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.

The New York Giants fired offensive co-ordinator Jason Garrett following Monday's loss to NFL Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Garrett lost his job on Tuesday after the struggling Giants fell to 3-7 for the season on the back of a 30-10 defeat to Tom Brady's Buccaneers.

The Giants parted ways with former Dallas Cowboys head coach Garrett amid the team's offensive woes in 2021.

"We made a decision to move on from Jason Garrett as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants," Giants head coach Joe Judge said. "Look, I have a lot of respect for Jason as a person, as a coach.

"He's been a tremendous asset for me as a young head coach. He's helped our development here. He's built very strong relationships in the building with the players, along with other support staff members.

"He's done a good job putting the team first. I have a lot of respect and appreciation for everything he's done for us."

The Giants hired Garrett in January 2020 after he left the Cowboys following nine and a half seasons as coach.

This season, only the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars (both eight) and Chicago Bears (seven) have thrown fewer touchdowns than the Giants (10).

The Giants are 25th in the NFL with an average of 18.9 points a game, while they have scored fewer than 20 points five times and have not reached 30 points since October 11 last year in a 37-34 loss in Dallas – their 21-game streak with less than 30 points is the league's second-longest, behind Jacksonville's 24.

Also, the Giants are last in the NFL with a 44.4 red zone touchdown percentage (12 TDs in 27 trips inside the 20).

"I feel we have to be more productive as an offense," Judge said. "Generally speaking, the offense's job is to score points. I don't believe we're scoring enough points.

"It's my job as the head coach to make sure I give our players the opportunity to go out there and make plays."

The Giants – bottom of the NFC East – have not reached the playoffs since a Wild Card defeat to the Green Bay Packers in 2016.

New York Giants head coach Joe Judge has hit out at his own coaching staff, rather than his players, following Monday's defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The reigning Super Bowl champions got back on track as Tom Brady led the way with a pair of touchdown passes in a 30-10 rout at Raymond Jones Stadium.

Tampa's victory snapped a two-game losing streak to take them to 7-3 for 2021, after successive road defeats to the New Orleans Saints and the Washington Football Team.

New York (3-7) scored on two of their first three possessions – highlighted by a TD catch by tackle Andrew Thomas – to keep the game tight at 10-10 midway through the second quarter but could not put a point on the board from there as Brady, who completed 30 of 46 passes for 307 yards, stamped his authority on proceedings.

While the Bucs top the NFC South, the Giants are rooted to the foot of the NFC East with a 3-7 record in 2021, and Judge shouldered the blame.

"Credit to the Buccaneers. They're a well-coached team, very talented and obviously deserved to win tonight," he told reporters.

"We gotta do a better job putting our players in position to make plays. We’ve got too many good players, we've got to put them in a better position to capitalise on it.

"That's it. We got to make sure we sit down tomorrow as a coaching staff and understand how we've got to play this game and give our players a chance to make plays.

"In reference to the body language [from the players] at the end of the game, I'll handle the corrections we have to make, but as a player, there'd be some things that I'd be frustrated with as well."

Asked if he believed the coaching was the Giants' main issue, Judge added: "Yeah you can put that down tonight. You guys can write that.

"Now the players have got to execute, that's their job. It's our job to teach them, it's their job to go out and execute. But we've got to make sure we keep putting them in a position to have success."

Brady hit Chris Godwin for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game and teed up Mike Evans for a five-yard score midway through the third quarter. 

Evans' touchdown was the 72nd of his Buccaneers career, breaking the franchise record of 71 previously held by Mike Alstott. 

Ronald Jones ran for another Tampa Bay touchdown and Ryan Succop made all three of his field goal attempts for the Bucs.

After a pair of losses sandwiched around their bye week, it had been nearly a month since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enjoyed a victory. 

That led to a "lot of bad nights' sleep" for ultra-competitive Tom Brady as he stewed over mistakes made and opportunities lost. 

Even after they got back on track with a 30-10 defeat of the New York Giants on Monday, though, the quarterback and his team-mates did not sound entirely satisfied. 

"I think we've got a long way to go," Brady told ESPN afterward. "Seven games left, so there's a lot of football left.

"The games are bigger because there's fewer of them, and we put ourselves in a decent position but we've got to keep going."

On the heels of defeats against New Orleans and Washington, the Buccaneers (7-3) and little trouble fending off the Giants (3-7), but the reigning Super Bowl champions could have been more efficient. 

While all three of their touchdowns came from deep in Giants territory, the Bucs drove inside New York's 25-yard line three more times but had to settle for field goals. 

