The San Francisco 49ers were hoping to write a new chapter in their rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks.

It ended up being the same old story.

Riding a three-game winning streak that had propelled them into the thick of the NFC playoff race, the Niners were expected to prevail against a 3-8 Seahawks team at their lowest ebb.

Instead, a mistake-strewn display allowed Seattle to launch what could prove the last stand of the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks keeping the Niners out of the endzone at the end of a last-ditch 95-yard drive to preserve a 30-23 win, their 14th in 16 games against the 49ers since the beginning of the 2014 season.

San Francisco could not have done more to help Seattle as the Niners missed a chance to move to 7-5 and cement their grip on a playoff berth.

It was another frustrating day in an up-and-down campaign for a team that two seasons ago was the unquestioned elite of the NFC and, while the defeat was the product of a multitude of failures, the 49ers' rollercoaster 2021 is emblematic of a quarterback akin to a thrill ride many are eager to escape from.

Talent across the board

Examine the 49ers' roster and you will find top-level talent in almost every area.

George Kittle's monstrous performance in Seattle was yet another illustration of the playmaking capability at their disposal.

Racking up 189 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, Kittle produced a big play on five of his 12 targets against the Seahawks, thriving as the focal point of the Niners' offense with Deebo Samuel out with a groin injury.

It is Samuel who was the catalyst of that three-game winning run, the 2019 second-round pick compiling an Offensive Player of the Year resume with his exploits as both a wide receiver and a running back.

With two rushing touchdowns in Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings, Samuel became the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to score on the ground in three straight games. He is tied for the league lead with 14.9 scrimmage yards per touch and has 10 total touchdowns to his name.

The first Niners wideout to surpass 1,000 receiving yards since 2014, Samuel leads all players at his position with 9.5 yards after catch per reception. Kittle is sixth among tight ends with 222 yards after catch, a tally padded by his incredible 48-yard catch and run for his second touchdown on Sunday.

Between that duo and the resurgent Brandon Aiyuk, whose big-play rate of 39.7 per cent is ninth among wideouts with at least 25 targets, the 49ers possess three significant passing-game threats whose versatility is a constant problem for defenses.

In addition to Samuel's exploits as a runner, the Niners' rushing attack also features arguably the top rookie running back in the league in Elijah Mitchell, whose 84.3 yards per game on the ground are the most among first-year tailbacks.

That ground game is aided significantly by the play of the man most consider the league's elite left tackle in 2021. Trent Williams headed into Week 13 with a run-block win rate of 84.91 per cent and a pass-block win rate of 89.32 per cent that are both a long way above the respective league averages of 73.16 per cent and 78.60 per cent for the tackle position.

On the other side of the trenches, defensive end Nick Bosa is third in the league in sacks with 12 and tied for the NFL lead with 16 tackles for loss, serving as the undoubted star of a defense that held Seattle to 4.8 yards per play and forced three turnovers despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

Even without Samuel, the 49ers objectively had enough talent at their disposal to prevail and improve to 7-5, especially with a strong effort from the defense. Their failure to stretch the winning run to four games was not down to the injury to Samuel, but an infuriating lack of execution that has been a recurring problem in 2021.

Turnovers, penalties a continuing plague

While sections of the box score reflect the dominance the Niners enjoyed for long periods against Seattle, it is easy to identify the areas where it went wrong.

They committed three turnovers, were called for 10 penalties and went three for 10 on third down, losing the time of possession battle against a team that ranks last in that category.

It was a frustratingly familiar tale for the Niners, who lost to Seattle in Week 4 in strikingly similar fashion and have frequently been plagued by turnovers and penalties this season.

The Niners are 23rd in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus 4, while they have given up the fourth-most penalty yardage per game in the NFL (65.25).

Miscues on defense and on their special teams, which gave up a fake punt touchdown and lost a fumble as Travis Benjamin dropped the opening kickoff of the second half, contributed to the Niners continually gifting free plays and extra possessions to the Seahawks.

Yet, beyond the obvious poor discipline in other areas, the 49ers' latest Seattle horror show was an encapsulation of the pitfalls of trusting your offense to a quarterback as volatile as Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo's limitations again laid bare

The Niners' winning streak had quieted most of the questions surrounding when Kyle Shanahan would bench Garoppolo for rookie third overall pick Trey Lance, San Francisco's starter having largely played well across each of those victories.

And Garoppolo was, for the most part, accurate against the Seahawks. He delivered a well-thrown ball on 90 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Derek Carr and Gardner Minshew for Week 13.

