The 32 things we learned from Week 10 of the 2021 NFL season:
1. Coolest story of Sunday? How about QB Cam Newton’s return to action with the Carolina Panthers, for whom he played his first nine seasons – including an MVP campaign in 2015. (Boomer Esiason had been the only player to win league MVP honors with a team, the Cincinnati Bengals in his case, leave and rejoin that club later in his career.) But Newton was re-signed last week and made a near-instant impact, running and throwing for a touchdown on his first two touches to kick off his second stint with the team. Newton, who didn’t start and played sparingly, finished with 14 yards rushing and 8 passing as Carolina demolished the undermanned Arizona Cardinals, who entered the weekend with the NFL’s best record at 8-1, 34-10. Depending how quickly Newton can internalize offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s playbook, the Panthers have a very legitimate shot to make the playoffs, especially with the next four weeks serving up Washington, Miami, a bye week and Atlanta.
1a. And, FWIW, Carolina (5-5) ended Sunday in possession of the NFC’s third wild-card spot and is only a half-game behind the New Orleans Saints for sixth place in the conference … though the Panthers are only a half-game in front of the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.
2. Coldest story of Sunday? Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (COVID-19) and Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (broken finger) both returned to action … and collectively looked pretty rusty in a snoozer of a game, the Pack dealing another blow to Seattle’s season with a 17-0 victory. Neither quarterback threw a TD pass, but they combined for three interceptions.
2a. At least it snowed at Lambeau Field.
3. It was the first time the Seahawks suffered a shutout with Wilson under center in his 166 career starts.
3a. Dating to 2009, the home team has won the last 10 games of this series, the Pack going 6-4 overall.
4. Most importantly, Green Bay (8-2) reclaimed the top spot in the NFC standings thanks to Arizona’s setback.
5. Been a lot of nicknames thrown around for New York Jets backup QB Mike White – “White Mike,” “Jersey Mike,” “White Lightning” and “Magic Mike” among them. Let’s add “Off White” following his four-INT performance in a 45-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Expect Jets rookie Zach Wilson back under center very soon.
6. Despite losing RB Derrick Henry, the Tennessee Titans (8-2) have a league-best six-game winning streak and a 1½-game lead over the Bills and Baltimore Ravens for the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed.
7. Who had RB D’Onta Foreman out-touching all Titans players Sunday with 13? And how about the size on this guy (6-1, 236), who’s just a few pancakes shy of Henry (6-3, 247).
8. The Saints have lost both their games without QB Jameis Winston, though TE Adam Trautman’s false start when they were going for game-tying two-point play in Nashville with 76 seconds remaining sure didn’t help Sunday.
9. The New England Patriots have won four in a row – only the Titans are hotter – have worked their way up to sixth place in the AFC and are just a half-game behind Buffalo in the AFC East.
10. The 2021 Patriots really are starting to resemble the 2001 Patriots, a team devoid of stars and expectations and led by an inexperienced quarterback – Tom Brady in that case – but one that quietly played solidly in all phases of the game before shocking the world by winning Super Bowl 36. Mac Jones and Co. certainly aren’t a front-runner to win Super Bowl 56 – though no one is – but don’t count out this team or its rookie, who threw for three TDs in an NFL game for the first time in Sunday’s 45-7 rout of the Cleveland Browns.
11. Jones is the first New England rookie to post a trio of TD passes since … Drew Bledsoe in 1993. (Remember, Brady was a second-year player when he rose to prominence in 2001.)
12. Pats WR Jakobi Meyers finally found the end zone for the first time in his three-year career on his 135th reception. His 134 score-less catches were the most ever to start a career.
13. It didn’t take long for the Los Angeles Rams’ signing of WR Odell Beckham Jr. to shift from luxury to serendipity after incumbent No. 2 WR Robert Woods tore his ACL in practice Friday. OBJ will make his debut for LA on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers and could actually have a significant role in light of Woods’ injury and given how heavily QB Matthew Stafford relies on his wideouts, whom he’s targeted 236 times through nine games.
14.Are the Dallas Cowboys the best team in the NFL? Who knows given how this season is unfolding? But after trouncing the Falcons 43-3 – Dallas’ largest blowout in 21 years – they have as good a case as anyone, especially when you consider Atlanta began the weekend in the NFC’s projected playoff bracket.
15. The Cowboys’ Dan Quinn became the first coach to defeat a team he previously guided to the Super Bowl as a head coach (2016 Falcons) while serving as the defensive coordinator for another club. And Dallas’ defense was surely ready for Atlanta, limiting the Dirty Birds to 214 yards, 11 first downs and 4 yards per play while forcing three turnovers.