"We executed a little bit better," Brady said. "Still left a few out there, I thought, but better.

"Good win for our team, obviously. Losing two straight, that really sucks in the NFL. But glad it's not three straight, glad we won." 

Brady completed 30 of 46 passes for 307 yards with an interception and a pair of touchdown passes, hitting Chris Godwin for a TD on the opening drive of the game and finding Mike Evans for a five-yard score midway through the third quarter. 

Evans' touchdown was the 72nd of his Buccaneers career, breaking the franchise record of 71 previously held by franchise icon Mike Alstott. 

"It's something I dreamed of," Evans told NFL Network. "I've been blessed to have great teammates, good health, and I've worked really hard for it, so I'm proud of it. I'm just happy to be in the same sentence with Mike Alstott."

Only 28 years old, Evans has spent his entire eight-year NFL career with Tampa Bay and reached double digits in touchdown receptions four times. 

With 10 TD catches this year, he is well-positioned to top his career-best mark of 13 in a season established last year. 

Brady said Evans is "amazing, in every way – as a player, teammate, friend, leader. He's just awesome. Love being out there with him, love playing with him. He really sets the tone for that group."

In addition to Evans' steady contributions, the Bucs also benefited from tight end Rob Gronkowski's return to the lineup Monday after playing only five snaps since Week 3 due to a variety of injuries. 

He had six catches for 71 yards against the Giants, and if he can stay healthy he will provide another valuable weapon as Brady and the Bucs gear up for another playoff run. 

"We're at a decent point but we can play a lot better than we've played," Brady said. "I'm hoping our best football is in front of us."

The reigning Super Bowl champions got back on track Monday as Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 30-10 rout of the New York Giants.

The victory at Raymond James Stadium marked a welcome return to normalcy for the Bucs (7-3), who had dropped successive road games at New Orleans and Washington. They are now 5-0 at home this season. 

Brady completed 30 of 46 passes for 307 yards with an interception and a pair of touchdown passes for Tampa Bay, hitting Chris Godwin for a TD on the opening drive of the game and finding Mike Evans for a five-yard score midway through the third quarter. 

Evans' touchdown was the 72nd of his Buccaneers career, breaking the franchise record of 71 previously held by Mike Alstott. 

Ronald Jones ran for another Tampa Bay touchdown and Ryan Succop made all three of his field goal attempts for the Bucs. 

The Tampa Bay defence forced three turnovers as Giants quarterback Daniel Jones went 23-of-38 passing for just 167 yards with a TD and two interceptions. 

New York (3-7) scored on two of their first three possessions to keep the game tight at 10-10 midway through the second quarter but could not put a point on the board from there. 

Saquon Barkley returned after missing four games with a sprained ankle, but the Giants' star running back managed only 25 yards on six carries. 

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar Tom Brady insisted there is a "real urgency" for the NFL Super Bowl champions to arrest their slump ahead of Monday's clash with the New York Giants.

The Buccaneers (6-3) have lost back-to-back games as they prepare to host the Giants at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

Brady has not lost three consecutive regular-season games since 2002, when he dropped four in a row, and the record seven-time Super Bowl champion knows the Buccaneers must start winning sooner rather than later.

"I think we have to change it and I think winning football is about doing the right thing as often as possible," Brady told reporters on Saturday.

"Everyone being on the same page, great communication and just giving the best effort as possible on every play. Things aren't always going to be perfect out there, but you have to have as few as mistakes as possible.

"I think there's a real urgency for us to have it right."

Despite their loss of form, the Buccaneers still lead the NFC South, ahead of the New Orleans Saints.

"It's not nearly as fun putting all the work in and us trying to grind and get it right," said Brady. "We're not doing what it takes on the field in order to win.

"In order to do it right, you put in a lot of time and energy and detail into what we're doing. It will feel a lot better when we win, but we have to go earn it and we're going against a team that challenges you to do it."

Brady is 5-1 in his six career regular-season games against the Giants (passing for more than 330 yards in four of those six games) but 0-2 against them in Super Bowls.

The 44-year-old leads the NFL this season in big plays passing (26), attempts per game (41.9), completions per game (28.2), passing yards per game (318.9), having completed 254 passes for 2,870 yards and 27 touchdowns.

His passer rating (106.1) through nine games is his best since 2015 with the New England Patriots.

"I actually have great teammates and great group of coaches and we're going to work our butt off to get it right," said Brady. "I think there are definitely things that we've done a good job of, but it's identifying those things and then working at them.