However, two of the Niners' three turnovers came as a result of brutal interceptions from Garoppolo. San Francisco's defense prevented the first, on which Garoppolo failed to spot the underneath coverage of Bobby Wagner and threw the ball right to the Seattle linebacker, from resulting in points.

They could not do the same following the second, however, Garoppolo inexplicably trying to force a ball to Kittle despite double coverage when he had Trent Sherfield open on a corner route, with that pick followed by the ultimately decisive touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

Intercepted eight times in 2021, Garoppolo has thrown a pickable pass on 14 of his 300 attempts, that ratio of 4.67 per cent inferior to the league average of 3.78 per cent.

With a passer rating of 83.2 on passes of 21 air yards or more that is 23rd among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of that distance, the book on Garoppolo remains the same. At his best, he can execute Kyle Shanahan's offense to a high level, but he consistently limits its potential by struggling to push the ball downfield, committing mind-boggling interceptions and failing to create outside the pocket.

Exacerbating the frustration around Garoppolo's consistent inconsistency is that Lance, an athletic dual-threat quarterback and a more gifted downfield thrower, would theoretically remove those two limiting factors with which his more experienced team-mate continues to shackle the offense.

The 49ers are not short of their problems elsewhere on the roster. The right side of the offensive line is a major issue and the lack of depth at cornerback has been frequently exposed.

Yet those concerns are exacerbated when a team has a quarterback who cannot create for himself when the pocket breaks down and who regularly puts the defense under pressure with ill-advised throws that are all too often a part of his repertoire.

Though the penalties and mistakes from his team-mates have been too common to simply label Sunday's performance in Seattle as an aberration, the more common thread in losses for the 49ers this season has concerned Garoppolo and the limitations to his game that have long since been apparent.

With the stars they have on both sides of the ball, the 49ers should be much more than a 6-6 team scrapping for a Wild Card and coming up short against the worst Seahawks team of the Carroll-Wilson era. The likelihood is San Francisco will make the playoffs but, for them to have hope of and making any noise in the postseason, it would require a switch to a quarterback with the potential to be much more than Garoppolo.

George Kittle described the San Francisco 49ers' loss to the Seattle Seahawks as a "brutal rollercoaster" after they came up short in a wild finish to a frenetic Week 13 clash.

The Niners had won their past three games but came undone in Seattle, falling to a 30-23 loss that dropped them to 6-6 and dented their playoff hopes.

San Francisco led 17-7 and 23-14 in the first half, but a series of damaging penalties and turnovers undermined the positives for the Niners, which included a nine-catch, 181-yard performance from tight end Kittle, who scored two touchdowns.

The Niners committed three turnovers, with Jimmy Garoppolo tossing a pair of interceptions, were called for 10 penalties and went three for 10 on third down in an error-strewn showing.

Yet San Francisco's defense stopped Seattle twice from inside their own 30-yard line in the second half, a forced fumble from linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair on the two-yard line giving the Niners the ball back with the chance to tie the game and force overtime.

The 49ers subsequently went 95 yards down the field, but Garoppolo saw a fourth-down throw to Trent Sherfield with seconds remaining batted down at the line of scrimmage as Seattle clung on.

Kittle was disappointed with the 49ers' offense inability to execute and the performance of the special teams, which gave up a fake punt touchdown and also lost a fumble when Travis Benjamin dropped the opening kickoff of the second half.

"This game was like a rollercoaster. It was pretty brutal," Kittle said. "I think our defense played really, really well for being down the amount of guys they were...

"At least two of your three teams have to play well, and I think our offense and our special teams didn't play our best games.

"I'm not trying to point fingers, but we have to hold each other accountable, gotta look in the mirror.

"Our run game was okay, but as a whole we have to run the ball better and just hold on to the football."

There was controversy on that final series, with Sidney Jones not penalised for holding or pass interference despite extremely physical coverage on Sherfield in the endzone on third down.  

However, Kittle refused to blame the officials, adding: "Refs make calls, they don't make calls. It is what it is. You've got to live with it.

"It's frustrating when there's drive stoppers. We had a couple penalties the last drive we were able to overcome. You can't use penalties as an excuse. You've just got to play better."

The Pittsburgh Steelers survived a wild finish as Ben Roethlisberger's team held on to edge Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens 20-19 in the NFL.

Baltimore went for the two-point conversion and the win after the Ravens scored a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining on Sunday, but Jackson's pass went agonisingly off Mark Andrews' fingertips with the endzone in sight.