16. It should be noted Dallas QB Dak Prescott looked more like himself. Weeks after injuring his calf, he settled in to complete 24 of 31 throws for 296 yards and a pair of TDs. He joined Newton and Daunte Culpepper as the only players with at least 125 touchdown passes and 25 rushing touchdowns in their first six seasons.
17. The teams on bye: Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants and Houston Texans. Did you care or notice, either?
18. Think the Browns could’ve used Beckham on Sunday after going 1-for-11 on third down against New England? Nah, probably not.
COVID-19: Rodgers returned, sure, but the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger tested positive Saturday, which surely affected Pittsburgh’s ability to beat the Detroit Lions on such short notice. Cleveland RB Nick Chubb, Cowboys K Greg Zuerlein and Broncos OC Pat Shurmur were also among the sidelined. But the scariest story to emerge from the week involved Vikings G Dakota Dozier, who was hospitalized while struggling to breathe, according to multiple reports. Dozier is fully vaccinated.
20. After getting upset by the previously 2-6 Washington Football Team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 0-1 after their 2021 bye week. They were 8-0, including a wild-card win at FedExField, after the bye in 2020 on their way to winning Super Bowl 55.
21. We should’ve listened to the Bucs’ Brady, who admitted on ESPN’s Monday night Manningcast last month that, “I always considered myself a cold-weather quarterback but … I mean, screw that. I never want to deal with that again,” he said referencing his time in New England. “I’m already checking the forecast in Washington in November. So it tells you how much I’ve softened up in my time here in Florida.” Brady threw a pair of INTs in the first quarter for the first time since 2012 … though it should be noted the 47-degree weather was hardly bone chilling.
22. Starting in place of injured RB Alvin Kamara on Sunday, Mark Ingram II surpassed Deuce McAllister as Saints’ all-time leading rusher. Ingram has 6,124 yards on the ground in a New Orleans uniform.
23. How about a little respect for the Air Jordans, Carlos Dunlap?
24. The league won’t have its first 0-17 team in 2021 – though it could still feature a winless one – after the Lions (0-8-1) and Steelers stumbled their way to a 16-16 tie in what appeared like your proverbial “no one wants to win this game” contest amid 15 penalties, three Pittsburgh turnovers, 24 combined failures to convert on third down, and Detroit K Ryan Santoso missing a PAT and a 48-yard field-goal try in overtime.
25. At least the Steelers (5-3-1) might still give us a .500 team in the NFL’s first 17-game regular season … as unpalatable as that would be to coach Mike Tomlin and Co.
26. Pittsburgh OLB T.J. Watt picked up his 62nd career sack in his 70th regular-season appearance, one more than brother J.J. and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas recorded in their first 70 games. Only legendary Reggie White (79 sacks) got off to a faster 70-game start.
27. With draftmate Ja’Marr Chase of the Bengals off, Eagles WR DeVonta Smith – he turned 23 Sunday – claimed a chunk of the rookie spotlight with his first two-TD game in Philadelphia’s defeat of the Denver Broncos.
28. QB Lamar Jackson, whom USA TODAY Sports’ NFL experts handicapped as the league’s first-half MVP, threw the first red-zone INT in his 55 career games in the Ravens’ uninspired loss to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night.
29. Best game management decision of the weekend goes to Washington coach Ron Rivera, who had his team take a knee out of the two-point conversion formation after going up 29-19 with 29 seconds left in the game.
30. Worst game management decision of the weekend goes to Denver coach Vic Fangio, who went for it on fourth down at the end of the third quarter rather than kick a field goal to cut Philadelphia’s lead to four. Instead, Eagles CB Darius Slay returned a Melvin Gordon fumble 83 yards for a touchdown that basically put this game out of the Broncos’ reach.
31. RIP, Sam Huff. The Hall of Famer died Saturday at age 87, leaving an NFL legacy that includes revolutionizing the middle linebacker position. He also helped popularize the league – at a time when baseball, boxing and horse racing largely ruled the American sports landscape – while being spotlighted (and mic’d up when it wasn’t a common technique) in the “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” a documentary feature hosted by Walter Cronkite on CBS. A member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1950s, Huff split his 13-year career between the Giants and Washington, won an NFL title in New York (1956) and played in the “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” when the Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts in overtime of the 1958 NFL championship game, a contest largely credited for springboarding the popularity of pro football.
32. Even though Veterans Day was Thursday, it’s never too late to thank the servicemembers in your life … or their families. Nice job by DE J.J. Watt, OLB Chandler Jones and the Cardinals, who never forget – especially when it comes to honoring former safety and fallen Ranger Pat Tillman.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.