Essentials from Sunday: Leader letdowns

The division leaders were only 2-6 in their games this weekend, sending one team from first to worst in the division and setting up a more interesting stretch run.

Week 11 was a bad time one for division leaders. Six of the eight teams leading their division prior to this weekend lost.

In the hotly contested AFC North, that meant the Cleveland Browns technically went from best to worst in one day. They started the weekend atop the division with a 6-3 record, but after a 23-7 loss to Houston, the Browns are now 6-4 and technically at the bottom of the AFC North – passed by the Cincinnati Bengals (23-7 winners over the Houston Texans), the Baltimore Ravens (on bye at 6-4), and the Pittsburgh Steelers (at 6-4 and playing Monday night).

The Browns had plenty of company as frontrunners in their division who lost. The Indianapolis Colts couldn’t stop Tom Brady or the New England Patriots’ ground game and lost 42-20 on Sunday night, although they had a two-game lead over the Texans in the AFC South, so the Colts didn’t drop out of first place like the Browns.

The Denver Broncos, the leaders in the AFC West, also lost on Sunday, a surprising 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, who entered the game at the bottom of the NFC West with a 3-6 record. The Broncos fell to 7-3 and have company atop the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs winning 24-20 against the Seattle Seahawks.

The Patriots were the only division leader in the AFC to win on Sunday, and it was a convincing one in Indianapolis. They now have a two-game lead over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East and will perhaps be marked as the NFL’s top team once again with an 8-2 record.

Like the AFC, the division leaders in the NFC also sported a 25 percent win rate in Week 11. The Arizona Cardinals have the best record in the NFL after a 14-6 win over the Detroit Lions, who were leading in the NFC North. That gives the Cardinals a three-game cushion, the largest in the league, over the San Francisco 49ers (who beat the New York Giants) and Seattle Seahawks (losers to Kansas City).

The Cardinals are 9-1 for the second time in franchise history, joining the 1948 Chicago Cardinals, and they are 6-0 at home this season, the first time since 1970 the team has won its first six home games to start a season.

The rest of the NFC division leaders went south with their records. The Philadelphia Eagles’ 53-20 blowout loss in Green Bay means they are tied with the Dallas Cowboys at 7-3 in the NFC East.

The Lions’ loss to the Cardinals also brought Green Bay into a tie at 7-3 in the NFC North.

And the wacky and woeful NFC South also saw a shakeup. The New Orleans Saints entered Week 11 somehow leading the division with a 4-5 record, but with their 27-10 loss to Cincinnati, the Atlanta Falcons are also 4-6 (after a 19-17 win against the Carolina Panther). But the Falcons are 4-0 in the division, and they are the only division leader with a losing record and a negative net-points differential.

All told, the division leaders were 2-6 in the NFL this weekend, setting up a more interesting final six weeks of the regular season.

Here’s what else happened Sunday in the NFL:

  • Aaron Rodgers is en fuego. The Packers quarterback completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in the Green Bay’s dismantling of the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles. Rodgers has thrown 322 consecutive passes at home without an interception, the longest streak in NFL history; and he has 29 consecutive touchdowns at home without an interception, also the longest streak in NFL history. The Packers scored 30 points in the first half, making them the first team in NFL history to score at least 28 points in the first half of four consecutive home games.

  • Brian Hoyer was at the other end of the heat spectrum. Very cold. The Browns quarterback completed only 20 of 50 passes in the loss to the Texans, setting a team record for incomplete or intercepted passes in one game. Otto Graham held that record from the time the Browns entered the NFL in 1950 until last season (tied by Brian Sipe in 1981), when Jason Campbell went 27-for-56 at Cincinnati, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

  • Houston defensive end J.J. Watt was menace on defense and offense. He had five tackles, one sack, a forced fumbled and a fumble recovery as the Texans knocked the Browns from top to bottom in the AFC North. But Watt also had an acrobatic touchdown catch, becoming the second player in NFL history with two touchdown catches, an interception-return touchdown and a fumble-return touchdown in a season, joining Philadelphia’s Jay Arnold in 1938. Watt is the only NFL player to register a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown reception in the same game since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. He is also the first NFL player to score at least two TDs on both offense and defense since J.C. Caroline did it for the Bears in 1956, according to Elias.

  • While the Broncos were upset by the Rams, Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas stayed hot. He had seven catches for 103 yards and now has at least 100 receiving yards in seven consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history with Charley Hennigan (1961) and Michael Irvin (1995). Calvin Johnson holds the NFL record with eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games in 2012.

  • Tampa Bay rookie receiver Mike Evans had seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Buccaneers’ 27-7 win at Washington and became the youngest player in NFL history with a 200-yard receiving game, accomplishing that at 21 years, 87 days old. It was his third straight game with at least seven catches, 100 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. He is the first rookie in NFL history to accomplish that trifecta.

  • In the Patriots’ dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts, New England running back Jonas Gray became the fourth player in NFL history to score each of his first four touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1979, according to Elias.

  • The Rams are proving quite the erratic team. Three of their four wins have come against teams that made the conference finals last season. But St. Louis still has a losing record (4-6). Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only two teams finished with a losing record despite three wins over opponents who reached the previous season’s final four, according to Elias. Those previous two teams – the Raiders in 1992 and the 49ers in 2006 – both finished with 7-9 records.

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