The Steelers prevailed in another thrilling AFC North battle to snap a two-game skid after Roethlisberger (21-of-31 passing for 236 yards and two TDs) threw two fourth-down touchdowns to fuel Pittsburgh.

After a scoreless opening period, Devonta Freeman rushed for a TD as the Ravens (8-4) took a 10-3 lead into the final quarter away to the Steelers (6-5-1).

The fourth period came to life, veteran quarterback Roethlisberger started the comeback with an early 29-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson before the pair combined against less than two minutes from the end.

Trailing 20-13, former MVP Jackson (23-of-37 passing for 253 yards and a touchdown) led an eight-play, 60-yard drive for his only touchdown of the game but Baltimore were unable to complete the two-point conversion at the death.

Since the 2016 season, six of Pittsburgh's seven wins against Baltimore have come by seven points or less, per Stats Perform.

 

Seahawks snap skid by sinking Niners

The Seattle Seahawks needed a victory and they got it after powering past the San Francisco 49ers 30-23.

In a mistake-filled contest, the Seahawks ended their run of three consecutive losses behind Russell Wilson's two-touchdown display in Seattle.

Future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson made his debut for the Seahawks and scored his 126th career touchdown on a one-yard rush. It broke a tie with Hall of Famer Walter Payton and moved the 36-year-old into a tie with Jim Brown for 10th in NFL history.

Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions for the beaten 49ers.

The Los Angeles Rams also snapped a three-game skid, rolling over the Jacksonville Jaguars 37-7 after Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson all caught TD passes from Matthew Stafford.

The Seattle Seahawks activated veteran running back Adrian Peterson off the practice squad for Sunday's clash with the San Francisco 49ers.

Struggling Seattle had signed future NFL Hall of Famer Peterson earlier this week but elevated the 36-year-old on Saturday, despite only two days of practice.

The Seahawks (3-8) brought in the 2012 MVP and seven-time Pro Bowler – who was waived by the Tennessee Titans – for depth due to a growing injury list.

"Adrian had a good week," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said on Friday, with his team amid a three-game losing streak. "It's probably hard for people on the outside to understand the impact a guy with his kind of background can make.

"At a time where we're battling to try to win a game and get going, he jumped in here and had a remarkable influence on the week. With three guys banged up at the spot, we'll see how it goes on the weekend. He had a really productive week for us, and it was fun having him here.

"It's a rare opportunity for our guys to see somebody like that, that has that kind of background, but stands for so much more than just the numbers and the stats and all of that.

"He's been a remarkable competitor forever. It was so obvious. It was really a boost for a bunch of guys, the young guys in particular. He's serious about playing. He's not just here for show. He's here to come here and try to help us win a game."

The Seahawks have lost eight or more games in a season for the first time since going 7-9 in 2011. The nine straight seasons with seven of fewer losses is the longest streak in team history with the previous record being five straight seasons (2003-2007), according to Stats Perform.

Russell Wilson led the Seahawks in rushing with 16 yards in their 17-15 loss to the Washington Football Team. It was the lowest number of rushing yards for the team's leading rusher since Week 9 of 2016 when Tyler Lockett led the way with 13 rushing yards against the Bills.

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

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

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

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

 

Quarterback: Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense: Arizona Cardinals @ Chicago Bears

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

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

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

San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel is not overly concerned about the severity of a groin injury he suffered in Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Samuel, whose breakout season has seen him emerge as one of the most valuable offensive players in the NFL, again produced an instrumental display as the Niners claimed their third straight win.

The versatile wide receiver surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the season and had 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a thrilling 34-26 victory for San Francisco, which moved the Niners to 6-5.

Samuel now has 1,209 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns but was emotional coming off the field late in the third quarter after injuring his groin on a carry.

However, he was soon smiling on the sidelines and was in good spirits speaking to the media after the game, indicating he did not return to the action in order to avoid a more serious injury.

Asked about the level of concern over his injury, Samuel replied: "Not too much concern. I got an MRI and stuff in the morning. We'll just go see how it goes.

"My groin got kind of tight once I went to make a move. So I was just like, let's not make anything worse. And that's why I just went down."

Head coach Kyle Shanahan believed Samuel's initial response was mainly down to frustration, saying: "I think he was just disappointed. We have no idea what it's going to be like.

"I don't think it's as bad as you worry. We're hoping it's a low strain. He feels that it might be, he felt it, which that's what happened to Deebo on the first play of the game versus Washington last year. I think that's what happened to him in the fourth quarter versus New England.

"You can tell when he feels something, he stops right away. That's why I knew right away on the first step of that, that something was there, but by the time that he got to the sidelines, you feel like you saved a real bad injury. We'll have to find out tomorrow [Monday]."