"I think the expectations are high for a reason because we have a lot of talented players, and we know that we can play at a high level. We just have to go do it."

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will again be without star Antonio Brown against the visiting Giants.

Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians confirmed Brown's absence on Saturday – the wide receiver has not played since Week 6 due to an ankle injury.

In the zero-sum world of the NFL, no one apologises for a win, but the Kansas City Chiefs know plenty of work remains after they pulled out a 20-17 victory over the New York Giants on Monday. 

Though head coach Andy Reid acknowledged the "good, hard-fought win – one that we needed", the defending AFC champions were left to puzzle over their 12 penalties and two more turnovers that elevated their NFL-worst season total to 19. 

For a team that went 38-10 over the last three regular seasons, clawing back to 4-4 against the struggling Giants was more a cause for relief than celebration. 

"Everything's not beautiful right now, but we're fighting through it," Reid told reporters. "You've got to fight. They didn't give up on each other. ... We'll build on that. Let's keep going."

Though Kansas City's defence played well down the stretch, the offence remains the primary source of concern. 

Through his first 48 regular-season games with the Chiefs, Mahomes averaged fewer than six yards per pass attempt only twice. He has failed to reach that mark in four of his last six games, finishing at 5.73 yards per attempt Monday after completing 29 of 48 passes for 275 yards.

The former league MVP was left searching for answers even in victory, though it sounds like it will not be a simple fix. 

"It's execution," Mahomes said. "I know I say it all the time, but we have guys open and if we're on the same page, me and the receivers with the routes, and I throw it and hit the right spot, we can move the ball on on pretty much any coverage. We have answers versus everything.

"But you've seen in every game pretty much that there's been times where we kind of stall out and we don't execute or I throw the ball and I don't hit the right spot or the receiver doesn't see it the same way that I do, or penalties or turnovers. ... 

"But I think we're going to snap out of it and we'll find a way to start executing when we do will be a tough offense to stop."

The path forward does not get any easier for the Chiefs, who host the 7-1 Green Bay Packers on Sunday. 

The Kansas City Chiefs still bear very little resemblance to the team that reached the Super Bowl in February, but they got back to even this season with a much-needed 20-17 victory over the New York Giants on Monday. 

Two fourth-quarter field goals from Harrison Butker were the difference as the Chiefs improved to 4-4 despite another sloppy display at Arrowhead Stadium. 

Kansas City turned the ball over twice, increasing their NFL-worst total to 19 this season, and nearly had another on their critical final drive before a Patrick Mahomes interception was negated by an offsides penalty on the Giants (2-6). 

Speaking of penalties, the Chiefs incurred 12 of them for 103 yards but still managed to prevail as they twice got close enough to the end zone in the final period for Butker's leg to get points on the board. 

They were fortunate to do so after losing a 14-7 second-quarter lead that came courtesy of a Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill touchdown pass and running back Derrick Gore's first career TD in the opening half. 

After a Graham Gano field goal late in the half, Daniel Jones hit Evan Engram for a touchdown on the opening play of the fourth quarter to put the Giants on top 17-14 but that was the end of the scoring for New York. 

Mahomes completed just 29 of 48 passes for 275 yards with a touchdown and an interception while Jones was 22-of-32 passing for 222 yards with two TDs and one interception. 

 

The challenge of stopping Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens has proven beyond plenty of defensive teams during his still relatively young NFL career, and one of the finest defensive minds in the league was not up to the task in Week 6.

Jackson's meeting with fellow quarterback Justin Herbert was pegged as a battle between MVP candidates as the Ravens hosted the Los Angeles Chargers, and it is the Ravens star who has the stronger case after their dominant 34-6 win in a clash of 4-1 teams.

Brandon Staley was appointed as Chargers head coach on the back of his excellent performance in his one year as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.

His Rams defense allowed the fewest yards per play in the NFL last season, however, the Chargers have struggled mightily against the run in 2021, making them an enticing matchup for the league's premier dual-threat quarterback in Jackson.

As it happened Jackson was able to lighten the burden on his shoulders in terms of running the ball, Latavius Murray and Le'Veon Bell each going in for rushing scores to put the Ravens 14-0 to the good in the second quarter.

Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert responded late in the half with a one-yard touchdown throw to Jared Cook after a Jackson interception, though the Chargers still trailed 17-6 at the half.

But a 12-play, 52-yard drive ended with Jackson hitting Mark Andrews for a nine-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and there was never a hint of a Chargers comeback thereafter.

