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NFL Week 9 winners and losers: Cowboys can't afford inexplicable losses. Titans take down another powerhouse.

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This week, perhaps, produced the most unexpected outcomes of any we have seen so far in the NFL season.

Now that the 2021 campaign is effectively at its halfway stage — at least it will be after the Steelers host the Bears on Monday night — there's a pretty clear picture of the teams that will be in contention for playoff spots in both conferences. Still, many of those teams suffered baffling losses, none more surprising than the Dallas Cowboys dropping their game at home against the Denver Broncos even as quarterback Dak Prescott returned from a calf injury and the Bills falling to the previously one-win Jaguars.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers dropped a key game after a tough week and got a glimpse of the player who may be the heir at quarterback in Jordan Love, after Aaron Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19.

MORE: 32 things we learned from Week 9

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were battered by the Broncos in one of Week 9's most stunning results.
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were battered by the Broncos in one of Week 9's most stunning results.

Here are the Week 9 winners and losers

WINNERS

Titans creating separation

The AFC, for most of the season, has been completely wide open. Frankly, it still is. But Tennessee has turned its season around after a head-scratching loss to the Jets in Week 4. The Titans have won five in a row, and have taken down powerhouses like the Bills, Chiefs and, now, Rams. In fact, four of their five victories in that span came against 2020 playoff teams. That the Titans toppled L.A., 28-16, despite it being their first game without star running back Derrick Henry shows that this team is more than just the rush and has staying power.

And the majority of the credit has to start with Jeffrey Simmons and the defensive line. Tennessee recorded a season-high five sacks against the Rams, of which Simmons had three. Tennessee, as it has in recent weeks, is generating pressure without needing to deploy extra rushers. The Titans blitzed on only four of Rams passer Matthew Stafford's 53 dropbacks. They generated 15 pressures with four or fewer rushers and all five sacks came on a four-man rush. Tennessee has a narrow hold on the AFC's No. 1 seed. Sunday showed that even without Henry, the Titans can still make a run.

Ditto, Cardinals

This was a Cardinals team that was without its star quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring). They also lost their top running back, Chase Edmonds (ankle) after just one play. Yet, Arizona controlled the division-rival 49ers, 31-17, with backup Colt McCoy playing an ultra clean game.

McCoy had just four incompletions, but threw for 249 passing yards and one score. Backup running back James Conner ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns and added a third with a 45-yard catch and run early in the third quarter that effectively put the game out of reach. Arizona's aggressive defense forced three turnovers. And with the Buccaneers on a bye, the Cardinals (8-1) were the only one of the NFC's top six-seeded teams to post a victory Sunday. And with that, they reclaimed the conference's No. 1 seed and the best record in the NFL.

The AFC

There were seven games on Sunday pitting teams from opposing conferences. The AFC went 6-1 in those games. Teams like the Broncos, who entered as double-digit underdogs against the Cowboys, and the Titans, who were underdogs by more than a touchdown against the Rams, stunned their opponents with huge first halves.

Four of those AFC victories against the NFC came with winners (Titans, Patriots, Chargers, Broncos) playing on the road. Making matters even weirder, the lone NFC squad to win was the New York Giants, who entered the day with only two victories, and beat the Raiders, 23-16.

The post-OBJ Browns

All week long, the question was whether Cleveland could emerge stronger without receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns answered in resounding fashion, in a 41-16 drubbing of the previously second-place Bengals in the AFC North. More importantly for Cleveland (5-4), it is now in a tie for last place in the division, with the team they just beat.

This performance confirmed what the eye test had shown over Beckham's time in Cleveland; Mayfield seems to play quicker and freer and spreads the ball well when Beckham wasn't on the field. A lot of credit has to go to Browns running back Nick Chubb, who dominated (14 carries, 137 yards, two touchdowns), even when the Bengals loaded the box. But Mayfield was effective (14-of-21 passing for 218 yards with two touchdowns and a season-high 132.6 QB rating), especially on deeper throws. In fact, at halftime, he had as many incompletions (one) as touchdowns and had a perfect QB rating of 158.3. It's just one game, but the Browns look like they will be just fine.