The 49ers moved up to the six seed in the NFC playoff picture with the win, but head coach Kyle Shanahan cited the Niners' coronavirus-enforced late-season move to Arizona last year as an example of the unpredictability that prevents him from looking too far ahead.

"It's way too early to care. You look at that stuff at the end of the day, but what do we have left six games? Six games," he added. 

"There's a lot left to be played. Last year at this time we were moving to Arizona, this Tuesday night. So, I'm fortunate for that. Hopefully these next two days nothing changes, but we were there for a long time."

Aaron Rodgers was not slowed down by his toe injury as he guided the Green Bay Packers to a 36-28 win over the struggling Los Angeles Rams.

Rodgers entered Sunday's showdown under a cloud, having missed practice in the lead up to the Lambeau Field clash due to fractured toe on his left foot.

But the reigning NFL MVP shook off the problem with a pair of passing touchdowns while he rushed for another score as the NFC North-leading Packers (9-3) condemned the slumping Rams (7-4) to a third consecutive defeat.

Rodgers completed 28 of his 47 passes for 307 yards and no interceptions and the Packers quarterback also rushed for a TD on two carries.

The Packers led 20-17 at half-time and blew the visiting Rams away with a 16-0 third period, despite the loss of Randall Cobb.

Cobb was ruled out at the start of the second half due to a groin injury, having set a season high for receiving yards with 95 on four catches in the opening two periods, including a seven-yard TD.

Odell Beckham Jr. scored his first touchdown for the Rams on a 54-yard bomb from Matthew Stafford, but it was a tough outing for the quarterback.

Stafford threw a pick-six that overshadowed his three-touchdown display on 21-of-38 passing for 302 yards and two sacks.

 

Niners stay hot in San Francisco

Deebo Samuel's two touchdowns helped the in-form San Francisco 49ers top the Minnesota Vikings 34-26.

Samuel celebrated a pair of TDs before a groin injury cut short his outing as the 49ers (6-5) won their third straight game.

The 49ers star became the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to score a rushing touchdown in three consecutive games in a single season.

Elijah Mitchell put up 133 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries for the 49ers, while Jimmy Garoppolo finished 17-of-26 passing for 230 yards, a touchdown and interception.

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 NFL is a passing league. If a team has a quarterback who can elevate those around him and an offensive line that can protect him, chances are they will be well-positioned to contend for the playoffs.

Though the elite quarterbacks in the league can fit the ball into tight windows on a consistent basis, the odds of success on that side of the ball are much higher when those signal-callers are paired with receivers who can defeat man coverage and get into open space.

Excelling at finding the soft spot in zone coverage is also important, while the top play-callers in the NFL frequently engineer space for their receivers.

Yet receivers who can win one-on-one are a tremendous help to quarterbacks, especially those who can defeat the blitz regularly with their ability to efficiently read the field and find the open man.

While determining the 'best' receiver in the NFL is a subjective process that can hinge on an affinity for certain styles of play, success in beating defenders in coverage can be quantified.

Stats Perform has done so with its open percentage metric, which tracks how often a receiver gets open when they're matched up against man coverage and have enough time to run a route. Plays that break down before a matchup with a defender can take place or scramble drills where a receiver uncovers after running his initial route are discounted.

So who are the best and worst in that regard? Here we look at the top performers, some surprise names uncovering more often than perhaps expected and those who rarely separate from defenders.

THE ELITE

A year in which Cooper Kupp leads the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards has seen him established as arguably the premier route runner in the NFL.

That is reflected by his open percentage of 57.75, which is the highest of any player with more than 10 coverage matchups.

Getting open on 41 of his 71 matchups, Kupp has consistently excelled at creating separation. His burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender when he's targeted, of 65.2 is above the average of 60.3 for wideouts (min. 10 targets), while he is fourth in the NFL in burn yards per route (4.2).

Joining Kupp near the top of the tree is Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. Proving his record-breaking rookie year was no fluke, Jefferson has faced 108 coverage matchups and got open on 55 of them, good for an open percentage of 50.93. 

Eleventh among receivers with a burn percentage of 73.4 and averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, there has been no sign of a sophomore slump from Jefferson, whose combination of separation ability and prowess at the catch point has turned him into one of the most dependable and dynamic receivers in the league.

Keenan Allen (53.16) is Kupp's closest challenger, the Los Angeles Chargers veteran underlining his status as one of the NFL's most underappreciated receivers by getting open at a rate that may only heighten frustrations around his team's underperforming offense.