Jackson's stat line, 19 of 27 passing for 167 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions with 51 yards on eight rushes, was pedestrian by his standards, but it was enough to give the Ravens the best record in the AFC as he claimed his 35th win, breaking Dan Marino's record for the most by a quarterback before his 25th birthday.

Chiefs remain unconvincing

Plenty wondered whether it was time to panic for the Kansas City Chiefs following their Week 5 loss to the Buffalo Bills in primetime last Sunday, which dropped them to 2-3.

Concerns about the two-time defending AFC champions were furthered after a first-half performance against the Washington Football Team that saw them trail 13-10 at the half.

Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions, one off the hands of Tyreek Hill and another with an inexplicable decision to toss the ball up for grabs after fumbling the snap.

However, a touchdown pass to Hill and Darrel Williams' second rushing score of the game put Kansas City in command before Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson in the endzone to secure a 31-13 win that moves them within striking distance of the Chargers in the AFC West.

Five in a row for Packers

The Packers are far from the finished product at this stage of the season, but it is now five wins in a row for Green Bay after their 24-14 victory over NFC North rivals the Chicago Bears.

Aaron Rodgers averaged 8.5 yards per pass play and threw for two touchdowns, with the Packers quarterback reminding the Bears' fans at Soldier Field of his hold over the division after running for a score that effectively put the game to bed.

The Los Angeles Rams are also 5-1 after Matthew Stafford threw four touchdown passes in a 38-11 rout of the New York Giants.

The New York Giants watched one offensive playmaker after another fall by the wayside in a 44-20 loss to rivals the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL on Sunday. 

Giants running back Saquon Barkley (ankle) and wide receiver Kenny Golladay (knee) were injured in the first quarter – though the latter continued to play through half-time – and quarterback Daniel Jones (concussion) went down late in the second period. 

Golladay, who has battled a series of lower-body injuries this year, said he hyperextended his knee in the opening quarter and tried to play through it but could not continue after the break. 

Initial reports indicated Barkley could end up missing the most time, with ESPN saying he is expected to be sidelined for at least a couple of weeks with a sprained left ankle. 

Any extended absence would be a cruel setback for the former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Week 2 last season. 

The injury to Jones may have been the most concerning to watch, however. 

The third-year quarterback was running the ball towards the goal line late in the first half when he lowered his head to meet oncoming Dallas defender Jabril Cox. 

The pair hit helmet-to-helmet as Jones was dragged down and the quarterback lay prone in the end zone for a few moments before getting up, but he was shaky on his feet and had to be helped off the field by medical personnel before being taken to the locker room on a cart. 

Giants head coach Joe Judge had little to share about Jones when he spoke to reporters after his team fell to 1-4 for the season.

"I'm not going to get into any medical diagnosis," Judge said. "I saw him in the locker room afterwards right there. Just checked on him

"In terms of where he'll go next week, I don't have an answer for you right now. We'll see where he goes. Obviously we're all hopeful that he'll be back and he'll be healthy."

Mike Glennon finished the game at quarterback, completing 16 of 25 passes (64 per cent) for 196 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. 

Jones has completed 66.7 per cent of his passes this year, with four touchdowns and just one interception. 

While he had no specific details to offer about the injured players, Judge said he was pleased that the Giants' backups stepped in and did what they could.

"We'll check on the status of the guys who left, see where they're at, I couldn't give you any answers in terms of next week at this point right now," he said. 

"But in terms of how our team responded, that's exactly what I expect. I expect whoever's in the game to play, I expect the entire team to come down here ready to go.

"I tell you guys all the time, whoever's at the game I expect to play and I expect to be productive."

Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers took another step in establishing themselves as NFL Super Bowl contenders as they pulled out a wild 47-42 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

The lead changed hands seven times as Herbert and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield led their teams downfield almost at will, but the Chargers (4-1) scored last and the Browns (3-2) could not respond on Sunday.

Herbert continued building his MVP case as he went 26-of-43 passing for 398 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions and ran for another score. 

The Chargers trailed 27-13 after a spectacular 52-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb on the opening drive of the second half, but Herbert led them back to take a 28-27 lead and the teams exchanged touchdowns from there. 

Los Angeles thought they had tied the game when Herbert hit Austin Ekeler for a 19-yard touchdown with 3:15 to play but Tristan Vizcaino missed his second extra point of the game to leave the Chargers trailing by a point. 