LOSERS

The Jordan Love hate

A lot of criticism swirled around after Packers backup quarterback Jordan Love couldn't complete a comeback in his first career start, an eventual 13-7 loss against the Chiefs. And while Love did struggle at times, taking a step back will show that he actually had the Packers in a spot to eke out a comeback. First, the bad. Accuracy and ball placement was at times an issue for Love. Even when Love made plays, he often was pushing the limit and making potentially dangerous throws. His longest completion of the night, a 35-yarder to receiver Randall Cobb, was basically an on-the-move heave that could've easily been picked off.

But it's worth pointing out that place kicker Mason Crosby could not convert his two attempts — a 40-yard try that sailed wide left and a 37-yarder that was blocked. They came early in the game and conversions obviously would've altered the course of the game, but those six points proved to be the difference in the loss. Add a muffed punt that gifted the Chiefs excellent field position and a field goal in the second quarter, and you could build an argument that Green Bay should've won. But here's the thing: no matter what, there was always going to be a dropoff from Rodgers to Love; Rodgers is the reigning league MVP and one of the most gifted passers in the NFL. Love just turned 23 and needs time. Let's give him a fair shake rather than rush to judgment.

The Buffalo Bills

They're sliding down the AFC after a stunning 9-6 loss to the Jaguars. Buffalo has lost two of its last three. The first of those two losses came against the AFC's hottest team in the Titans. The second was against Jacksonville. The link is that Buffalo's rushing attack was a non-factor in both those losses. Three weeks ago, in that loss against Tennessee, Buffalo posted just 82 rushing yards and three first downs achieved by rushes. Against the Jaguars, those numbers were 72 and two, respectively.

The Bills had four turnovers in their first seven games. They had three against the Jaguars. This is still a very talented team, but the Bills need more balance. A split of 35 passing attempts and 14 rushes isn't going to be a recipe for success. Quarterback Josh Allen leading the team in rushing with 50 yards isn't, either. And, don't look now, but the AFC East-rival Patriots (5-4) suddenly have the same number of victories after they have won four of their last five.

The Cowboys' quest for a No. 1 seed

The top of the NFC is compressed, with the five teams atop the conference each having two losses or fewer. The Dallas Cowboys, after an inexplicable 30-16 loss, just made matters far more difficult than they needed to be. This was a Broncos team that came into the game looking as if a reset was coming, after it traded edge rusher Von Miller.

The remaining strengths of schedule for the NFC's top five teams — the Cardinals, Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys and Rams — are all relatively similar and all relatively easy. Which means that the margin for error for the coveted No. 1 seed, the only one with a first-round bye and home-field advantage, is slim. The Cowboys (6-2) are more talented than the Broncos at nearly every position. Their stats back that up. This was a game they should've won, and it could cost them in January.

Sam Darnold

It's becoming clear that Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold is not capable of being a starting quarterback in the NFL. In a 24-6 loss against the Patriots, Darnold had an abysmal day, continuing his pattern of failing against New England coach Bill Belichick. Darnold completed 16-of-33 passes for 172 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. His QB rating was 26.3.

After a hot start to the season, Darnold has cratered. In Carolina's (4-5) last six games, five of which were losses, Darnold has a 4:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Another pattern Darnold is repeating, going back to even his Jets days, the turnovers come in spates and he can't seem to avoid the careless and unforced errors. He is relying far too much on his running backs; 12 of his 33 attempts (36.3%) were targeted to backs; 117 of his 172 passing yards (68%) were to running backs. Making matters worse, Darnold, as he has done occasionally in the past, is even putting his receivers in harm's way. A routine pass to D.J. Moore was off target and set Moore up for a huge hit. After the game, coach Matt Rhule wouldn't commit to Darnold as the starter moving forward. What's the harm in seeing what backup P.J. Walker can do?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 9 winners, losers: Cowboys have baffled loss to Broncos