Kansas City Chiefs star Tyreek Hill (47.78) boasts an elite open percentage that belies his underwhelming big play rate of 28.0 per cent, with Stefon Diggs' (47.62) success at getting open dispelling the notion of a drop-off from last year's receiving leader. Davante Adams (45.65) is unsurprisingly also among the league's best, yet he is accompanied by some eyebrow-raising names.

SURPRISE STUDS

It has been tough to watch an uninspired Pittsburgh Steelers offense this season and think anyone is getting open.

Almost every passing play the Steelers run seems to end in a contested catch, yet a wideout who thrives in those situations is also winning the vast majority of his coverage matchups.

Indeed, second-year wideout Chase Claypool ranks behind only Kupp and Allen in open percentage, uncovering from a defender on 35 of his 68 matchups (51.47). 

However, a burn yards per route rate of 2.5, just above the average of 2.3, and his struggles in the burn yards per target metric (10.30) indicate that, while Claypool is separating from coverage, he is not putting significant distance between himself and defenders. He will likely need to continue relying on his superiority at the catch point.

As with the Steelers, you won't find too many people who draw a sense of excitement watching a Teddy Bridgewater-led Denver Broncos offense.

There is no doubting the talent on Denver's attack. With Jerry Jeudy hurt and Noah Fant so far failing to take the second-year leap many expected, Courtland Sutton has shone brightest and is on course for a 1,000-yard season, though Tim Patrick's impact has been comparable.

Save for Kendall Hinton (47.83 on 23 matchups), it is the relatively unheralded Patrick who has proven Denver's best at separating, his open percentage of 44.44 from 90 matchups level with Dallas Cowboys star Amari Cooper.

A below-average burn yards per route of 2.0 speaks to a paucity of substantial separation, but Patrick is using the distance he is able to put between himself and defenders to create explosive plays, his big-play rate of 36.7 per cent comfortably above the average of 29.2.

Again leading tight ends in receiving yards (747), most would expect Travis Kelce of the Chiefs to top the list at that position for open percentage. Instead, it is a former AFC West standout in ex-Charger Hunter Henry.

Scoring seven touchdowns in as many games prior to being kept out of the endzone in Thursday's win over the Atlanta Falcons, Henry possesses an open percentage of 48.15. However, he has not been double-teamed this season.

Darren Waller has a double-team percentage of 17.2 and has still managed to get open 46.75 per cent of the time. The attention the Las Vegas Raiders star draws and his ability to succeed despite it illustrate his position as one of the league's biggest matchup nightmares and arguably the gold standard at tight end.

NO ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE

The Packers' offense has stuttered by its own high standards in recent weeks, with their underwhelming numbers not just a product of Jordan Love's struggles against the Chiefs.

Since Week 6, the Packers are averaging 213.2 net passing yards per game – 20th in the NFL. For the season, they are 16th in yards per pass play (6.46).

That mediocrity can, in part, be attributed to a lack of receiving depth beyond Adams, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling's issues getting open encapsulate that problem.

Valdes-Scantling is supposed to be the Packers' deep threat who can stretch defenses with his ability to separate vertically.

Open on only five of his 38 coverage matchups – a percentage of 13.16 – Valdes-Scantling is not fulfilling his role. The Packers will likely need to be more explosive in the playoffs if they are to go all the way, meaning Valdes-Scantling must up his game.

Bryan Edwards is in a similar situation in Las Vegas. Scarcely utilised last season, Edwards has seen a bump in targets in 2021, the Raiders often going to him downfield. 

Edwards' average depth of target is 17.2 yards, but he has found deep separation hard to come by, uncovering on 17 of his 111 matchups (15.32 per cent). Yet with a gaudy burn yards per target average of 15.01 and a big-play rate of 50.7 per cent that is third among receivers (min. 10 targets), Edwards is a player who takes full advantage of the little separation he gets when Derek Carr looks his way.

Edwards' former South Carolina team-mate San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel is performing at the highest level of his young career. Samuel is second behind Kupp with 979 receiving yards and already has seven total touchdowns this season.

However, Samuel ranks near the bottom of the league in open percentage (15.07), with the difference between that number and his overall production a reflection of how he is used by San Francisco.

His average depth of target is 8.6 yards, below the NFL average for receivers of 11.0, speaking to the Niners' reliance on him on screens and short passes that are an extension of the run game.

Third in burn yards per route and leading all wide receivers with an average of 9.6 yards after catch per reception, Samuel takes advantage of those short targets with his speed, elusiveness and power, while he can win at the catch point downfield even without separation. The 49ers often get Samuel in space in the backfield but, for one of the league's most unique players, separation is not always a requirement.