The Browns went three and out on the next possession and Herbert led the Chargers to the three-yard line, where the Cleveland defence helped Ekeler cross the goal line on purpose with 1:31 to play so the Browns could get the ball back. 

But Mayfield could not finish the job, throwing three successive incompletions from the Cleveland 47-yard line to give the Chargers the ball and end the game. 

Murray, Cardinals remain unbeaten

The Arizona Cardinals improved to 5-0 and remain the only unbeaten team in the NFL after pulling out a 17-10 win against the San Francisco 49ers. 

Kyler Murray's explosive Arizona offence entered the game averaging 35 points per game but had to scrape out the win as they were out-gained 338 to 304 by Trey Lance and the 49ers (2-3). 

Murray completed 22 of 31 passes for 239 yards and a key nine-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins with 5:13 to play that effectively put the game out of reach. 

Rookie quarterback Lance made his first start for San Francisco and completed just 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards with an interception, though he led all rushers in the game with 89 yards on the ground. 

Cowboys run away from battered Giants

The Dallas Cowboys took advantage of injuries to the New York Giants' two most important players on offence, rolling to a 44-20 home victory. 

The Giants lost quarterback Daniel Jones to a concussion and running back Saquon Barkley to an ankle injury and were outscored 27-7 after Graham Gano hit a field goal on the first drive of the second half. 

Dak Prescott completed 22 of 32 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns for Dallas, while Ezekiel Elliott ran for 110 yards and a score. 

So far, so good, Dak Prescott. At least from a personal perspective, though, it was a similar story through four weeks in 2020.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback set a record-breaking pace last year, his 1,690 passing yards comfortably the most by any player over the first four weeks of a season since 1960. In fact, in at least the past 40 years, no QB can match that total across any four-game span.

Going back to 1960, only Jameis Winston had previously thrown for 450 yards in consecutive games. Prescott became the first to do so in three in a row against the Atlanta Falcons (450), the Seattle Seahawks (472, a career high) and the Cleveland Browns (502, another career high) in Weeks 2, 3 and 4.

Yet the Cowboys were only 1-3, and when Prescott went down for the year against the New York Giants in Week 5, any hopes of recovering their season were dashed. Dallas went from averaging a league-leading 509.5 total net yards and third-ranked 31.5 points per game through Week 4 to 325.9 yards and 22.5 points over the rest of the year — ranking joint-21st and 25th.

In 2021, however, they are 3-1 heading into another Week 5 matchup with the Giants, despite having played three other 3-1 teams. And although Prescott has again been outstanding, this year's Cowboys do not look quite so fragile.

'The best I've ever played'

Of course, Dallas' excellent start begins with the man under center. Prescott is back this season having finally signed a four-year, $160million extension, and he is quickly proving worth that investment.

Although his 1,066 yards pale next to last year's early efforts, the 28-year-old has thrown 10 touchdown passes, up on 2020's nine and the second-most ever at this stage of a season by a Cowboys QB, behind Tony Romo's 11 in 2007. Only Don Meredith (twice — in 1966 and 1968) has bettered Prescott's 116.9 passer rating to this point.

After three TDs and no interceptions in the Week 3 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott said he had gained "a different perspective" from his spell on the sidelines. "I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played," he added. He then had four TDs and no interceptions versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.

Prescott is undoubtedly excelling — he has delivered a well-thrown, accurate ball with 84.7 per cent of his passes this year, third among QBs with 100 or more attempts — but he is also getting help. In the Panthers game, he did not take a single sack. His seven for the year are fewer than 21 other QBs through four weeks.

Indeed, the Dallas number four said coming into the season offensive linemen Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, who all missed at least large chunks of 2020 through injury, were "the most important" members of the offense.

Of the 32 pressures Prescott has faced this season, 20 came in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Martin was on the COVID list. He has won 57 of 58 pass protection attempts, allowing only a single hurry. Smith has won 90 of 93 attempts, giving up a sole adjusted sack. The Cowboys still have the suspended Collins to come back in.

Even when Prescott is pressured, he is performing well, getting the ball out quickly and accurately, his 2.84-second release time the fourth-fastest under duress (minimum 10 attempts) and his 81.3 well-thrown percentage the fourth-best.

Having top-level talents to give the ball to makes the job easier, though.

Sharing the ball around

Prescott completed at least 80 per cent of his passes in consecutive weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers (85.2) and the Eagles (80.8), while the Cowboys also put up more than 150 rushing yards in both matchups (198 and 160). The 1984 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana, had been the last team to achieve that feat in back-to-back games.

