ryan will do battle against Brady, who now wears a Buccaneers jersey after leading Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl last season.

But that Super Bowl collapse is not in Ryan's head, with the 36-year-old – who is 0-5 against Brady in his career – discussing the infamous defeat on Wednesday.

"I haven't," Ryan said when he heard a reference to the Super Bowl LI loss. "I never heard of it."

The Falcons lost 32-6 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 after Ryan (21-of-35 passing for 164 yards) did not throw a touchdown.

Ryan threw for 164 yards, his fewest in a game since Week 7 of 2019 (159) and his second fewest to open a season in his career, behind only the 161 yards in his first career game in 2008, per Stats Perform.

It was Atlanta's worst loss to open a season since losing by 38 in their opening game in 1987. The Falcons made field goals on each of their first two drives and then either punted or had a turnover on downs in each drive after that.

"Of course we want to win. It's not going to make up for that," Ryan said, discussing the Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots. "You know, it's one of those things. It's part of your past, it's part of what happened.

"But it's got no bearing on this week."

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

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