Kyle Shanahan was filled with pride as the San Francisco 49ers finally ended their long home-win drought with a 31-10 upset of the Los Angeles Rams, but he warned that cannot be a flash in the pan.

All eyes were on debutants Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller after the high-flying Rams (7-3) acquired the star duo to boost their Super Bowl bid.

But the 49ers (4-5) spoiled the party – Jimmy Garoppolo throwing two touchdown passes as San Francisco celebrated just their second home win in the past two seasons, keeping their playoff hopes alive on Monday.

The 49ers, who have now won five straight games against the Rams – the longest active streak by either side, matching their 2008-10 run – had last emerged victorious on home soil in October 2020, also over the Rams.

Part of that was down to the 49ers having to play part of the 2020 season in Arizona due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara, but there was still a sense of relief as they eventually enjoyed success in their own backyard.

Shanahan was grateful to put such a run behind them.

"It's been frustrating," he said. "We haven't won at home yet this year. The last time we did win at home was versus the Rams.

"We had one game after that versus the Packers, and we spent are our home [games] in Arizona, but just going to this year was very frustrating.

"Especially, the crowds that we've had, the way our fans have been. They were awesome today. Just like they were awesome last week, but I'm glad we gave them something to be proud of today.

"I just told [the team] how proud of them I was. I said we've got a short week. I think we've got a real good team [the Jacksonville Jaguars] ahead of us – that's how we expect to play here.

"It's been long overdue and we've got to make sure that we take a day off. Those guys rest, come back healthy on a short week, make sure we keep it going forward."

There were entirely different thoughts going through the head of Rams coach Sean McVay, however, with the Super Bowl hopefuls suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season.

"I choose to believe that these last couple weeks are not who we are," he said. "I refuse to believe that, even though, you know what, you're only as good as your last game.

"These last two weeks have certainly been humbling."

Beckham was rather less dramatic, though, despite his debut being overshadowed by a chastening defeat.

The wide receiver, who joined the Rams as a free agent this week following his release by the Cleveland Browns, simply felt the 49ers were better all over the field.

"I was excited, I felt like I was ready for the moment," Beckham added. "I've been through so much and God has put me in this position for that exact moment.

"It just wasn't our night. There's really no way around it, it just wasn't our night. Any given Sunday any team can win.

"The Niners came out and they played better than us in all phases of the game, and that's really the moral of the story. There's no trying to find what happened, they just outplayed us."

The San Francisco 49ers won their first home game in more than a year after Jimmy Garoppolo helped fuel a 31-10 upset of the Super Bowl-chasing Los Angeles Rams.

All eyes were on debutants Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller after the high-flying Rams (7-3) acquired the star duo to boost their Super Bowl bid.

But the 49ers (4-5) spoiled the party – Garoppolo throwing two touchdown passes as San Francisco celebrated just their second home in the past two seasons, keeping their playoff hopes alive on Monday.

The 49ers, who have now won five straight games against the Rams – the longest active streak by either side, matching their 2008-10 run – had last emerged victorious on home soil in October 2020, also over the Rams.

Matthew Stafford (26-of-41 passing for 243 yards, a TD, two interceptions and two sacks) struggled as the Rams dropped back-to-back games, with the Los Angeles quarterback intercepted by Jimmie Ward on the opening two drives of the contest.

Ward's second interception led to a 27-yard touchdown return as he became the seventh player since 2000 with two interceptions – including a pick-six, in the opening quarter after Garoppolo (15-of-19 passing for 182 yards, two TDs and no interceptions) had led an 18-play, 93-yard TD drive less than a minute earlier.

Stafford has now thrown a pick-six in back-to-back games for the first time since his rookie season in 2009.

Leading 14-0 following the first quarter, the 49ers maintained that buffer as the teams traded touchdowns prior to half-time – Stafford throwing a 10-yard pass to Tyler Higbee before Deebo Samuel ran for an eight-yard score.

After Robbie Gould's 50-yard field goal stretched the lead in the third period, Samuel and Garoppolo combined for a 40-yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers out of reach early in the fourth.

The past seven days for the San Francisco 49ers have been rough.

A defeat to an Arizona Cardinals team missing Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and J.J. Watt ensured the Niners would enter Week 10 with a sour taste in their mouth having fallen to 3-5 on the season.

In a game viewed as a golden opportunity for the Niners to put themselves firmly in the playoff picture, they produced one of their worst performances of the year, and most expect their profligacy in failing to take that chance to be punished further against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football.