That statistic speaks to the threat Dallas pose on offense this year.

Through the air, Prescott has had three outstanding weapons to target at the start of this season. Wide receivers Amari Cooper (22) and CeeDee Lamb (20) and tight end Dalton Schultz (20) have each made at least 20 catches, making the Cowboys the only team to have three players reach this mark through four weeks in 2021.

In just Lamb's second season in the league, he and Cooper have already established themselves as one of football's premier wide receiver duos — they are one of seven pairs of team-mates to each have 250 receiving yards at the position through Week 4 (258 for Cooper, 264 for Lamb).

Against the Panthers, when Lamb was limited to just two catches, four other Cowboys caught TD passes — among them breakout star Schultz, who has three scores in four games after four in his first three years in the league.

Two of those prior four TDs came in the first four games of 2020, though, with Prescott targeting Schultz with 28 passes, leading to a career-high four-game span of 219 receiving yards. Of those, 105 yards came after the catch, showing his power as he ranked fifth at TE in the NFL. So far this year, his 131 yards after the catch trail only Travis Kelce and George Kittle — good company to be keeping.

Crucially, however, Dallas also have multiple options on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott looks back to his best and is boosted by having Tony Pollard emerge as an effective alternative.

"We've got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it's not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25, 30 times a game," head coach Mike McCarthy said in July. "When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25, 30 times if needed."

Elliott is certainly being used more efficiently; his 342 rushing yards fall well short of the Week 4 marks set in 2016 (412) and 2018 (426), but only in the latter year (5.84) has he averaged more yards per carry than this year's 5.34. The 26-year-old's four rushing scores are his most at this stage of a season. He still played a key role against Carolina, with 143 rushing yards his most in a game since 2018.

The Cowboys are difficult to stop, with Pollard (4.29) and Elliott (4.00) ranking third and fourth among running backs for yards per carry on plays where run disruption occurs and defenders get the better of the O-line. It is easy to see why Dallas are now running the ball on 47.0 per cent of plays, fifth-most in the league, easing the burden on Prescott.

Young defense delivering

This outstanding offensive production would all count for little if the Cowboys were not also showing improvement on the defensive end. The reasons for their 1-3 start in 2020 were the 430.5 total net yards (third-most) and league-high 36.5 points allowed per game.

Happily, with Prescott returning and faith in the offensive options, the Cowboys were able to focus almost solely on defense in the draft. Their first six picks, including 12th overall selection Micah Parsons, were on that side of the ball.

Linebacker Parsons has quickly established himself, leading the team with 2.5 sacks and 32 sack yards while registering 13 pressures on 46 pass rush attempts — a strong 28.3 per cent. At defensive tackle, third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa has been similarly impressive, pressuring at a 21.4 per cent rate and registering an adjusted sack on 7.1 per cent of plays when lined up on the interior. With Jaylon Smith released, fourth-rounder Jabril Cox could also now get an opportunity.

The undoubted star of the season so far, however, is second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dallas have registered 10 total takeaways, only behind the Buffalo Bills, and Diggs' five interceptions — at least one in each game, including a pick-six against the Eagles — account for half of them. Since 1960, only three players have had more interceptions heading into Week 5; since 1980, just two have had a longer streak of games with picks to start a season.

As a team, the Cowboys had 10 interceptions in the whole of 2020, with Diggs, then a rookie, contributing three.

The Cowboys have now given up 24.3 points per game, tied for 16th in the league, but they have allowed just six points — from two field goals — in the fourth quarter of one-score games, giving Prescott every opportunity to win the game.

Unlike the QB, the key men in the defensive unit are largely too young to have worked with former Cowboys coach and current Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but on the evidence of this season so far they will relish making life hell for his man Daniel Jones on Sunday.

In their last game against weak NFC East rivals until a kind end to the schedule starting in Week 14, the Cowboys will look to lay down a marker, extending this strong start and encouraging hopes they can be a genuine contender this year. Getting Jones off the field and allowing Prescott, Elliott and Co to get to work should ensure they do that.

Taylor Heinicke is determined to establish himself with the Washington Football Team, and his display in the 30-29 win over the New York Giants was hailed as "gutty" by Ron Rivera.

Filling in for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is out with a hip injury and likely not available until November, Heinicke threw two touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his short NFL career.

The quarterback has had prior spells in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers, but before this season he had tallied just eight games in the league.

Now Heinicke has a chance to play a string of games for Washington, and even though he threw an interception with 2:22 remaining in Thursday night's game, he came good after that, commandeering the drive that resulted in Dustin Hopkins making a match-winning field goal.

Heinicke finished the game with 34-for-46 passing for 336 yards and the two touchdowns, as Washington won their first game of the season.

Speaking on Thursday Night Football, Heinicke said: "Defense came up big and we had a chance to close them out there and throwing a pick is not what you want to do.

"A lot of guys came up to me and said we've got one more chance to do it and fortunately we did. Defense came up and we went down and scored."

Asked whether he considered he had done enough to stay on the team, Heinicke said: "I do, and I have confidence that I can do it. If those guys in the locker room and the facility believe in me, that's all that matters and I think they do, so let's try to keep this ball rolling."

An impressed Rivera was captivated by Heinicke looking to make amends for his error, and by the 28-year-old's overall performance..

"It was very gutty," said the Washington coach. "The thing that was real impressive about him was the way he bounced back after the turnover. Prior to that, he went down and, in what, three plays, he scored a touchdown and turned around, and we were trying to kill the clock, and he made a bad read, made a bad decision.

"But getting that opportunity, he stepped up again."

Heinicke lost his cool and threw down his helmet after the interception, before gathering his thoughts and moving on.

"He was p*****. He was upset at himself, he really was," said Rivera. "He slammed his helmet into the ground. It was just one of those things that you just felt if we can get the ball into his hands...

"He does have the ability to throw the ball, and make all the throws And we've seen that. And he's got a lot of confidence. And when he gets into a really nice rhythm, he can deliver a good ball.

"He's got a little swagger to him and his team-mates feed off of it, they really do."

The New York Giants were left to rue missed opportunities and a costly late Dexter Lawrence offside as they went down 30-29 to the Washington in Thursday Night Football in Maryland.

Dustin Hopkins successfully converted a 43-yard attempt for the win on the buzzer, although he had missed his initial 48-yard try, only to get a second chance due to Lawrence jumping early.

Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, in only his third NFL start, completed 34 of 46 passes for 336 yards, compared to Giants QB Daniel Jones who had 22 from 32 for 249 yards.

Heinicke, who was playing for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, claimed his first career win as a starting QB, highlighted by a key fourth-quarter pass for a Ricky Seals-Jones touchdown.

The result earns Washington their first win of the season, while the Giants are 0-2 after their opening defeat to the Denver Broncos.

Jones had put the Giants ahead when he rushed into the end zone in the first quarter, breaking a Kamren Curl tackle.

Washington leveled it up with a Terry McLaurin touchdown from Heinicke's pinpoint throw, after Giants offensive lineman Nick Gates was carted off with a gruesome lower leg fracture. McLaurin had 11 catches and 107 yards for the game.

New York were denied another running Jones touchdown in the second quarter for a tight hold call against CJ Board, eliminating a 58-yard play, before dependable Giants kicker Graham Gano made it 10-7.

Washington grabbed a 14-10 lead at half-time when running back JD McKissic drove down the left for a late touchdown.

Gano reduced the deficit, before Darius Slayton's touchdown from a Jones pass for a 33-yard completion. Hopkins made it 20-17 at the final change with a 49-yard attempt.

The lead changed three times in the final quarter, with Jones pushing the ball downfield, enabling Gano to get within range for a 52-yard attempt, with Hopkins responding with nine minutes to go to make it 23-20.

Slayton fluffed a golden chance to open up a big Giants lead when he got open in the end zone but dropped a Jones pass.

Gano extended New York's lead to six points before Heinicke found McKissic down the sideline for a 56-yard play, the longest of the game. From the next play, Heinicke delivered to tightend Seals-Jones for a catch into the corner to put Washington up 27-26 with 4:33 to play.

Washington gave up a turnover before the Giants earned territory, settling for Gano to convert his 35th consecutive attempt to put them up 29-27 with two minutes to play.

Heinicke and Washington edged forward, with Hopkins' initial attempt with five seconds on the clock missing, before converting his reprieve for the win.

The 2021 NFL season began on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their quest for a second straight Super Bowlw title with a thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Having won his seventh ring in his first season with the Bucs playing in front of at best sparsely populated crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brady and Tampa Bay claimed a 31-29 victory in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.

While the return of fans and full stadiums will give this season a different look, once more it is the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs who go into the year as the teams to beat.

However, there are a host of other high-profile teams who could be set to improve on their 2020 win-loss records, as well as those who could be poised to decline from postseason contention.