San Francisco's mood going into a contest with a Rams team also smarting after throwing in a clunker against the Tennessee Titans will not have improved with the news that came down on Thursday when Los Angeles signed three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. following his release by the Cleveland Browns.

Beckham is expected to make his debut at Levi's Stadium, where edge rusher Von Miller could also make his Rams bow having landed with Los Angeles in a trade from the Denver Broncos on November 1.

It is Beckham and Miller who will grab all the pre-game attention as the Rams look to pile the misery on the 49ers and improve to 8-2 in their bid to win the Super Bowl at their home stadium in February.

However, it is how each team deals with their absentees, rather than the performances of Beckham and Miller, that is likely to decide a potentially high-scoring matchup out west.

How will Woods loss impact run game?

The addition of Beckham initially appeared to be a luxury one for the Rams, whose receiver depth allowed them to recently part with veteran DeSean Jackson.

Yet, a day after Beckham's arrival, his signing was revealed as a much more necessary move with the news Robert Woods had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season.

Woods has long since been an integral part of the Rams' offense, not just for what he does as a receiver but also for his impact in the blocking game.

Per Stats Perform data, Woods' had an adjusted run-block win percentage of 88.89, the wideout comfortably outperforming the average for tight ends and fullbacks of 71.48.

The Niners rank 19th in opponent rush average allowed, giving up 4.37 yards per carry, but the Rams may struggle to take advantage of that fragility if they cannot replace Woods' influence in that regard.

With D.J. Jones (56.70), Nick Bosa (40.04) and Arik Armstead (48.84) all above average in double-team adjusted win rate on run defense, the Niners do have the talent up front to magnify any run game struggles for Los Angeles.

San Francisco's primary defensive question concerns their personnel in the secondary.

49ers' secondary problems persist

The 49ers saw their secondary depth suffer a blow right off the bat as Jason Verrett tore his ACL in Week 1, and the way in which the coaching staff have managed the personnel in the defensive backfield has received criticism.

Despite impressing early, rookie fifth-round pick Deommodore Lenoir has been conspicuous by his absence since the Week 3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, with veterans Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick ahead of both Lenoir and fellow first-year corner Ambry Thomas on the depth chart.

Kirkpatrick is out on Monday with an ankle injury while Norman (ribs) is questionable, meaning both Lenoir and Thomas are likely to be in uniform, with one potentially set to start alongside Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams at corner.

Lenoir would appear to be the frontrunner to start if Norman cannot play, and the Niners may require an improvement on his generally solid play across the first three weeks for them to have a hope of containing Matthew Stafford and the Rams' passing attack.

The former Oregon corner's adjusted open percentage allowed of 35 is inferior to the average of 31.15 for cornerbacks and, beyond the threat posed by Beckham, Lenoir will also have to deal with the NFL's most productive receiver should he be thrust back into the starting line-up.

Cooper Kupp is on pace for over 1,900 receiving yards having already surpassed 1,000 through nine games. He is recording a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, 66.7 per cent of the time, with his average of 4.3 burn yards per route the best in the league among receivers with at least 20 targets heading into Week 10.

San Francisco's secondary can at best be described as being in flux. If the 49ers cannot find a combination that works, it could provide Kupp with the chance to deliver another hugely productive performance and leave Kyle Shanahan's men with the difficult task of keeping pace with the Rams' offense.

Moore thrown in at the deep end

The Niners can afford to have confidence of going blow for blow with the Rams, if they can avoid the turnovers that ultimately doomed them against the Cardinals.

Shanahan's offense has been moving the ball efficiently, with Jimmy Garoppolo producing his two best performances of the season over the last two games.

Garoppolo reached the 320-yard mark in the win over the Chicago Bears and the loss to the Cardinals, marking the second time in his career he has produced a streak of successive 320-yard games. The only other 49ers quarterbacks with multiple streaks of consecutive 320-yard games are Joe Montana (four) and Steve Young (two). 

His hopes of stretching that run to a third game may well hinge on the play of a rookie offensive lineman.

The Niners will be without right tackle Mike McGlinchey for the rest of the season after he tore his quad against Arizona. His replacement is expected to be rookie Jaylon Moore, who delivered an admirable showing in relief of left tackle Trent Williams versus the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7.

Moore is credited with winning nine of the 12 one-on-one pass protection matchups he has faced so far but, having spent his entire career to this point on the left side, looks set to flip to the right in extremely trying circumstances.

Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald's versatility should see him regularly shift from the interior and line up across from Moore on the edge, and the Rams will surely look to get Miller one on one with the rookie consistently.

Donald has won a remarkable 59 of his 91 one-on-one matchups and Miller's win rate of 43.94 per cent is still way above the average for edge rushers of 21.88.

The challenge for San Francisco will be to get Moore as much help as possible from tight ends and running backs to prevent that duo padding those numbers.

Leave him to fend for himself, and the Niners' hopes of keeping pace with Los Angeles could vanish in a hurry. After being embarrassed by a division rival last week, setting Moore, and in turn Garoppolo, up for success is crucial to them avoiding the same fate in the primetime finale to Week 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overperforming

New Orleans Saints – Power rating: 29th

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cincinnati Bengals – Power rating: 23rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Cardinals – Power rating: 16th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee Titans – Power rating: 18th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underperforming

Kansas City Chiefs – Power rating: 3rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco 49ers – Power rating: 8th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota Vikings – Power rating: 10th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kliff Kingsbury conceded James Conner is performing way beyond his expectations after the running back helped an undermanned Arizona Cardinals power past the San Francisco 49ers.

The Cardinals were anticipated to face an uphill battle in Week 9 as star quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins were ruled out through injury.

Also missing receiver A.J. Green (reserve/COVID-19 list) and with defensive lineman J.J. Watt on injured reserve, Arizona refused to let their plethora of absences condemn them to a damaging defeat in the NFC playoff race.

Instead, the Cardinals have the best record in the NFL after moving to 8-1 with a convincing 31-17 road victory.

Key to the win was Conner, who now leads the NFL with 11 total touchdowns after scoring three against the Niners in a game that saw him finish with 173 yards from scrimmage.

Signed in April after a largely unsuccessful stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Conner has served as one of the more astute acquisitions of the NFL offseason, with the display he produced after Chase Edmonds' injury forced him to take the bulk of the workload serving as emphatic evidence of that status.

"I thought he was more of a downhill, power back just watching from afar," Kingsbury said after the game.

"Then we got him here, and he made some spectacular catches in training camp, with his quick twitches and routes.

"He's been above-and-beyond anything any of us could've expected."

Veteran backup Colt McCoy averaged 9.58 yards per attempt in relief of Murray and credited the MVP contender and the talent around him as he enjoyed an efficient day few outside of Arizona will have envisioned.

"If I didn't think I could still play, I wouldn't be playing," McCoy said. "But I also understand my role.

"There is not a bigger fan of Kyler Murray than me right now. I've learned a lot from him in my short time here, and he's very special.

"I'm not Kyler Murray… Me, I'm benefiting from being on a great team."

The Green Bay Packers' first look at life without Aaron Rodgers was not a pleasant one, as their offence sputtered with backup quarterback Jordan Love at the helm and the Kansas City Chiefs held on for a 13-7 victory. 

The Packers (7-2) had averaged 27 points during the seven-game winning streak that ended on Sunday after reigning MVP Rodgers missed the game following a positive coronavirus test during the week. 

The visitors did not get on the scoreboard until Love hit Allen Lazard for a 20-yard touchdown pass with five minutes remaining for his first career NFL TD.

That gave Green Bay some hope after their previous drive had ended with L'Jarius Sneed picking off a Love pass on Kansas City's five-yard line, but the Packers ran out of time. 

While the Chiefs (5-4) were not about to complain about the victory that got them back over .500, their season-long concerns about their offence continued as Patrick Mahomes had another unimpressive game. 

Former league MVP Mahomes completed 20 of 37 passes for just 166 yards but avoided throwing an interception for the first time since the season opener. His 54.1 completion percentage was his worst in a regular-season game since completing 51.2 per cent in a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 5 last season. 

 

Cardinals cruise past 49ers without Murray

The other red-hot team playing without their star quarterback fared better, as the Arizona Cardinals rolled to a 31-17 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers despite Kyler Murray's absence through an ankle injury. 

Veteran Colt McCoy stepped in for the Cardinals and completed 22 of 26 passes for 249 yards, while James Conner rushed for 93 yards and a pair of scores as Arizona improved to 8-1. 

Three turnovers proved critical for San Francisco (3-5) as the 49ers lost two fumbles in the first half and had trouble sustaining drives throughout the game, with only 23:13 of possession compared to 36:47 for Arizona. 

Jimmy Garoppolo completed 28 of 40 passes for 326 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for San Francisco. 

In Philadelphia, Dustin Hopkins' 29-yard field goal with two seconds to play gave the Los Angeles Chargers (5-3) a 27-24 victory over the Eagles (3-6). 

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