With the help of Stats Perform data, here are some of the more intriguing teams to keep eye on as the NFL makes its much anticipated return.

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

A gruesome ankle injury suffered by Dak Prescott in Week 5 ended Dallas' hopes of challenging last season.

As it turned out, further injuries on the offensive line and a miserable defense would have made it tough for the Cowboys to contend even if Prescott had been on the field to lead the offense, as their wait for a first Super Bowl since 1995 goes on.

But Prescott is back with the security of a lucrative new contract as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup remain part of an explosive supporting cast and he delivered a compelling reminder of his upside in defeat to Tampa Bay, throwing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception off the hands of Lamb.

Prescott has averaged 8.26 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, third best among NFL QBs, and there are huge hopes for the offense, particularly if the highly rated Lamb (74 catches for 935 yards in 2020) can kick on from a fine rookie season. Despite Lamb's drop leading to a turnover, the early signs were good as he caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping Prescott average 6.95 yards per attempt and post a 101.4 passer rating.

If new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn can get the defense – which allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season (31st in the NFL) but just 52 against the Bucs - somewhere towards the middle of the pack, the Cowboys should soar well clear of their 6-10 mark from 2020 and will be justified favourites to win the NFC East.

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

The Bills and Josh Allen were so good last season that they may decline from their 13-3 mark even without doing too much wrong.

Allen made an astonishing leap from year two to three – posting career highs in passing yards (3,089 to 4,544), passing touchdowns (20 to 37) and completion percentage (58.8 to 69.2), plus eight rushing scores - and was rewarded with a huge offseason contract extension.

Allen's numbers and rate of improvement are hard to sustain, and even a marginal decline could lead to a worse record in a competitive division.

Stefon Diggs was incredible with league-leading figures of 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards, while Cole Beasley (82 catches for 967 yards) was a crucial complementary piece.

Allen and Diggs played all 16 games last season while Beasley only missed one, so there was good fortune on the health front, while the Bills were able to win close games last season – boasting a 5-1 record in one-score contests – a metric that often reverts to the mean.

Their divisional rivals, meanwhile, look threatening. The New England Patriots have spent big in free agency to revamp the supporting cast for rookie QB Mac Jones.

New England's tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only five TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted.

A down year for the Patriots – in which their offensive weapons looked woeful and several defensive players opted out - still produced a not disastrous 7-9 record, with four of those losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4 in one score games) are another ascending team in the division after going 10-6 and allowing only 21.1 points per game (ried-fifth in the NFL).

Even the New York Jets, buoyed after selecting BYU QB Zach Wilson at number two overall, look poised to be more competitive than their 2-14 misery a season ago.

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational talent at QB and there were few questions he would be selected at number one overall in the draft.

With Lawrence being paired with college coaching great Urban Meyer and an intriguing array of pass-catchers including Laviska Shenault (691 scrimmage yards, five TDs last year) and D. J. Chark (1,714 receiving yards since 2019), the Jags could be set for rapid improvement.

Even in their awful season that led to the chance to select Lawrence at the top of the draft, the Jags were 1-6 in one score games and slightly better than their 1-15 record suggested.

By the same metric, divisional rivals the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and the Tennessee Titans (7-2) claimed many of their victories in close games.

With the Colts negotiating some uncertainty at QB as they look to revive the career of Carson Wentz – who is dealing with a foot injury – and the Houston Texans in disarray and full rebuild mode, the Jags could emerge as surprise challengers to the Titans.

Other teams who could rise and fall

Other teams who look likely to ascend include the San Francisco 49ers (6-10), who were ravaged with injuries last season and now have two viable options at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo and exciting draft pick Trey Lance. Five of their losses last season came by one score or less despite a depleted roster. 

The Denver Broncos (5-11)  have a stacked roster with their only concerns coming at the QB position, where they hope Teddy Bridgewater can provide more stability than the volatile Drew Lock (16 TDs and 15 INTs in 2020), despite coming off a poor season with the Carolina Panthers, who opted to replace him with Sam Darnold.

The New Orleans Saints (12-4) could be trending in the opposite direction, though. While Drew Brees was not at his peak in his final NFL season, a combination of Jameis Wilson and Taysom Hill must now try to replace the future Hall of Famer while keeping pace with the formidable Bucs and an Atlanta Falcons team that has added dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts.

New Orleans' offseason was defined by a roster overhaul enforced by the Saints' salary cap woe, leaving them with a wide receiver depth chart that looks alarming with Michael Thomas (missed nine games in 2020) starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

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